So that happened.
The action kicked off yesterday and in the 11th minute, there was the calamity brought about by players who aren’t used to one another. A cross through the Brazil penalty box (and it was a very dangerous cross that could have gotten results in any league against any team) whistled past a Croatian player and two Brazilians before Marcelo deftly flicked it in … to his own net. He hadn’t expected the ball to get to him, what with the ball having to skitter past two teammates to get there. It appeared that both of the other defenders thought Brazil’s goalkeeper Julio Cesar could and would come to claim it, as a younger, sprier and more adventurous keeper might have. All this left poor Marcelo to stick a foot out, lest it run directly into the path of the laser-guided Croatian directly on his hip.
After the OG, the game didn’t change much. A slower pace than I expected, but Oscar and Neymar looked like they could produce something at a moment’s notice, and Rakitic (why didn’t I mention him or Olic in the preview!) found room to work between the Brazilian defense and midfield. They were merely lacking the final movement, although both goalkeepers were called on to protect their nets. It was Neymar who ended up slotting one past, a daisy cutter unleashed across his body, at an angle such that I was sighing over the lost opportunity and wasted chance before I realized it wasn’t going wide.
That changed the game, as Brazil were more energized and began pressing more consistently. Whereas before the equalizer, Croatia had been content to sit back and wait in passing lines to pick off and intercept, the goal seemed to make Croatia nervous about leaving any player an inch of space in their half. Both teams were playing in the middle third, sometimes seeming like 14 men in a complicated line dance. Well, halftime then. 1-1.
And then the other thing that makes international soccer unsexy happened: a dodgy penalty awarded to Brazil gives them the lead and a terrible offside call nullifies what would have been the tying Croatian tally. The referees do not suck. Well, they do. But they are also put into a terrible position. They are charged with adjudicating every interaction on the field outside of offside and out of bounds calls, which are generally left to the “assistant referees” AKA “guys with the colorful flags who also appear to have come from their other job of landing jets on aircraft carriers”. To be in the correct position to see a foul, and see it as a foul, is 90% of the referee’s job. But these fields are enormous and these players are tremendously fast, not to mention skilled in subtle fouling and exaggerating contact. Football, which takes place on a similar sized field and which stops to reset itself frequently, employs seven officials to police conduct, each surveying a particular portion of the field for potential infractions. Soccer (stupidly, IMO) employs one. Hockey, which is comparatively played on the surface of a dollar bill, brings four officials on the ice. Basketball has three. Baseball, in which no one ever moves very far very quickly, positions umpires all over the place. They use six in the playoffs. Six! So soccer, which operates on the largest field, along with football, and which plays at a constant and frenetic pace, like basketball and hockey, chooses to give one person essentially unlimited power and total responsibility for the events on the field. When that person is in the wrong place to accurately assess what has happened, you get shitty penalties and bogus offside/handball calls.
Diving (or flopping) is dumb and stupid and I hate it. I wish it wouldn’t be done at all. But it gets rewarded because no one man should have all that power! Similarly, and much less frequently remarked upon, are the jersey tugs and leg flicks that go uncalled for the very same reason. Players get taken off the ball all the time through less-than-legal means. If they don’t go down, it won’t be called, as the referee has often walked himself right out of the play by misjudging where it was leading. To be a good referee means not only knowing the rules of the game and being in incredible shape to trot around the pitch for ninety minutes, but also to have an understanding of the game and the teams such that he (or she) can predict where the action is going and be in position to read it when it gets there.
In short: Bullshit. It can’t be done. Put a second guy out there and split the field. You can do it lengthwise or across the halfway line. Give both of them the authority to call fouls and distribute cards. Players are too fast and too practiced for the era of one referee to continue. And, obviously, REPLAY. If there is any sport that is adequately prepared for replay, it’s soccer. The game already has amorphous rules that allow the referee to add “extra time” at his or her discretion. So replay adds a minute or two to a game. It’s not football where you need to parse the particulars of “a football move” or “completed catch”. You need only to answer the question “was that man in front of the other man when the ball was kicked” or “did his hand touch the ball”. THESE ARE NOT DIFFICULT ANSWERS TO FIND. A CHILD KNOWS WHAT A HAND IS AND WHAT A BALL IS AND CAN TELL YOU IF YOU ASK THEM IF THE ONE IS TOUCHING THE OTHER (disclaimer: do not go around asking random children “is the hand touching the ball?” That is not what I am suggesting here.).
Anyway, Brazil tacked on another in stoppage time and there was the game. Oscar is a lovely little man who is good at many things, most of them on the soccer field. You will enjoy watching him throughout the tournament. Yay Oscar. Yay Brazil. Croatians cry into their shirts and thus look like fat men wiping their sauce-ringed mouths on tablecloths. Game over.
But not tournament over. Brazil looked good, but were helped by the referees considerably. The looked nothing like an unbeatable army of invincible chupacabra. By the end of the weekend, we’ll have a better idea of where this tournament is headed and who the real favorites actually are. Onto your Friday/weekend games:
Noon: Mexico and Cameroon are playing at noon on a weekday for a reason: so you don’t have to watch it. Neither of these teams are great, even though Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o is an ageless wonder and Alex Song is not properly rated for all the he brings. Benoit Assou Ekotto might bring some of the best hair game to the tournament since Carlos Valderrama. Mexico barely got into the tournament after bungling their way through qualifying, only reaching Brazil because the US played to win against a common opponent rather than to fuck over Mexico. I would like to go on record that I am strongly opposed to anything that does not fuck over the Mexican National Soccer Team and Urine Tossing Enthusiast Club. Mexico does not suck but I refuse to acknowledge that. Do not watch this game (which is likely already in progress or complete by the time you’ve read this). In conclusion: fuck “El Tri”, but not Mexico itself, because that would be racist.
