Andy Kirkaldy: World Cup soccer isn’t the best, but it’s fascinating

Here are takeaways from the recently completed men’s World Cup (I’m not calling it the FIFA World Cup. Those crooks at FIFA can sue me sometime they’re not busy spending their bribes from 2022 host Qatar):
•  The national teams do not play as well as the best European club teams, something that helps explain the many surprising results from this past tournament.
First, the teams’ players aren’t as good as those of the top clubs. Take Barcelona’s 2016-2017 roster, for example. It included four starters for Spain (Piqué, Iniesta, Busquets and Jordi Alba); two for Argentina (Messi and Mascherano); one for Brazil (Neymar); one for Uruguay (Suarez); one for France (Umtiti); one for Croatia (Rakitic); and a goalie who was a member of Germany’s team (Ter Stegen).
Second, club teams practice together many times more often than national teams.
•  Theringer.com became an indispensable site for World Cup coverage. See quotes in the next bullet point.
•  Defense wins championships. France conceded six goals in seven games, really only stumbling when a desperate Argentina scored three times and when its goalie suffered a mental lapse with Les Bleus up by three goals in Sunday’s final. Credit to Manager Didier Deschamps for understanding that his team had enough attacking brilliance to prevail even he insisted on emphasizing defense first, and credit to his players for buying in.
For example, high-scoring forward Antoine Griezmann played more of a withdrawn striker role with considerable defensive responsibilities. He explained his and his teammates’ attitude about the defense-first posture, as quoted in theringer.com: “I don’t care. I want the star (on my shirt for World Cup winners). If I get that star, I don’t care about how we play.”
I’m sure French center backs Umtiti and Varane are somewhere nodding their heads in agreement.
Another quote in theringer.com illustrated how Les Bleus failed to capture France’s imagination, at least until its fans realized they could win the Cup: “One nurse, who called into a local radio station, summed up the nationwide feeling: ‘Deschamps has a Ferrari in his hands and never breaks the speed limit!’”
•  Nobody had more fun, better fans or worse luck than Senegal. Senegal had the best-dressed manager, the best synchronized dance warm-up, non-stop partying in the stands, and their fans and Japan’s actually helped clean up the stadium after the match between the two sides.
Not that I begrudged Japan advancing (the Japan-Belgium knockout-round match was a gem, with both teams playing fearless attacking styles), but it was outrageous to eliminate Senegal, which finished group play tied with Japan, because it earned more yellow cards.
To start with, anyone who watched more than two or three games knows that the standards for awarding yellow cards were not consistently applied by officials with, to put it politely, varying levels of competence.
The number of corner kicks attempted, a statistic that would at least measure offensive pressure applied, would have been a fairer and more objective criterion.
•  Poor Messi. He must have missed his Barcelona side terribly. Messi is expected to lift Argentina to glory, but can’t at the same time carry second-tier club players and too many others past their prime. He never had a chance. Those who want to see Messi at his best are advised to find a Barca match when the club season restarts this fall.
•  Meanwhile Neymar became a punch line, deservedly, for his theatrics. My favorite moment was not his four minutes of simulated agony at midfield vs. Mexico when Miguel Layun stepped gently on his ankle in retaliation for repeated fakery. No, I enjoyed even more Neymar asking the referee not to use video-assisted replay (VAR) to check a call when Neymar knew he had just taken an egregious dive.
The background, again per The Ringer, is that games are officiated differently at the Brazilian club level. What hoop players call touch fouls are routinely whistled there, per one Ringer article, but just as routinely ignored at the World Cup level.
Neymar genuinely thinks he is being fouled and tries to call attention to it with his flopping. But it’s not a good excuse. If he would simply play football well, which he does, Neymar would get the calls he wants. Superstars always do — looking at you, LeBron.
But do not blame all the embellishment on Latin players, as one bigoted commenter below a Boston Globe story attempted to do. Griezmann made sure officials knew he was fouled before France’s first goal on Sunday, if in fact he was. Croatia’s complaints bordered on operatic. And the Oscar-winning Italian side didn’t even qualify for the tournament.
FIFA could fix what commentators like to call simulation by using VAR to assess post-match yellow cards for the culprits. But someday FIFA will advance to the 20th century and keep actual time for matches, and the organization is as reliable and honest as a Russian hacker. So reform probably isn’t imminent.
•  Finally, youth was served. The three youngest teams in the tournament acquitted themselves well. Nigeria, the youngest, came within an uncalled handball of advancing past Argentina and into the knockout round. The Super Eagles’ other loss came to Croatia, a result that in retrospect does not look surprising, and they coasted past fan favorite Iceland.
France tied for the second youngest. Well, they did all right, and have a bright future — Mbappé is 19, Pogba and Varane are 25, and Umtiti is 24.
The other second youngest? England, which despite lacking quality at midfield made a run to the semifinal round. England, where in the interest of full disclosure I should mention I spent the crucial formative first 12 months of my existence, also will return many key young players. Oh, by the way, England won the 2017 Under-17 and U-20 World Cups.
Don’t look back, France, someone might be gaining.
And now that it’s all over I’m probably not the only one who has more time to gain on the weeds in the garden.

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