Saturday, June 16, 2018


World Cup match day 3 includes the world's best player(s), the coolest uniforms and Peru's return after nearly 40 years. Also...

  • Why France may win it all
  • Iran's biggest fans in Washington
  • The struggles of Mexico's veteran stars

Plane crash sidelined Peru for generations

It took 30 years for Peru to recover from a suspicious plane crash that killed its best soccer players and return to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.

A navy flight chartered by the country’s top club team, Alianza Lima, crashed into the ocean off the coast of the capital in 1987 with 44 people on board. Everyone but the pilot died.

The team was flying back from a league game in Pucallpa, in the jungle 350 miles from Lima. Investigators called it pilot error, and cited a faulty control panel. But conspiracy theories persist about what really happened.

Some of the players’ families believed the government was transporting drugs, or weapons to fight Shining Path guerrillas, aboard the twin-turboprop F-27 — a rickety plane. Fans of the team said at the time that the 29-year-old pilot, Edilberto Villar Molina, was tipped off about planned raid when the flight arrived in the capital, and he was ordered to ditch the plane in the ocean.

Among the dead were six of the best players on Peru’s national team, a golden generation known as los potrillos — the colts. My friend Ithalmar’s uncle, Daniel Reyes, a central defender, was aboard. That’s him in the photo above. The colts were expected to restore Peru as one of the dominant teams in South America.

Peru was on par with Argentina and Brazil, reaching the quarterfinals of the 1970 World Cup and winning the 1975 Copa America. The team was led by Teófilo Cubillas, a former Alianza Lima star.

Peru didn’t just lose its best players in the crash; it lost inspiration for subsequent generations, and nearly erased the country’s winning traditions.

None of the members on coach Ricardo Gareca’s team were alive the last time Peru was in the World Cup, or when Alianza Lima’s plane crashed. They have no memory of the tragedy, and no World Cup tradition or experience to draw from. Peru, like first-time qualifiers Panama and Iceland, is effectively a blank slate.

I asked Gareca when I saw him in March how he instills confidence and a sense of tradition in his players. He has a number of experienced professionals in the squad, including the longtime strike partners Jefferson Farfan and Paolo Guerrero, the captain. Both came up as youths with Alianza Lima

Gareca said the veterans know what they’re doing, and they set an example for the younger players, who have the opportunity to achieve without the burden or expectations of history. (Ask the England players about that.) Gareca said he reminds the players that they can’t control the past, good or bad, so they have no choice but to make their own experiences in the present.

They’ll have that opportunity today at Mordovia Arena in Saransk, where Peru plays Denmark at noon ET. It will be the Peru’s first World Cup match in 36 years.


Sound Smart on Match Day 3

FRA vs. AUS, Group C, Kazan Arena, 6 a.m. ET
France is my pick to win the tournament, but I’m fickle, and have my head turned by every exciting performance. Still, this edition of Les Bleus reminds me of the 1998 World Cup winning team captained by Didier Deschanps, who is now the coach of the national team. Australia is overmatched at every position.

Sound smart: Mention how France has half a dozen players who play or played for Paris-Saint Germain, the top club in Ligue 1. Their familiarity is essential for winning the World Cup. Four years ago, Germany won with on a core of players from Bayern Munich. In 2010, it was basically a Barcelona team, with a few Real Madrid representatives, that won the World Cup. Italy’s 2006 championship team was built around several players from Juventus, Inter, Milan and Roma who all came up together.

ARG vs. ISL, Group D, Spartak Stadium, Moscow, 8 a.m. ET
Iceland is the darling of neutrals. As someone who roots for great stories over great teams, I can see the appeal. A tiny country, in the World Cup for the first time, with a viking tradition and enthusiastic upstart mentality. The coach is a dentist!

But Argentina has the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, and he’s surrounded by the most talented supporting cast there is. Any of his teammates would be among the three or four best players on any other team.  

Sound smart: Talk about someone other than Messi. (Simon Kuper has a great take in the FT as to why Argentina needs to do the same thing if it is to win.) 

There are the strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain to talk up. And veteran midfielders Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia. The influential central defender Nicolas Otamendi can be a lifesaver or the fall guy; he’s good for one head-smacking blunder every two games.

The guy I like to talk about is Paulo Dybala, an attacking midfielder/forward as deft with the ball as Messi and who studied under the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo for years at Juventus. If he can get out of his own head and be physically fit, he can control the flow of game and take over with individual brilliance in key moments.

CRO vs. NIG, Group D, Kaliningrad Stadium, 3 p.m. ET
This is the fashion showdown of the tournament — the two teams with the coolest uniforms.

Croatia’s red-and-white checkerboard top has been a favorite since the team charged to the semifinal in 1998 in its first World Cup campaign as an independent country. It looks particularly stylish on Luka Modric, the midfield architect whose smooth passes and artful turns with the ball twist the team like the facade of a Frank Gehry building. You’re never quite sure how he pulled it off, but it works well.