3:00: Oh, this looks familiar. Spain and the Netherlands. When have we seen that before? Oh, right, the Grand Final of the last World Cup. How convenient. Spain are still the same team, with the ability and audacity to roll out four defenders and six midfielders with nary a striker, and still beat you 2-0. Netherlands are still the same team who will put a boot through your chest when the referee isn’t looking and then try it again right in front of him and dare him to produce a red card. Spoiler alert: he will. Though the Orange are full of great players up front, they’re very young at the back, which is a recipe for disaster against a team as seasoned and finely-tuned as Spain. Watch Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front for the Netherlands, and cover your eyes should Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas or Diego Costa start shredding up the wee tykes on the Netherlands’ back four.
6:00: ARTURO VIDAL DA GAW … Oh, wait, he might not even play because of a knee injury against Australia because Chile likely don’t need him to get the win, and should opt to save him for the matches against Spain and the Netherlands. Enjoy your Friday night.
Noon: Colombia lost their best player, Radamel Falcao and now Jose Pekerman (yes, Jose Pekerman) has to rally his team full of good but not great players in order to overcome this adversity. Just kidding. This group is awful and Colombia could probably go top of the group fielding 10 players in homage to the importance of Falcao. Greece continue to show the world that soccer doesn’t have to be a beautiful game, but can be just as ugly and uninteresting as watching Greek people have sex.
3:00 Uruguay is a favorite because they have great players and a coach who knows how best to put them in dangerous positions. When it comes to players like Luis Suarez, Edisnson Cavani and Diego Godin, that position is in the game. The first two provide all the attacking wonder necessary to make your eyes turn into slot machines are they rack up goals and the latter has enough muscle to make opposing strikers’ eyes roll up into their heads. Costa Rica has a soccer team that is entered into this tournament.
6:00 Italy and England have been playing soccer for a long time. England invented the game and Italy were the game’s first superpower in the World Cup years, thanks to Mussolini’s insistence that Italians be good at something other than cars and inventive cursing. England’s team is a mix of the elder statesmen from their “Golden Generation” that won fuck all despite having an absolute preponderance of riches and a new group of kids that have grown up only knowing how shit their country is at crunch time. Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck are the likely starters up front, and if any of their midfielders can get them the ball, they might be dangerous as a unit. Sturridge especially had a great season at Liverpool and looks primed to be a great player for the foreseeable future. This means he will stumble tremendously on this stage and England fans will hate him. Italy have Mario Balotelli who is God’s most perfect angel and about whom there will be much more later. Watch this game.
9:00 Cote d’Ivoire have an assemblage of talent that rivals any other country’s and should well be the envy of many. Instead, they have become the England of Africa, never quite living up to the hype or gelling as a team despite world class players like Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho Wilfried Bony … JESUS WHY HAVEN’T THESE GUYS WON ANYTHING I KICK ASS WITH THEM IN FIFA. Japan have a couple great players in Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, and whom actually work well together. They play exactly how you’d assume the Japanese National Team would play, and this works no matter what you think that might be. Japan play a very fluid and dynamic game in which they shift their formation frequently, testing and prodding at the other team to find weaknesses. If and when they do, buckle up. If they don’t, they need to cover up.
Noon: Switzerland and Ecuador. Do me a favor and go to church. It will make your mother happy.
3:00 No one knows what the hell to do with France. They still have some of the great players who made the run to the 2006 World Cup final, but they’re obviously aging. They have some bright and rising young stars who could make the team over and propel the team to another final. But they hate each other. So fucking French of them. Just sitting on opposite sides of the locker room sneering at each other and eating canapes. Honduras are not very good but have bitching uniforms. They would be happy to be at the World Cup, but when you’re from Honduras, going to Brazil (especially non-Rio Brazil) is not exactly a great treat. “Oh, this looks like home, but they’re speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish. Also, no one is trying to kidnap us … yet.” (Seriously, Honduras has terrible problems and soccer players and their families have been kidnapped on the regular. The players are very happy to not be in Honduras.)
6:00 Argentina is another favorite if only because they have one of the world’s three best players, tiny little Lionel Messi. He plays soccer as if it is a different sport that no one else really knows the rules to. He is Calvin and the rest of the world is Hobbes, never quite grasping what in the world they are supposed to do. This can be beautiful when Messi is making beautiful runs and pinging passes to his incredibly talented teammates, but leads just as often to him trying to shoulder the load alone rather than accept the assitance of Angel Di Maria, who has really come into his own in the last year at Madrid. Edin Dzeko is a runaway beer truck of a human being, who delivers as many crushing blows with his body as with his feet. He’s a striker built like a linebacker with the mentality of a cagefighter. He’s fun AND deadly!
HOLY SHIT, That’s all the games. See you Monday and enjoy all the games (except noon on Sunday, seriously, go to church … for you mother).