I’m the writer formerly known as Ghost. In the first iteration of this here blog, I mostly stuck to sports and booze, dabbling in the religion and politics beats — which is essentially how I spend my real life as well. There’s a really big sports event about to start in a few hours, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to make the first of possibly many infrequent contributions. I am not good at “blogging” both because I do not post regularly and because when I do, it is entirely too long. You might just finish reading this before kickoff.
The World Cup begins this afternoon, with only one game on the schedule: Brazil and Croatia at 4PM Eastern. Brazil are among the favorites to win the whole thing, which would be their sixth title. After they won the third, they got to keep the original trophy — which was actually a cup, and why the tournament is called the World Cup, even though the current trophy looks more like a couple of hands sensuously massaging a ball (or globe). If they win this year, they keep this one too. One can only hope the next one looks even more erotic, such is the sexiness of both the sport and the tournament.
World Cup soccer is actually not very sexy, unfortunately. The professional soccer season in Europe, where many of the best players in this tournament make their living, runs from August to May. The leagues play roughly 38 games — 20 teams playing one another twice each, home and away. In addition, there are domestic cup tournaments that could add another six to ten matches. The very best teams also participate in European competition, which can add on more than a dozen to the total. Real Madrid, Champion’s League … ummm … Champions, played 60 matches this season, with six players featuring in more than 50 of those matches, and 6 more playing in more than 40. Some of these dudes are going to be exhausted, having only gotten a month off since their club seasons ended.
Oh wait. Nevermind. If they’re playing in the World Cup, they are likely to have gotten maybe a week off, because of the second reason World Cup soccer is not exactly the most scintillating product: these teams don’t play together very often or very regularly. The players are committed to their professional club the majority of the year, and can only train with their national teams on certain “international weeks.” Rather than drilling with the same teammates for hours every day, month after month — such that each player knows everything about the others’ movements and tendencies, not to mention the coach’s tactics and strategy — national squads get a couple weekends to practice and then the three weeks leading up to the World Cup. It’s essentially a shitty custody agreement, where players live with Mommy for the bulk of the year and then have to figure out the kitchen cabinets and TV remote at Dad’s, only finally mastering it all just as it’s time to pack up and go home.
In short: Tired players who are unused to their team mates and coaching don’t regularly produce scintillating, attractive soccer. If you want that, you can watch soccer any other time of year. What you’re going to get over the next month is often sloppy and disjointed soccer punctuated with moments of absolute brilliance and stunning incompetence that will leave you, the players and the coaches shaking your head in bewilderment and bemusement. Sixty minutes of aimless meandering and passes to no one will suddenly turn into three minutes of beauty and/or calamity, making all that came before it entirely worth it. Don’t hate it because it’s not beautiful, love it for the mess that it is.
There are teams that have played together long enough, with the same players and coaching style (if not the same coach), that transcend this. We call these teams “favorites.” Brazil, Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Germany and Argentina can deploy some of the world’s best players, and have trotted them out together often enough that they almost look like they know what they’re doing, with a cohesive mindset and determined strategy. Their skill and their tactics set them above the teams that have only one — or in Australia’s case, neither.
But enough of all that. Let’s talk about today’s game. Brazil are heavy favorites because, as ever, they have some of the best players in the world. They have wizened veterans across their defensive backline in Dani Alves, Maicon and Thiago Silva, who might have lost a step but make up for it in their experience. They have two of the best young players in the tournament, and the sport: Oscar (22!) and Neymar (also 22!) to spearhead their attack and retain possession so the old guys can catch their breath. And they have some guys who are simply in their prime, like David Luiz, Fernandinho, Willian and Hulk. They are very good. But they always are.
Luiz nominally plays a centerback position, which means he should be ever playing near his goalkeeper as a last line of defense, tethered to the other centerback, within spitting distance of his own penalty box. Somehow, no one ever told him about this expectation, so he caroms and barrels up the field with the ball at his feet, past people who assume that he is not quite so stupid to just lumber up the field and leave his defense exposed. Newsflash to Brazil’s opponents: DAVID LUIZ IS PRECISELY THIS STUPID. And it is glorious. When a midfielder or striker makes a run from deep in their own half, they call it slaloming, as the player weaves and bobs his way through defenders like a skier down a mountain. When Luiz does it, it’s like filling a wonky wheeled grocery cart with ham and rolling it down an embankment. With fireworks buried in the hams. Luiz will do this three or four times a game. Someone will be covered in exploded ham and grocery cart shrapnel when the final whistle blows, but you cannot predict who.
Croatia, on the other hand, wear a shirt that looks like a picnic tablecloth. This is hands down the most notable thing about them to the outsider. People will root for them because of this. But there are other, better reasons to do so. Reasons like Darijo Srna, who will stab you several times and send the flayed skin to your mother if you do not. Also, Mario Mandžukić, who will certainly make Luiz reticent to go a-carting with his usual abandon, given Mandžukić’s ability to rifle in shots from seemingly desperate locations.
And, the biggest reason, the man who will be putting Mandžukić in those positions, leading the charge from the midfield and conjuring magic if given any time over the ball, Luka Modrić. Remember when I said Real Madrid played 60 matches, and some players appeared in more than 50. Meet Luka, who started 45 of those and came on as a substitute in 6 more, logging over 4000 minutes for his club. The only two players who saw more time on the pitch for Madrid were defenders, who have to do considerably less running than a central midfielder who is asked to defend and attack equally. Modrić is equally capable of pinging a 45 yard cross field pass over the head of a disinterested fullback and onto the feet of a hustling winger, dribbling past his counterpart to draw other defenders to him and open up space for his teammates, finding the smallest opening to release a shot so accurate it could shatter a tea saucer from 30 yards, and deftly picking off a ball from between an opponent’s feet. Full disclosure: Luka Modrić spent several years playing for my favorite professional team before going to Madrid and winning the Champions League. He is so good that this does not bother me, but I am happy for him. He deserves nice things. If anyone hurts him, I will fly to Brazil and be arrested trying to retaliate. No one hurt Luka please, I do not have the money for a plane ticket, let alone bail.
The game should be fun to watch, especially for a neutral. It will feature great players who have been playing with one another for a while and so play as a unit a bit better than most. Brazil are likely to be the better team, putting pressure on Modrić and not allowing him the time or space to get the ball to Mandžukić. Srna is now probably too old and slow to effectively stop players like Neymar and Hulk, but do not tell him I said that. The match could get pretty open, but both teams will likely devote much of their energy to stopping the other from getting into any kind of rhythm.
If Croatia can catch Luiz out of position and Mandžukić can capitalize on it, they have a chance. Those are pretty big ifs, but certainly not out of the realm of the possible. If the game is really fun to watch, that probably means Brazil is winning by a large margin, and David Luiz and his ham cart are exploding all over those tablecloth shirts, with Newmar and Oscar avoiding the splatter by putting the ball into the Croatian goal.
Prediction: Ham Cart 2 – 1 Luka Modrić and his Buddies
Back tomorrow with more …