Nigeria’s Nike jersey has been such a hit, GQ and Vogue wrote about it. Three million of the trippy green-and-white horizontal chevron-striped shirts sold out in hours. And knockoffs were scooped up almost as fast from vendors in Lagos, the Nigerian capital, according to AFP.

However these two teams play, they’ll look good.


Match Day 2 Recap

Ronaldo proves me wrong.
Portugal 3 - Spain 3, Group B
I was afraid that Spain and Portugal would grind out a conservative stalemate. I was wrong, as it was a thrilling, nervy game. David Silva and Isco were craft for Spain, and Diego Costa was a beast. Nacho's streaking volley made up for taking Cristiano Ronaldo down in the box.

But it was Ronaldo who owned the day, and proved me very wrong. I said the humorless Ronaldo would show himself to be a petulant child, a villain for not relishing the game and celebrating his talent generously.  But a thrilling hat trick cannot be discounted. He lifted his team and delighted anyone watching. I'm sorry Ronnie, I was too hard on you.
Watch the highlights.

No Mo on his birthday.
Egypt 0 - Uruguay 1, Group A
Mohamed Salah watched from the bench as his Egypt teammates valiantly held Uruguay to a scoreless draw for 88 minutes. And just as it looked like Egypt would escape with a tie thanks to the goalkeeping of Mohamed el-Shenawy, Uruguay created fire from smoke.

A minute after Edinson Cavani's lazer-like shot hit the post, a free-kick was crossed into the Egypt penalty box from the right wing by Carlos Sanchez. Jose Gimenez headed the ball into the goal perfectly, rising high and strong against three Egyptian defenders. 
Watch the highlights.

Gutted for Morocco.
Morocco 0, Iran 1, Group B
Though Morocco played better than Iran all game dominating possession, completing more passes, creating more chances on goal the team left St. Petersburg dazed and dejected.

Forward Aziz Bouhaddouz, a 77th minute substitute, sent a diving header inside his own post for an own goal deep into stoppage time. It's as if 96 minutes of effort was wasted. I was gutted for Bouhaddouz and his teammates.  

It was Iran's second World Cup victory ever.  The first was a 2-1 win against the United States 20 years ago in France.

This is the most unlikely looking Group B table, with Iran on top of Portugal, Spain and Morocco.
Watch the highlights.

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. The Rezaians may be Washington’s biggest Iran fans.

Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian are completely behind the team, which won in bizarre fashion on Friday. Never mind that the government threw Jason in prison for a year and a half when he was a Washington Post correspondent in Tehran. Or that Yeganeh, also a Post journalist, is barred from watching the team in Iran because she’s a woman. In a wonderful op-ed in The Washington Post this week, she described watching a 2014 World Cup match at a cafe in Tehran in the dark, with no sound, to avoid alerting the morality police that women were — gasp — supporting their national team.

Read more from Yaganeh in The Post.

2. Mexico’s Rafael Marquez: ‘I am no criminal.”

On the eve of his fifth World Cup, Marquez opens up for the first time about the Treasury Department allegations that he acted as a front man for a Mexican drug cartel. "I know who I really am, I know what I've really done and that I don't have anything to fear because in the end my parents gave me some very important values that I've passed on to my children," he said.

Read more from ESPN.

3. Has Chicharito’s time passed?

Javier Hernández is a beloved figure in Mexico, and neither scandal nor questions about his goal-scoring form will diminish his standing in the eyes of El Tri fans. How he plays in Russia will determine Mexico’s success. The team can lose with him, but it’s unlikely Mexico can win without him. For fans, he represents the Mexican — and the Mexican-American — dream. “He is quiet and hardworking; he may not be the most skilful but his work ethic is unmatched; Many of us came [to the U.S.] with nothing than that work ethic and it is what hassled us to our own piece of the American dream,” said Sergio Tristan, member of the Mexico supporters group, Pancho Villa’s Army.

Read more from The Guardian.

4. Lionel Messi is crap at penalty kicks.

As he begins what is likely his final World Cup campaign, let’s consider Messi’s brilliance in context: he’s an exceptional free-kick taker, but Messi is crap at penalties. Well, average, which is poor for Messi. The player who makes the nearly-impossible look easy can’t convert the game’s simplest goal-scoring chances. Though ESPN figured he scores twice as many free kicks as the best players in Europe’s best leagues, other stats show he is decidedly average at penalties, and has missed some big-time kicks.

Read more from Bleacher Report.

5. Cristiano Ronaldo is a criminal.

I said Ronaldo was one of my villains because of his surly behavior and overall humorless disposition. He’s also a tax cheat: El Mundo reported the Portugal and Real Madrid forward will pay about $22 million and agree to a two-year suspended sentence for not paying Spanish taxes on money earned from his image rights. My father is awed by Ronaldo and thinks I’m being too hard on him. He may be right. If Ronaldo, who I loved when he was with Manchester United, has a great tournament, makes his teammates better, shows how much he cares — he can win me back.

His breathtaking performance against Spain on Friday, in which he scored 3 goals and dominated goes a long way in winning me over.  That was impressive.

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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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