Saturday, June 30, 2018

Match Day 16 begins the knockout phase, when overtime (two 15-minute halves) and penalty-kick shootouts (best of five, unless) will decide ties. The World Cup champion must win four consecutive games, however it can

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  • The winner will likely be — yawn — European
  • Be smart: France (drama) vs. Argentina (more drama)
  • Uruguay is so frustratingly effective
  • Ronaldo is as good as three men, but he’s still only one person

The World Cup could be more worldly

The winner will likely be a European team. Again. Teams from the continent have won five of the last seven World Cups. Brazil won the other two.

The 10 European teams in the final 16 this year are good, as are the four South American squads that advanced. Only Mexico and Japan are left to represent the rest of the world.

I’m disappointed Nigeria and Senegal didn’t make it through; it’s the first time since 1982 that an African team didn’t advance. The World Cup shouldn’t be an alternate version of the European Championship or Copa America. As I said in an interview with Cheddar TV yesterday, the upstart teams have some work to do to break through.

Senegal and Japan  were tied at the end of Group H on points, goal differential, goals scored, head-to-head record, goals scored against each other — it went all the way to the sixth tie-breaker: fair play.  

FIFA uses a points system based on red and yellow cards, and since Senegal received six yellow cards to Japan’s four, the Japanese get through.

It’s a pretty subjective metric, and several of you asked if any studies have examined racial bias in refereeing, wondering if Senegal’s players were punished more harshly than Japan’s.

I found references to a number of studies on the issue; some found bias, others did not. I came across one study finding that black players are called for more fouls, but non-black players are penalized more harshly.  An interesting 2010 study showed that bigger players were thought to foul more often than smaller players.  (Senegal’s players average 184 cm tall, or 6 feet. Japan, the second shortest team in the World Cup, has an average height of 178 cm, or 5 feet 10 inches.)

Europe is over-represented in the World Cup. UEFA, the European soccer confederation, received 13 of 32 spots in the tournament for 54 contending teams. The same number of African teams were given only five spots. The overall number of teams will expand in 2026, but it remains to be seen how those spots will be allocated.

What’s holding Africa — or Asia or North America, for that matter — back?

To be good at soccer, a country needs talented players and good coaches. But it also takes money, knowledge and an administrative support structure.

The Americans seem to have the administrative structure and enough money. But identifying and cultivating the talent with proper coaching has been a problem.

Africa, rich in talent, lacks those other things, writes Sebastian Abbot, author of “The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars.” Soccer on the continent is also highly corrupt.

Abbot and I bantered over beers recently, and I’d recommend his book not just for the soccer, but also for its discussion talent evaluation. (Sebastian did not pay me for this endorsement, though he picked up my beers.)


Sound smart about Match Day 16

FRA vs. ARG, Kazan, 10 a.m ET

ARGENTINA’S coach, Jorge Sampaoli, might as well sit with Diego Maradona in the VIP box for the game; they’re both just tatted-up cartoon cheerleaders at this point.

Sampaoli was seen asking Lionel Messi whether or not he should bring Sergio Aguero on against Nigeria. The coach denies ceding his responsibilities to his star, but it’s clear that Messi, not the excitable Sampaoli, is in full control of Argentina.

Sound smart by embracing the uncertainty rather than fearing the chaos. Maybe Argentina needs drama to compete. If things were easy, the team wouldn’t have the opportunity to rally in heroic fashion. Messi and company have certainly tested themselves in Russia.   

FRANCE coach Didier Deschamps was a proud and ambitious captain when he led France to the World Cup 20 years ago. In Russia, he’s a defensive and somewhat forlorn coach.

France cruised to the round of 16 but looked awful in the process. Deschamps has had to excuse lackluster play from his brightest stars.

“I’m not looking for excuses,” he said yesterday at a news conference. “On the contrary. But as you know, we have 14 players who’ve never competed at a World Cup. Five played for the first time against Australia, another five against Denmark, so whatever their individual abilities I think this should allow some indulgence.”

This certainly isn’t the same Deschamps who said in 2014: “I’ve always hated to lose and I continue to hate it. But I’ve been obliged to accept it because I also have had some crushing defeats. I do everything I can to win but ultimately it comes down to very little. My players need to have the feeling that they’ve pushed themselves to their limits.”

