Friday, June 15, 2018


World Cup match day 2 features leading candidates for the roles of hero and villain.

  • Mohamed Salah is everyone's hero
  • Iran unfortunatley miscast
  • Cristiano Ronaldo is a villain. Discuss
  • What we're drinking for Spain vs. Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo: Hero or villain?

Every World Cup has its heroes and villains

I’ve been wondering who will play which roles in Russia, as the first match day featured seemingly heroic performances with lots of villains posturing nearby.

Sometimes the same person can play both parts. Zinedine Zidane started the 1998 World Cup as a villain after his straight red card against Saudi Arabia in the teams’ second group game. He ended the undisputed hero, scoring twice in the final. Eight years later, in Germany, he heroically carried France to another final, only to slink off the field for the last time a villain.

Diego Maradona could play the hero and villain in the same game, as he did in the quarterfinal against England in 1986. Maradona has careened between the two roles his entire life, and neither truly suits him. He is the ultimate louche antihero.

In Russia’s 5-0 romp of Saudi Arabia on the first match day, there were some seemingly heroic performances:

  • Denis Cheryshev coming on as an early substitute to score twice — poised and professional, both times.  

  • Artem Dzyuba, another substitute, capably scoring a goal that will only help Russia’s goal differential, a vital potential tie-breaker to advance from the group.  

  • And certainly Aleksandr Golovin looks to be the hero for Russia, leading the team with every pinpoint pass and capping the night with a piercing free-kick goal.

Never mind that they beat up a completely overmatched Saudi team.

In their stadium lair above the field, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and FIFA boss Gianni Infantino were seen carousing like Bond villains.

As the crown prince gestured and smiled and shook hands with Putin, Saudi-backed forces in Yemen attacked the port city of Al Hudaydah in what some analysts say could be the bloodiest battle of a war that Crown Prince Salman has orchestrated.

I always try to remember that soccer is not political, though it’s hard when Putin clearly uses the World Cup (and the Olympics) as a political tool to advance his manipulative agenda.

Also, the aging pop star Robbie Williams — villain, definitely — gave everyone the middle finger at the opening ceremony.

Let the casting for heroes and villains continue. Here are the nominees from Friday’s matches.


Match Day 2

EGY vs. URU, Group A, Ekaterinburg Arena, 8 a.m. ET
Fox Sports 1 and Telemundo in the U.S.*

Classic hero-versus-villain matchup. Mohamed Salah of Egypt is the darling of the World Cup already: positive, agreeable, always smiling and a wizard with the ball at his feet. All of Egypt is anxious for Salah to lift them to new heights. But can you handle that weight with a bum shoulder?

If you’re a Uruguay fan, then striker Luis Suarez is your antihero: big, fast, strong and unpredictable. You want him scoring goals for your team. But really, he is soccer’s comic-book villain.

Suarez is most loathed for biting opponents. But the most maniacal thing I watched him do was to use his hand to intentionally block Ghana forward Dominic Adiyiah’s header in the dying minutes of extra time of the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal. What’s worse was the way he celebrated — despite being red-carded — after Uruguay ultimately prevailed in a penalty-kick shootout.

Still, I really like Uruguay’s coach, Oscar Tabarez. If you want to sound smart, talk about how Tabarez has managed to mix experienced players with young talents, and how he’s managed to keep Suarez and his strike partner Edinson Cavani relatively happy. Either player is capable of leading the tournament in goal scores, if he can see enough of the ball with the other hunting nearby.

If there is ever such a thing as a Ph.D. in soccer, I want Tabarez to be my thesis adviser. The former teacher is principled and practical. He coached one of the most enjoyable soccer games I ever watched at the World Cup in South Africa. He could have had his team phone it in and still advance, but he told me he would never do that because it wasn’t “honest and sincere.”

MOR vs. IRA, Group B, St. Petersburg Stadium, 11 a.m. ET
Fox and Telemundo

Morocco didn’t lose a game or give up a goal in qualifying for this World Cup, its first in 20 years. The team imported its heroes: 17 of the 23 players on the roster were born outside the country, mostly in Europe, to parents of Moroccan extraction. They were trained in soccer academies in the Netherlands, France and elsewhere in Europe. The captain, Medhi Benatia, was born in France and plays for Juventus in Italy.

