From Russia, with love; the World Cup is here
Are you ready for some football? Even though it’s only June, I know you’re jonesing for some hard-hitting, fast-paced action, so let’s go. But first, I need to make some minor adjustments. We’re going to bench Brady, Rogers, and Brees for Ronaldo, Messi, and Salah, replace the gridiron with the pitch, and sneak in a spherical orb in lieu of the pigskin. Before I become the brunt of Permian Basin opprobrium, bear with me: yes, we’re talking about soccer, which the other 7.3 billion goldfish in this bowl call football. This is an event, however, that promises to enthrall hearts, minds, and souls all over the entire planet for the next month.
Welcome to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, all 32 teams, 64 matches, and 32 days live from Russia. Strap in for an amazing ride that will undoubtedly make numerous ESPN Top Ten lists, bring torrential tears of anguish for millions, and crown one special country with dreamlike ecstasy and global bragging rights for the next four years.
The FIFA World Cup is an athletic event sui generis, easily the most watched sporting spectacle on Earth. Over half the world’s population tuned in to watch the last time we had this hoedown. The Beautiful Game has been known to press the pause button on wars, and Pope Francis (a huge soccer fan) has made commentary on the significance of the sport in promoting peace. I’ve attended the World Cup, and one of my most poignant memories is the communion of rival nations’ fans before and after the match in an atmosphere of brotherly love. No, we weren’t in church, but yes, the cup was shared. It’s a beautiful thing. Making it more special is the fact that the trophy has only ever been lifted by eight nations.
This quadrennium’s version comes to us from that place Churchill called “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Russia. Before you jump up to rail against human rights violations, state-sanctioned assassinations, election meddling and shirtless Slavic dictators on horseback, consider that the 2014 Sochi Olympics are widely considered a success. Vlad Putin may or may not be evil, but he does know how to throw a party. Expect the twelve venues scattered over eleven locations throughout Russia to be bastions of politesse. Outside the stadiums, it’s shaping up to be a great show. Inside, even better. Let’s take a look at the elaborate matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, that waits to be methodically opened on the field.
As you are probably aware, the U.S. is a wallflower at this dance. Without conducting a full postmortem of the vicissitudes of the United States Soccer Federation, let’s just say it was a perfect storm of feckless executive leadership, staid personnel choices by by the skipper (s), and pusillanimous performances by the players on the field. Nuf ‘ced. It may bring small comfort to know that World Cup powerhouses such as Italy (four-time champions), The Netherlands (runners-up thrice), and Chile (reigning champs of South America) missed out as well. Schadenfreude aside, why then, should we watch? Well, to quote Ron Burgandy it IS kind of a big deal. Additionally, our locally beloved soccer frenemies to the south might just make some noise in this one as they popularly prove to be our surrogate in Russia.
The first four groups offer up an assemblage of teams most of whose success on the world stage is relatively young. Look for Group A to ungraciously spit out the hosts as the attack-minded veterans from Uruguay (who hold a brace of World Cups) claim first over Mohammed Salah (the current best player in the world) and the pharaohs of Egypt. This is provided Salah is healthy after recently being injured in the Champions League final: if he’s not fit, look for the Russians to sneak through. Iberian peninsula neighbors Spain (2010 winners) and Portugal (the defending champions of Europe, led by one wildly ubiquitous Cristiano Ronaldo) will naturally summit B Group, while a ridiculously attack-loaded France (Les Bleus won it all in 1998) will grab Group C over the hard-working (and happy) Danish. Finally, the Albicelestes of Argentina, champs in 1978 and 1986 (and their talisman Leo Messi) will barely squeak by a deeply talented Croatia (among the coolest uniforms in all of sports) to wrap up D Group.
The bottom half of the pairings represents the old guard of World Cup glory. Group E will make a sinecure of five-time champion Brazil, who will cruise by Serbia for the top spot. F offers up defending cup holder and four-time winner Germany, the juggernaut known as The Mannshaft, over the ever-popular Tricolore of Mexico. In Group G, stacked Belgium (led by Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne, two of the top ten players in the world) will win out over the Three Lions of England (1966 champion), and the final cluster can foresee that Poland and the Terminator of clean sheets, Robert Lowendowski
, will overcome slick-scoring southpaw James Rodriguez and Colombia.
While there’s no true Group of Death this year, don’t be surprised if either Group D or F proves to be an abattoir of soccer elimination. The dark horses in Russia will be Croatia (a loaded team), Mexico (on a mission: look for them to stage a huge upset of Brazil in the round of sixteen) and England (young, well-coached, and playing with house money). Breakout players include Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Timo Werner and Leon Goretzka of Germany, England’s Dele Alli, Gabriel Jesus of Brazil, and Kylian Mbappe of France. For all you sporting fans, you can bet on seeing elite eight matchups of Portugal-France, Mexico-Belgium, Spain-Argentina, and England-Germany. We’ll go into more detail after the group stage, but look for German sangfroid to reign uber alles when the dust settles at the end.
In the all-time classic movie “Stripes,” Bill Murray’s sidekick Harold Ramis asks, “Didn’t you ever cram for a test before? I learned two semesters of geology in three hours.” You, my friends, are now thoroughly prepped for the entire 2018 World Cup in a little more than one thousand words. No need to thank me now, you can wait until your educated guesses in Vegas (or Delaware) pay off and buy me a cold one the next time you bump into me. I’ll check in with you after the group stage for an update and a preview of the knockout rounds. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
Mark Hinshaw is a soccer junkie who writes and coaches on the side. He is the author of Hardwood Religion, a book about the Hobbs (NM) Eagles basketball program, and a former head soccer coach at Lovington (NM) and Midland (TX) Lee and is the new head soccer coach at Castleberry High School in the DFW area.