Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Match Day 13 features eight teams, only one of which has no chance to advance. Everyone will be watching Nigeria-Argentina, but you can sound smart about the other matches too. Read on.

  • The third-best place to watch the World Cup
  • France's little things always seem bigger
  • Nigeria is mercurial, but Argentina is a mess
  • Iceland's last hope
Diego Maradona of Argentina, 1986. (The Associated Press)

A world of emotions in New York

I speak enough of three other languages to get into a fight, but not enough to get out of one. And I can order a beer in four more. These thoroughly unspectacular communication skills are absolutely essential every four years in New York during the World Cup. 

If you're not going to the tournament, or watching it in the country of the team that eventually wins, the best place to be is New York, where you can find a home-team experience for every team.

I watched Russia lose to Uruguay yesterday in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, at a Russian bathhouse/sports bar that had its own Match TV feed — the official Russian broadcaster. My friend and I ate smoked sable, whitefish and lox on black bread while watching the South Americans run over the undermanned host team, 3-0. Then we had a schvitz.

The banya was nearly empty on a Monday morning save for one Russian fan, openly rooting for Uruguay because he had a bet, and two Colombian guys and their Ecuadoran friend. They schlepped to Sheepshead Bay for the same reason I did: an authentic experience. 

That's what I found at a taqueria in Greenwood for Mexico-South Korea, along with salty, smokey, spicy salsa roja and fresh-made corn tortillas. At a Panamanian lounge in Flatbush last week, I experienced the best victory party thrown by fans of a losing team. And even Iceland is represented in Williamsburg and Park Slope, where an established English soccer pub generously lets the Nordic crowd take over when its team plays. No grudge, apparently, from Euro 2016.

There's a cafe near my daughter's day care where I meet other neighborhood moms and dads watching the early matches. And I spend plenty of time at my local, Woodwork, in Prospect Heights. The Portugal sandwich that Ross Greenberg makes is way more satisfying than the team.

I'm running into Colombians wherever I go, and they all tell me I should go to Jackson Heights, Queens, for the final Group H match against Senegal. The thing is, I think I'll be in Harlem at the Senegalese Association, which is showing the games.

The New York Times put together a guide, as did the New York Post. And Thrillist and Time Out New York published surveys of the known soccer bars. I've been to many of them — Zum Schneider was where I watched Germany when I got back from Germany, and Buenos Aires was a good spot for Argentina during the Copa America. 

At the Russian banya, weekends are more crowded than Monday mornings, but things picked up Monday by the afternoon kickoff. A group of young Tajik men bounced between the sauna, the cold-plunge pool, and watching Iran play Portugal. As they sipped tea with honey, lemon and cloves, and fretted the entire second half, I asked why they were supporting Team Melli. One guy told me the Tajik language is based on Persian — something I did not know. 

We gasped when Iran's Ali Beiranvand, the shepherd-slash-dressmaker-slash-street cleaner turned World Cup goalkeeper, saved Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty kick. (Watch the highlights.) We laughed a half hour later when Ronaldo received a yellow card. And we high-fived when Karim Ansarifad slammed his 93rd minute penalty into the top corner of the net. Then we checked our phones to see that Spain and Morocco had tied, 2-2

The Iranian players seemed to just learn the news at the same time, because they sank to the turf dejected. If there are ties that feel like wins, surely this would have been one, under different circumstances. With a +1 goal difference, Spain would advance instead of Iran.

No matter where you are or who you're rooting for, disappointment is as authentic a World Cup experience as you can find anywhere.

Sound Smart on Match Day 13

AUS vs. PER, Group C, Sochi, 10 a.m. ET

Peru has no chance of advancing but too much talent and passion to waste by rolling over. Edison Flores and Renato Tapia have more to show. And this will be Paolo Guerrero's last chance to score in a World Cup. He'll be looking to play well for his absent friend, Jefferson Farfan, who suffered a "traumatic brain injury" in practice.

If it was just up to the Socceroos, Australia might have more of a chance. They have enough belief and experience to will results. But even if Australia wins, Denmark would have to lose by more goals. See how it would have to go down for Australia to go through.


DEN vs. FRA, Group C, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow; 10 a.m. ET

The banter is fierce between these two teams heading into a match that means more for Denmark. France is through, but first place in the group and the team's chemistry is on the line.

Before the tournament, Denmark's coach Age Haride said France was "nothing special" (wrong) and hardly a team (he may be right about that one). He also teased Paul Pogba for his haircuts.

Pogba's got so much going on inside his head that could affect his performance, his hair is the least of it. And France's internal chemistry is already so fragile, Les Bleus don't need any outside agitation. 

Diedier Deschamps, who is seeking to become the first person to win the World Cup as a coach and player since Franz Beckenbauer with West Germany in 1990, was somewhere between dismissive and defensive.

"It is not nice for him to say that," Deschamps said on Monday. "Will it spice up the game? Salt, pepper, vinegar, whatever you want to call it. He has to take responsibility for it. My players know and remember what he said."

NIG vs. ARG, Group D, St. Petersburg; 2 p.m. ET

Nigeria is mercurial and Argentina is a mess. The Super Eagles can qualify for the knockout rounds for a second consecutive World Cup, and they appear to have momentum going against a team that is flailing.

Also, Nigeria is on of the youngest teams in the World Cup. Argentina is one of the oldest.

Argentina is in mutiny against its coach, at worst, or just ignoring him, at best. In earlier emails, I said you’d sound smart to talk about players other than Messi, because they more than him would influence the outcome of more games. That was true. But this is just one game, and Messi is the player who might be able to turn this around for Argentina. He’ll need help, and I’m not the only one who thinks Paulo Dybala could provide some.

Expect Nigeria’s forwards Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho and Odion Ighalo to give the Argentina centerbacks fits.


ISL vs. CRO, Group D, Rostov-on-Don; 2 p.m. ET

Croatia has already earned a spot in the knockout round, and is growing stronger in each successive game. That’s the way to do it, as the World Cup winner will have to play seven games before lifting the trophy. This is the only game that Croatia can fumble, as every match after this is an elimination match.

Iceland finished ahead of Croatia in their qualifying group, but Croatia was one of only two teams to beat Iceland in qualifying. The teams split their games, with each of them winning at home. But it’s not just up to Iceland. The team must win, maybe by a few goals, and hope that Argentina and Nigeria have a low-scoring or 0-0 tie.

Here’s an updated breakdown of all the scenarios from The New York Times.

I was wrong.

I made two boneheaded mistakes in yesterday's newsletter. The 1982 World Cup was won by Italy, but it was played in Spain. And it was still West Germany when the team won the 1990 World Cup. The team didn't compete as a unified Germany until 1994.

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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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