That takes nothing away from the commitment and pride they bring to the team. This is, after all, modern soccer in a globalized world, and many of the top teams feature players who were born elsewhere or whose parents emigrated.

Iran, however, is pretty insular. The team has been cast as a collective of villains, and it’s not really fair to the players. Iran has difficulty scheduling international friendlies because other teams don’t want to visit the Islamic Republic, and even away matches are complicated. A recent World Cup warmup against Greece scheduled to be played in Istanbul was canceled. And just this week, Nike said it won’t provide Iranian players with cleats because of American economic sanctions.

Still there’s lots to like about this team. My hero is Masoud Shojaei, a veteran midfielder and former captain of Iran who was recently invited back to the team. He was banned for life last year by the Iranian theocracy’s sports ministry for playing against an Israeli team in a Europa Cup match with his Greek club. So was his teammate, defender Ehsan Haji Safi. He was also invited back and made the World Cup squad.

The reason I like Shojaei, though, is because right after the team qualified for Russia, he went on TV and called on the ayatollahs who run Iran to let women attend soccer matches. In a 2017 video of Shojaei shared by Radio Farda, a Persian branch of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe service, he said “we see the flood of passion from our ladies,” and their support would boost soccer in the country.

POR vs. ESP, Group B, Fisht Stadium, Sochi, 2 p.m. ET
Fox and Telemundo

This is the sexiest match of the first round, and the one you call in sick to work to watch, or leave very early on a Friday: Two teams stacked with world-class players and championship ambitions.

It also features two of my villains of the World Cup.

Spain’s captain Sergio Ramos injured Salah in the Champions League final in Kiev last month when he whipped around and slammed the Egyptian to the ground during an innocuous tussle. Ramos, no stranger to villainy, had the chutzpah to then blame the victim.

My other villain is none other than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. A controversial choice, I admit. But as I told my friends on Cheddar TV, Ronaldo may be an amazing player and a truly gorgeous human specimen, but I can’t get over his humorlessness. He celebrates goals like a petulant teenager. Even when he does the most spectacular things on the soccer field, he never looks like he’s enjoying himself. What sort of Faustian bargain did he strike to become the best player in the world that it weighs so heavy on him? 

— Jeffrey Marcus

*My high-school buddy Marc asked that I include TV or streaming details in these match-of-the-day digests so he remembers to set his DVR. I realize not all of you are watching on the East Coast of the United States, so indulge us. And Marc: All of the games are either on Fox or Fox Sports 1, and Telemundo in Spanish.

#WorldCupS — The most sophisticated drinking game

Thanks to those of you who helped select the signature drinks for your World Cup teams.

Here’s what we’re drinking for the Spain-Portugal match later —  the Iberian battle of the vines.

Spain’s Marques de Murrieta Reserva Rioja (a red wine) versus Portugal’s Taylor Fladgate LBV porto (a fortified red wine).

The Rioja region, home of the Tempranillo grape, is to Spain as Napa is to the United States or Chianti is to Italy. Spain is one of the few countries where the word “Reserva” has actual rules. Crianza means one year in barrels and at least one year in the bottle. Reserva gets at least one year in the barrel plus two or more years in the bottle. Gran Reserva is two years in the barrel plus at least three years in the bottle. (Just drink it already!)

You know why we love Rioja? It’s like a Pinot Noir got kicked in the dirt. Rustic. Awesome.

And then there’s Porto, a town and a region — and if it’s not made there, it’s not Porto. It starts as red wine made from a blend of grapes. Fermentation is arrested while the wine is still sweet by spiking it with spirits, in this case brandy. LBV (Late Bottle Vintage) means it’s aged in the barrel and in the bottle, giving it polish and sophistication at a lower price than vintage Porto. We think of it as affordable liquid joy.

Which one will we be drinking to celebrate the winner of this match? There are no losers here. — Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

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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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