World Cup Diary, part III

Much has been written about the US ouster from the World Cup last Saturday with opinions ranging from “this was a great result considering all the circumstances” to “this was a squandered opportunity.” As a novice soccer fan, I hesitate to state an opinion, but it seemed that the US, though an excellent team of great athletes who competed until the end, seemed to lack the ability to consistently put the ball in the net when rare scoring opportunities presented themselves.

Listening to the France v Poland game on Sunday morning (won by France by a score of 3 to 1), the radio announcers used a term that better described what I felt the American team lacked: a “finisher.” They used that while talking about the star of the French team, a 23-year old named Kylian Mbappe (pronounced EM-BAH-PAY). Mbappe is one of the fastest runners in soccer and even when he stands still, he exudes athleticism. During Sunday’s game, he missed some goal chances but he didn’t miss them all. At a decisive point in the game, he drove the ball into the net and momentum shifted to the French who went on to win.

Another “finisher” I’ve seen a few times in this tournament is Lionel Messi of Argentina. I’d heard his name many times previously, so much so that I reflexively wanted to dislike him, but when you watch him play, there’s nothing to dislike. At age 35, this is likely his last World Cup, but he is still the star of a good team. He’s on the shorter side and when he runs, he seems to be taking small, rapid steps. He also has this knack of being in the right place at the right time and, when an opportunity to score arises, he doesn’t often miss.

Other top teams seem to have a “go to guy” who often scores the decisive goal at just the right time. For all its great, talented players, I didn’t sense that the US team has someone in that role. Maybe that’s what is needed to get to the next level in world competition.

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Another issue with the American team was summed up by a commentator, who said about Japan during its game with Croatia, that “Games add up.” She meant that if your games in the earliest round are hard fought, you might not use many substitutes so your best players are tired out by the time they reach the elimination round. A similar point made by someone else was that if you glide through the early games with easy wins, you don’t expend a lot of stress. But if you have to sweat each of the games in the first portion, everyone is spent by the time they get to the elimination round.

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What I’ve been calling the single elimination phase of the tournament is popularly referred to as “the knockout bracket” meaning it’s win or go home. It began a week ago Friday. Here is how the first round of that phase went:

Netherlands 3, United States 1
Argentina 2, Australia 1

France 3, Poland 1
England 3, Senegal 0

Croatia 1 (3) v Japan 1 (1)
Brazil 4 v South Korea 1

Morocco 0 (3) v Spain 0 (0)
Portugal 6 v Switzerland 1

The parenthesis included in the scores of the Croatia v Japan and Morocco v Spain games indicate they were decided by penalty kicks. It is quite common for a soccer game to end in a tie, but in games where a winner must be determined, here is how the process works: First, there are two 15 minute overtime periods (a regular soccer game is two 45 minute halves plus “stoppage” time per half (rather than stop the clock when someone is injured or play is otherwise delayed, the referee keeps track of how much time play was stopped and then adds that onto the end of the period).

When there is overtime, the teams have a break of only a few minutes, then the overtime periods begin. The full 30 minutes plus their own stoppage time are played regardless of any scoring. In other words, overtime is not sudden death (it’s like basketball, not hockey).

If the game is still tied at the end of overtime, the teams go to rounds of five penalty kicks with the teams alternating after each kick. There are two coin flips at the start. One to decide who kicks first; the other to decide which net to defend. The announcers said that statistically, the team that kicks first tends to win; and I suppose you would want to defend the goal closest to your fans to minimize off field distractions.

Here’s how the kicks went in Japan v Croatia:

1 -Japan missed; Croatia scored (Croatia 1, Japan 0)
2 – Japan missed; Croatia scored (Croatia 2, Japan 0)
3 – Japan scored; Croatia missed (Croatia 2, Japan 1)
4 – Japan missed; Croatia scored (Croatia 3, Japan 1)

When Croatia scored that 3rd goal, it won the game. Even if Japan had scored on its fifth kick and Croatia had missed, Croatia would have won, 3 to 2. In other words, when it becomes mathematically impossible for the other team to win, the game is over.

