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The Beautiful Game’s Russian Blemish?

 

2018 world cup poster

(The official poster for the 2018 World Cup in Russia spotlights former Soviet goalie and esteemed Ballon d’Or winner Lev Yashin, courtesy of FIFA World Cup’s Facebook page)

And the 2018 World Cup groupings are…

  • Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay 
  • Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
  • Group C: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
  • Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
  • Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
  • Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
  • Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
  • Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

Way Too Early Predictions of the Group Winner & Runner-Up are in bold.   

Instant Reaction: There’s no “Group of Death” and the 2018 World Cup in Russia will showcase a seemingly underwhelming collection of the (supposedly) best 32 national soccer teams in the world. Without any matches even occurring, one of the major stories related to next summer’s competition is the group of prominent nations that won’t stepping onto soccer’s biggest, brightest stage.

Slightly Longer Reaction: Despite some of soccer’s most notable nations and their leading star players and, in some cases, burgeoning international soccer brands noticeably absent (the United States with Christian Pulisic, Italy with Gianluigi Buffon, Netherlands with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, Chile with Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez, Austria with David Alaba and Wales with Gareth Bale), a World Cup provides the ideal opportunity to elevate the sport’s next big name who presently flies beneath the radar focused almost exclusively on Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Manuel Neuer. Think back to 2010 and 2014 with Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben of the Dutch and Uruguay’s sniper and FIFA’s 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner (tournament’s best player) Diego Forlán.

Who’s going to deliver a World Cup performance akin to Diego Forlán or Arjen Robben? Watch out for Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, France’s tank Paul Pogba and its talented youth movement, Argentina’s Paulo Dybala, Brazil’s speedster on the flank Douglas Costa and Germany’s Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Müller, for starters.

*Also, keep an eye on the fundamentally sound players for Japan regarding ball control. Trust me.

Insanely Early World Cup Final Prediction: How about Germany vs. Argentina, a repeat of the 2014 World Cup Final that so the Germans lift soccer’s greatest trophy? I may go back-and-forth several times in the next few months for giving Germany or France the advantage in a potential game to reach the final that would be determined by a razor-thin margin, as of right now.

When was the last time a World Cup Final featured the same two national teams in consecutive cycles? Glad you asked. It was 1986 and 1990 between, that’s right, Argentina and West Germany. Argentina won in 1986 and West Germany hoisted the golden trophy to the soccer gods in 1990. Furthermore, West Germany was the runner-up to Itlay in the 1982 World Cup.

Crazy Early and Stressful World Cup Champions Prediction: Argentina (see paragraph above for intriguing precedent occurring again)

More importantly, this could be Messi’s last best chance to win a World Cup for his legacy (he’s 30-years-old), which could be the special “it” factor for Argentina against its toughest opponents in Russia next summer. Cristiano Ronaldo (will be 33-years-old next summer) has that incentive too, but Portugal’s squad may or may not be equipped to string together a magical World Cup title run.

We’re only a couple weeks six-and-a-half months from the thrilling, world-class opening June 14 match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia that will feature global superpowers host Russia and Saudi Arabia. Remember that slightly underwhelming dynamic surrounding this World Cup mentioned earlier in this blog post?

There’s just no concealing it.

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Participation Trophies…for Adults?

Sports are about competition, which creates pressure. So, what exactly is the opposite of this construct? And is it worth watching/engaging in?

Ladies and gentlemen, soccer (or football) fans everywhere, we may be finding out the answer to this in the not-so-distant future…

“We would still consider to increase the competition to 40 or 48 teams. A tournament of 48 teams would have the same period of the current one, and federations are all clearly in favour of a World Cup with more teams.”
–FIFA president Gianni Infantino

The modern World Cup features the best 32 national teams as determined by the qualifying-by-region dynamic (North and Central America, Europe, South America, Africa, etc.). As a lifelong soccer fan, the thought of needing or wanting more national teams included in the World Cup has never entered my mind. Never. 32 is a good number. As a matter of fact, 32 is ideal. It’s one thing to ponder expansion if (the key word) adding more teams would improve the greatest tournament on the planet.

The addition of 8-16 national sides won’t make the World Cup better.

The consequence of this decision will dilute the accomplishment of the “original” 32 teams that had to work hard, deal with limited personnel for critical games, sort out inner-squad turmoil and a wide-range of challenges to earn the right to compete for a World Cup every four years with the best-of-the-best. Rich nations qualify and succeed and poor nations qualify and succeed. It’s truly a wonderful sport.

The quote above, courtesy of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, states that the federations are in favor of such an expansion of more national teams.

Duh. It means more money for them.

Wasn’t a focus on money (and the corruption that followed) at the heart of Sepp Blatter’s downfall, as well as being FIFA’s most publicly concerning characteristic? Soccer and world-class competition tragically took a backseat to the former for years and years and years.

More teams = More FIFA. Is this really the best equation for the future of the beautiful game?

If anything, FIFA’s overarching role should be subtracted.

SoccerFestWasTheBest

Today’s edition of “Throwback Thursday” is a very special one.

As a nine year-old who was (and still is) an enthusiastic soccer fan, attending SoccerFest at the Los Angeles Convention Center was amazing. The United States went all-in for promoting the world’s game to its skeptical American sports audience. By hosting the World Cup tournament, Americans got to see and experience the beautiful game up close and personal.

Granted, SoccerFest was more than 20 years ago. But I still vividly remember walking up to the glass case with THE World Cup trophy inside, which was stop-in-your-tracks mesmerizing. I had an unforgettable time on this special birthday trip with my Dad. This included playing beach soccer, recording a video of me saving shots from the world’s best strikers on a VHS tape, taking home a beautiful poster that was signed by the artist (who was #22 for the USMNT) and getting my very own Soccer America magazine cover.

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While I may be biased here, the kid dribbling the soccer ball at the :22 and :24 second mark looks really familiar…

I still think the U.S. jerseys from the 1994 World Cup were awesome. The jerseys are definitely better than anything Nike has designed (a generous term) lately. The full kits proudly (and boldly) showcased America in red, white and blue, stars and all.

And regarding SoccerFest, the star was definitely my Dad.

The Other Beautiful Game

As player’s have regained their energy and coaches alike have had time to reflect on the group stage and exhausting round of 16 World Cup finale versus Belgium, the USMNT will likely feel equally proud, yet unsatisfied. While not all of their young and exciting talent was utilized (ie- #10 Mix Diskerud and #9 Aron Jóhannsson) and key players failed to shine to their full potential (ie- Michael Bradley), there are signs that point to a bright future for the Americans. DeAndre Yedlin showed he has world-class pace, raw talent and a skill for crossing dangerous balls into the opponent’s 18-yard box as a defender on the flank. John Brooks is clearly an offensive threat on corner kicks and Julian Green has vision that will soon impress Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola for serious senior team consideration between now and 2016 and 2018.

The rub: If the USMNT is going to take the next step and compete for a World Cup and not just in one, it must have faith in itself and dare to go for that dream. Overloading the central midfield with defense, which leaves a creative void in the middle that was desperately needed to bridge the gap with the forwards, sends a message to the team and their opponents that they are, in effect, surrendering the mental chess game.

Teams cannot win the World Cup playing only checkers, waiting to jump the competition one or two times in 90 minutes.

Speaking of daring to play and engage in a game of chess versus a grandmaster…

Seems like he’s got the mindset to be pretty good at breaking down opponents’ defenses.

If given the chance to play, he’ll be passing and/or shooting his way to checkmates left and right for the USMNT.