Sound smart by talking up France's defenders as the unlikely heroes against Argentina: Samuel Umtiti, Raphaël Varane and Lucas Hernandez will be primarily responsible for stopping Messi.

Umtiti plays with Messi at Barcelona, and Varane (Real Madrid) and Hernandez (Atletico Madrid) play against him regularly in La Liga.  Maybe they can also score from a set piece; almost 20 percent of the 122 goals scored in the World Cup have come from set pieces.

URG vs. POR, Sochi, 2 p.m. ET

URUGUAY has great strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but it has not completely given up la garra charrua —  a combative and defensive style of play that Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United and Scotland manager, called “a disgrace.” Now, the players know how to kill you while they have the ball, not just on defense.

Suarez and Cavani may ultimately decide the game, but defenders Diego Godin, José Giménez (recovered from a muscle strain) and Martin Caceres will dictate how it goes for Uruguay.

Sound smart calling for midfielders Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur, who are expert at linking defense with attack, to step up. They’ve been criticized by some pundits for being too slow and maybe anchored too deep in the midfield. But they could turn the game against a deep-lying Portugal team.

PORTUGAL begins and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo, who is only one man but as productive as two or even three world-class strikers, according to Marca, the Spanish sports daily. He has scored close to half of the team’s last 32 goals, and all but one in this World Cup.

Sound smart by acknowledging that Portugal will cede lots of possession to Uruguay. It’s not the amount of time the team has the ball that matters; it’s where on the field and how often Ronaldo gets it. His expected goals ratio is higher than Suarez and Cavani and almost all the strikers at the World Cup. The Uruguayans may see more of the ball and get more chances than Ronaldo, be he’s more lethal.


Run of Play | Great reads and more

Up, over, around and in. How to score a world-class goal
This is an intimate, field-level-view of what a World Cup goal looks like. Stand next to Karim El Ahmadi as Ronaldo beats him to the ball to head past goalkeeper Munir El Kajoui. Peer between the stunned Swedish defenders as Toni Kroos’ swerving shot goes streaming into the top corner. My old friends Joe Ward, Badel Saget and colleagues at The New York Times diagram these goals from on the field.

See more from The Times.

There’s no right way to survive a World Cup
Some coaches insist their players abstain from sex and alcohol during the World Cup. Others go so far as to isolate their players from their families, the news media and civilization. Still, some coaches who know how important the comforts of a loving embrace and 24/7 access to video games can be to a player’s psyche.

In his memoir, Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo wrote that he spent the whole day before the 2006 World Cup final playing EA Sports’ FIFA on PlayStation with Alessandro Nesta.

Bleacher Report has a fun piece about how this year’s players bide their time. It includes one of my favorite anecdotes (with poolside video) about the Bulgarian striker and walking quote machine Hristo Stoichkov.

Read more from Bleacher Report on how teams spend their time.

How to win the World Cup, unless somebody else does it better
Catenaccio, tiki-taka and gegenpressing are all effective ways to win the World Cup.  Italy, Spain and Germany used their signature styles to great effect, and inspired ambitious teams to imitate and iterate.

You don’t have to know all the soccer jargon, and don’t let the TV announcers scare you off with their hackneyed talk of tactics. To better understand what many of the teams are trying to do, check out this piece by The Ringer, which describes some of what you’re seeing on the field, and why.

Read more about the “counter-press.”

Relying on Argentines to know better
There were five Argentine coaches at the World Cup, and though only two are still leading teams in the knockout phase — and one of them is under assault by his own players — it can be seen as a source of pride for Argentina, writes Rory Smith in The New York Times, “proof that while there are concerns over player development back home, the country does know coaching.”

The smartest may be José Pékerman, the Argentine coach of Colombia.

Read more on Argentina’s World Cup coaches.

Are you betting on the World Cup?

I'm known to wager a token amount from time to time on the outcome of a race or contest. Alright, that's not entirely true: I love to gamble. Horses, games, dice. My dad taught me how to play craps when I was 16, and it's a blast. I also like interesting prop bets, though I never wager much on any of it.

I've run into a number of people watching the World Cup who got into it by betting.

Are you betting on the World Cup? What sort of bets? You can reach me at We'll keep it between us for now, though I may want to write more about this in a future newsletter.

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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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