Monday, July 2, 2018

Match Day 18 will be Mexico's biggest test in more than 30 years to see if it can make the leap from competitor to contender. El Tri must beat Brazil to make the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986.

  • Biggest Russian upset since 2016 U.S. election
  • Happy that Kylian Mbappé is French
  • Nationalism at the World Cup may be overblown
  • Sound Smart: Brazil vs. Mexico and Belgium vs. Japan
  • #WorldCupS: What we're drinking for round of 16

Biggest Russian upset since the 2016 U.S. election

My phone blew up on Sunday with conspiracy theories hatched by friends watching Russia defeat Spain in the World Cup.

The most popular: 
  • The Russian players, who had run farther and longer than all but two teams at the World Cup, were obviously doping to be able to keep up. Didn't you see the track marks on Artem Dzyuba's arm? 
  • President Vladimir Putin, who stole the World Cup for Russia in the first place, had insisted the referees favor the home team. FIFA's Gianni Infantino was helpless to resist. 
  • Spain's players were intimidated, cowed by threats — or rewarded for not playing their tiki-taka best. They weren't playing to lose, but they certainly weren't playing to win. 
Ever since I read Declan Hill's book, "The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime," I think any game I watch could have already been decided by shadowy figures with ulterior motives. We're all just waiting 90 minutes — or 120, plus penalty kicks — to learn what they worked out. 

Hill's book includes an excerpt from a police interview with a player from the Malaysian-Singapore league who details how players in every position on the field can alter a game's outcome without seeming too obvious. But everything seems obvious once you know what to look for. 

It may be silly to think that a World Cup round of 16 match was fixed just because low-regarded Russia upset highly touted Spain. But how the game was decided adds doubt, not certainty, to the result.

And many of us are already suspicious, for good reason, of Russia and Putin's motives. 

FIFA officially calls the ritual "kicks from the penalty mark," but we all know it as a shootout. It's tense and dramatic and decisive. But it's also a serious deviation from the game leading up to it. At best, shots from the penalty spot are a test of nerve. It can also seem random — or worse, manipulated. 

Both matches on Sunday were decided this way. It was exciting watching Denmark's Kasper Schmeichel and Danijel Subašič of Croatia save five of 10 kicks. Plus Schmeichel stuffed Luka Modrić's penalty in overtime.  

Still, part of me feels duped. Not that either game was fixed, but that I sat through 120 minutes of unambitious soccer to see an important match decided haphazardly. Maybe it's like the old quote about democracy: It's the worst way to decide things, except for all the others we've tried.

Mbappé, France's young hero

After France’s victory in the round of 16 on Saturday, coach Didier Deschamps said of teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé what many in the country were feeling: “I’m very happy he’s French.”

I wondered whether the coach was being droll, or was Deschamps offering a subtle commentary on the makeup of the French team?

Les Bleus may be the most integrated, multicultural institution in France, as it was 20 years ago when Deschamps (and his teammate Thierry Henry, above) won the World Cup as a player. Since 1998, its soccer team has increasingly reflected the complexion of modern France, as other institutions in the country seem stagnant, and nationalist populist sentiment has grown more virulent.

At the start of the knockout round, I lamented the lack of African and Asian teams in the round of 16. But I overlooked the diversity that France, Belgium, Switzerland and even England showcase in their lineups.

This is not to say the vestiges of colonialism or the forces of migration are all positive. But what France and other teams have done to advance our understanding of national identity is laudable. As is the pride so many players show in their ancestry. More on this below.

Run of Play | Great reads and more

Belgium’s success may be difficult for Belgians to take
The great chronicler of Dutch soccer, David Winner, looks at the success Belgium is having at the World Cup and wonders if winning could somehow throw the country into an “existential crisis.” He writes in a New York Times op-ed that Belgium is well practiced in modesty, but undone by ambition. A proud moment of sporting glory could disrupt Belgians’ sense of self.

Read more by Winner in The Times.

Soccer fandom ≠ Nationalism
Nationalism, and discussions of good and bad nationalist expression, proliferate during the World Cup because sport is a safe, usually nonviolent context to discuss otherwise destructive forces. Simon Kuper, who wrote the book — several, actually — about nationalism in soccer, writes in The Financial Times that “the World Cup only superficially looks nationalist.”

No matter how loud Russian fans cheer or how rowdy Brexit-friendly English fans act, the projection of the globalist versus nationalist dichotomy may be misplaced. “Nationalists are having their moment,” Kuper writes. “But the World Cup reminds us that many bits of globalism are very popular.”

Read more by Kuper in the FT.

National identity is fluid, anyway
The rosters of the World Cup teams illustrate how immigration, war and mixed ancestry shape a team and a country. The Washington Post counted 82 of 736 players at the World Cup who were not born in the country they represent. This is not new, but still notable: Some are refugees or the children of natural-born citizens representing their ancestral homes. Others took advantage of generous immigration laws and rules of competition.

