Friday, May 4, 2018


There are 41 days until the World Cup in Russia, and just 40 until the vote to decide where the 2026 tournament will be.

  • The appeal of Mohamed Salah
  • World Cup star making lattes
  • ‘Flood of passion’ in Iran
  • The Brexit Derby 
  • Germany may be too deep

Give us the World Cup or else. Please.

As if the World Cup bidding process wasn’t already facacta, President Trump recently threatened “shithole” countries (his phrase, remember, not mine) to support the United States’ bid with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup.

In a tweet last Thursday and again in comments Monday with Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, Trump said there could be consequences for African countries and others that don’t support the North American bid.

“It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid,” he said on Twitter. Four days later, he reminded those countries: “We will be watching very closely.”

Not helpful. But Trump may not have been aware of how his comments would come across, or how the process even works. To be fair, it has changed recently because it was corrupt for so long.  

The North American bid is competing with Morocco, which took “a not-too-subtle dig” at the United States in its official proposal. The host will be chosen June 13 in Moscow before the start of the 2018 World Cup, by officials from the soccer federations of FIFA members — not governments or the United Nations, as Trump insinuated.

In fact, politicians are supposed to stay out of it, so as not to “adversely affect the integrity of the bidding process and create an undue influence in the bidding process,” according to FIFA.

That’s rich; the process has never had much integrity, nor has it been free from political influences.

The same day Trump posted on Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted their endorsements of the joint bid, with 20,000 fewer retweets. But their support isn’t as toxic.

Trump is deeply unpopular overseas for his travel ban and his comments about immigrants from many of the countries whose support he now seeks.

But even before his inartfully worded endorsement, the North American bid faced resistance. The Confederation of African Football’s 55 voting members pledged their support to Morocco, as have the federations of Belgium, France and Russia. Even some Concacaf members have indicated they’ll support Morocco over their North American partners.

Carlos Cordeiro, the president of U.S. Soccer and a co-chair of the North American bid, said Thursday he didn’t view Trump’s statements as threatening.

“I think you have got to appreciate how he says things,” Cordeiro told Reuters. “I think what was implicit in what he said was that he would like to see people support our bid and that is what I like my head of state to say.”

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Mohamed Salah’s favorite English word is ‘love.’

Mohamed Salah for LiverpoolThere have been more Mohamed Salah appreciations shared on soccer Twitter recently than the Liverpool striker has goals this season.

Salah was named player of the year by his peers in England and their critics in the media. The Telegraph included him among Liverpool’s legends (Keegan, Dalglish, Rush, Owen) and called him “the perfect forward.” Bob Bradley, the manager who gave Salah his first start for Egypt’s national team, told Sports Illustrated he could see from day one how special the player was: “So explosive, so quick. Still raw, but wanted to learn, smart.”

In Egypt, Salah is revered for his goal-scoring prowess and for leading Egypt to its first World Cup in 28 years. He is adored for his magnanimity, especially in his hometown of Nagrig, in the Nile Delta .

“Salah has donated a dialysis machine to a hospital in Nagrig, paid for land to build a sewage treatment plant and renovated a public sports center, a school and a mosque,” Rory Smith reported for The New York Times. “He has given money to an investment fund set up to bolster Egypt’s faltering economy, and in April, he took part in a video supporting a government campaign against drug addiction.”

On the same night in 2017 that Salah clinched Egypt’s spot in Russia with a last-minute penalty kick, his family was reportedly robbed. After the suspect was caught, Salah insisted the thief not be charged and instead helped the man find a job, according to the Daily Mail.

“His faith — and his public displays of it — have also made him a figure of considerable social and cultural significance,” wrote Smith for The Times.

Salah will be the most talked-about player ahead of the Champions League final on May 26 — a game that includes Cristiano Ronaldo. And he’ll be the most-watched striker entering the World Cup, where Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski will also prowl the penalty boxes.

Read this appreciation by Thore Haugstad.

2. World Cup star is making lattes in California.

Over a plate of Turkish meatballs at a Palo Alto cafe, Hakan Sukur tells The New York Times’s John Branch how he went from the World Cup to Turkey’s Parliament to serving lattes and playing pick-up soccer in a Northern California park near Google’s headquarters.

“I would have lived a very good life and become a minister if I had played the game accordingly, if I did what they say,” Sukur said of his truncated political career in Turkey. “But now I am selling coffee.”