The same thing happened in Morocco v Spain:

1 – Morocco scored; Spain missed (Morocco 1, Spain 0)
2 – Morocco scored; Spain missed (Morocco 2, Spain 0)
3 – Morocco scored; Spain missed (Morocco 3, Spain 0).

The game was over; Morocco won. Even if Spain had made kicks 4 and 5 and Morocco had missed both, Morocco still would have won.

If the teams were still tied after the five kicks, they would do another round of five kicks in the same format. I think they would do that a third time but after that it would be “sudden death” in that if Team 1 made its first shot and Team 2 missed on its first shot, Team 1 would win.

I see a lot of complaints about penalty kicks being a silly way to end a game; that the teams might as well flip a coin to decide the winner. If you actually watch a game that’s decided by penalty kicks, you are unlikely to feel that way. At the World Cup level, opponents have scouted each other and know the tendencies of the shooters and the goalies. Also, those who take the penalty kicks must come from among the players on the field at the end of overtime. In soccer, once you replace someone with a substitute, the player replaced can’t return to the game. Finally, the players taking the shots have been running continuously for two hours and are probably exhausted, both physically and mentally. They now have to strike a precise shot with all the world watching. That’s not a sure thing by any means.

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Although I only caught short portions of Friday’s games on radio and had to settle for video highlights afterwards, both were instant classics decided by penalty kicks.

In the 10am game, Croatia defeated Brazil on penalty kicks. At the end of regulation play, neither team had scored. About 6 minutes into the overtime period, Brazil’s phenom, Neymar, scored. In soccer, that’s usually an insurmountable lead, but with less than 5 minutes to go, Croatia scored to tie it at 1 to 1 which is how it stood at the end of overtime.

Here’s how the penalty kicks went:

1 – Croatia scored; Brazil missed (Croatia 1, Brazil 0)
2 – Croatia scored; Brazil scored (Croatia 2, Brazil 1)
3 – Croatia scored; Brazil scored (Croatia 3, Brazil 2)
4 – Croatia scored; Brazil missed (Croatia 4, Brazil 2)

As soon as Brazil missed that fourth shot, Croatia won, because even if it had missed its fifth shot and Brazil had scored, it would be Croatia 4, Brazil 3).

In the 2pm game, Argentina defeated Netherlands. The only goal in the first half was by Argentina, then at 75 minutes, Argentina’s star Lionel Messi was awarded a penalty kick and scored making it 2 to 0 for Argentina. Normally that would be a safe margin. However, Netherlands scored at 82 minutes and then scored again towards the end of stoppage time to tie the game at 2 to 2. No one scored during overtime, so it went to penalty kicks. Here’s how that went:

1 – Netherlands missed; Argentina scored (Netherlands 0, Argentina 1)
2 – Netherlands missed; Argentina scored (Netherlands 0, Argentina 2)
3 – Netherlands scored; Argentina scored (Netherlands 1, Argentina 3)
4 – Netherlands scored; Argentina missed (Netherlands 2, Argentina 3)
5 – Netherlands scored; Argentina scored (Netherlands 3, Argentina 4)

Argentina won because it led after the full five shot round of penalty kicks.

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Saturday morning’s game was equally exciting although it ended in regular time and there were no penalty kicks. Morocco, the Cinderella team of the tournament, defeated heavily-favored Portugal. Morocco scored near the end of the first half. That was the only goal of the game.

In the Saturday afternoon game, France defeated England, 2 to 1. England has several chances to tie the score including a free kick at minutes 100 the just went over the top of the net. But Fance held on and will advance to the next round.

Given the number of Lowell residents of Brazilian or Portuguese heritage, I’m sure there were many disappointed soccer fans in the city with both of those teams out of the tournament.

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On Tuesday (December 13), Argentina will play Croatia. On Wednesday (December 14), France will play Morocco. The consolation game to decide third place will be next Saturday (December 17) and the championship game will be Sunday, December 18.

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After watching soccer intensively for two weeks now, I’ve concluded that if you want to like soccer, there’s much to like; but if you want to not like it, it’s easy not to like.

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