Of the 32 teams competing, 22 have at least one foreign-born player, according to The Post. Morocco has the most, with 17. It’s a positive sign of the modern, interconnected world we live in.

Read more about the fluidity of national identity in World Cup soccer.

‘I feel that I have two homes’
One of the World Cup players born elsewhere is Xherdan Shaqiri, the Kosovar Albanian star of Switzerland. His family moved from Kosovo before the war with Serbia, when Shaqiri was a young boy, and he says he takes pride in representing Switzerland.

“I feel that I have two homes. It’s that simple,” he wrote in an essay in The Players’ Tribune. “Switzerland gave my family everything, and I try to give everything for the national team. But whenever I go to Kosovo, I immediately have the feeling of home, too. It is not something logical. It is just a feeling that I have in my gut.”

Read (and watch) more from Shaqiri in The Players’ Tribune.

Sound Smart on Match Day 18

BRA vs. MEX, Samara, 10 p.m. ET

Brazil's fortune starts with Neymar, the Selecao’s best player, but it no longer ends with him. Philippe Coutinho has stepped up as an able running mate, filling a role vacant since 2014. When Neymar tries to do too much, Coutinho keeps it simple. When Neymar is at his best, Coutinho is supportive.

I have big questions about Brazil’s defense — something we rarely talk about. Can Thiago Silva keep up with Mexico’s forwards? He’s a stout defender, and his size is an advantage on set plays. But perhaps Marquinhos, who played center back throughout qualifying, can better keep up with Javier Hernández and Chucky Lozano. Brazil's back line may need the additional speed, given that Marcelo is out with an injury. Filipe Luís will start instead.

Mexico has had success against Brazil, winning seven of its last 15 games against the South Americans going back to 1999. But past performance is no guarantee of future results, and Mexico has been trending in the wrong direction since El Tri’s strong start in this World Cup. The team gave up the most shots of any team to reach the round of 16, and Brazil created more than any team other than Germany.

BEL vs. JPN, Rostov-on-Don, 2 p.m. ET

Belgium’s striker Romelu Lukaku scores big goals against small teams and comes up empty against big teams. He didn’t have a single goal against a top 6 team in the English Premier League last season. He just beat up on the little guys.

Is Japan enough to get Lukaku motivated? The Belgian captain, Eden Hazard, said he was able to shake his teammate out of complacency against Panama in the teams’ opening match.

Japan will try to counter Belgium’s superior skill with unyielding faith. "We would like to play Japan-like,” coach Akira Nishino said, sounding nonplussed.

Nishino and his players have found a serene confidence heading into the match against a superior opponent.

"We do have the spirit and the mentality," he said. "Belgium may feel that they are just starting the tournament. We would like to be level with them mentally. My players have more to offer in the second round of the tournament, that's how I feel."

#WorldCupS: What we're drinking...

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

... for Brazil vs. Mexico

Novo Fogo Cachaca Silver

Cachaca is to Brazil what vodka is to Russia.

It’s a cane spirit, like rum, that dates to the 16th century, when Portugal moved its sugar production from the island of Madeira to its colony in Brazil.

Unlike most rum, which is made out of molasses, a byproduct of sugar, Cachaca is made by fermenting pure sugar cane juice to render a lighter-bodied spirit with more flavor of the cane plant. Its rainforest earthiness is nutty and floral, also bright and lively.

Cachaca (pronunciation here) is wildly popular; the average Brazilian drinks about three gallons a year, which might explain the Cachaca dance. Brazil’s signature drink, the Caipirinha, is made with Cachaca and only two other ingredients. Learn how to mix one up.

Saúde! Tchim-tchim!

Don Julio Tequila Anejo

In the first round, we learned a lot about Tequila, and now your assignment is to compare the Don Julio we recommended with Sauza Silver Tequila.

In a rocks glass, pour a shot of each over an ice cube and take a big sniff. This is an object lesson in barrel aging.

The Sauza, not aged in oak and only about $12, smells of ethanol, which hides the faint aroma of the agave, but it drinks lean and light. The Don Julio, aged 18 months in oak and running about $60 or more, smells of caramel and vanilla with some ginger and black pepper at the end.

Both are delicious tools for your cocktail belt. Add a splash of club soda and an orange peel to your Don Julio. Nice and easy, like a $60 Scotch.

... for Belgium vs. Japan

Who will win this matchup of artistry?

Chimay Blue

We chose the Chimay Blue, a dark and powerful ale that even wine lovers will savor, as the iconic Belgian beer. It packs 9 percent alcohol that sands off the edges, giving it an exquisite smoothness and soft sweetness that sips like a fine wine or spirit.

Divine Droplets Sake 

The aptly named Divine Droplets holds its own against any comer. From Takasago Brewery, these droplets are pure and clean with vapors of melons, spices and vanilla. It too packs a hefty punch — at 15.6 percent alcohol, so pace yourself.


Join The Banter

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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