Once an ally of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sukur fled in 2015 when Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule made it uncomfortable for Sukur to stay. A deadly coup attempt in 2016, and the resulting purge of Erdogan critics, confirmed that Sukur and his family could not remain in Turkey.

He, his wife, and their three children are like so many immigrants in the United States: happy for the opportunity, but missing home.

FaceTime with family and friends doesn’t always cut it.

“Last Friday my father says to my son, ‘I miss you,’ ” Sukur told Branch in a mix of English and Turkish, with the help of an interpreter. “ ‘I want to hug you.’ And then my son started to cry, and my father was crying, and we were all crying. I know there are millions of people living in these conditions in the U.S. for a very long time, unable to go home and hug their loved ones.”

Read more about Sukur’s live in California in The Times.

3. ‘We see the flood of passion from our ladies.’

Five women disguised themselves as men to sneak into a soccer match in Tehran last week. They wore wigs and beards to watch Persepolis beat Sepidrood, 3-0. Such are the lengths fans are willing to go to watch Iranian soccer.

Photos and video of the women who attended last week’s game at Azadi stadium were shared on Persian and English-language social media. Though there’s no law barring women from soccer games in Iran, the BBC reported they’re often prevented from entering the stadium on the rare occasions they even try to go.

Most of Iran — men and women — are highly energized for the national team’s World Cup campaign. And some of the players want women to be able to show their support openly.

After the team qualified for Russia, its captain Masoud Shojaei called on the country’s leaders to ensure women could 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.

Shojaei was only recently recalled to the national team after a seven-month exile. He and a teammate were “banned for life” for playing for their Greek club team, Panionios, in a Europa League game last year against Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel.

“It is certain that Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi will never be invited to join the national football team because they violated the red line,” Mohammad Reza Davarzani, Iran’s deputy sports minister, said at the time.

Iran’s government doesn’t recognize Israel, and a longstanding rule enforced by religious leaders prohibits Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis.

Iran will play in Group B in Russia against Morocco, Portugal and Spain.

4. The Brexit Derby in Kaliningrad

Kevin De Bruyne for Manchester CityEngland will play Belgium in the first round of the World Cup on June 28, the same day Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain will be in Brussels for Brexit talks.

Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, engenders great antipathy among Brexiteers, especially the bombastic anti-European politician Nigel Farage.    

During a debate in the European Parliament on Thursday, Farage lashed out: “Belgium is not a nation; It’s an artificial creation.”

Belgium’s former prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who is also the European Parliament’s “Brexit coordinator,” shot back on Twitter: “He’ll see how real Belgium is when we play England in the World Cup!” And he teased Farage that maybe he should seek German citizenship and root for “die Mannschaft.” (The Express points out that Farage’s estranged wife is German, and two of his four children have German citizenship.)

In what may or may not be a metaphor for geopolitics and the fortunes of nations, Belgium has been ascendant in international soccer in recent years, including some of the most exciting players in the English Premier League on its national team. England has not.

Watch a preview of NBC Sports’ interview with Belgium star Kevin De Bruyne to air May 6.

5. Germany may actually be better than 2014

Some writers are trying to find reasons — however contrived — to doubt Germany. Even some of the team’s World Cup winners are skeptical — or trying to manage expectations.

”We’re not as good as we’re made out to be, or as some think we are,” midfielder Toni Kroos said, according to the Associated Press. ”There’s huge room for improvement.”

The World Cup champion hasn’t won a game since going a perfect 10 for 10 in its qualifying campaign. True, Coach Joachim Löw’s team tied England, France and Spain, and lost once: to Brazil, 1-0. That’s one defeat in 23 games.

There are injuries to worry about for sure. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer hasn’t played since September, and only returned to training recently. Jerome Boateng, an anchor of the German defense, is in a race to recover from a thigh injury in time for the World Cup. The 2014 hero Mario Gotze may have bruised his confidence. And striker Lars Stindl will have surgery on his ankle and miss the tournament altogether.

Still, the suave Löw isn’t sweating. ”I’m not worried. In 2014 and 2010 we also lost in March,” Löw said recently. ”You can be sure that we’ll improve.”

There are supremely talented alternatives to nearly all of the injured players, including goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, defenders Antonio Rudiger and Shkodran Mustafi, and midfielders Leroy Sane and Leon Goretzka.

Read more about Germany’s remarkable depth.


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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