World Cup Diary, part IV

The 2022 World Cup will be decided by today’s France v Argentina match that begins at 10am Eastern Standard Time. (I’ll update this post after that game is over).

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UPDATE: Argentina defeated France to win the 2022 World Cup in what commentators said was the most exciting World Cup final ever. France, which won the 2018 World Cup, would have been the first back-to-back winner in 60 years but it was not to be.

Argentina went out to a quick 2 to 0 lead in the first half with their star player Lionel Messi scoring the first goal on a penalty kick and the second goal coming a short time later. The French players seemed tentative, like they were fatigued from the start or stifled by Argentina’s defense.

Argentina held its lead and the momentum until there was about 10 minutes to go in the game. At that point, a French player broke free into “the box” in front of the Argentine net but was brought down from behind by a defender. That resulted in a penalty kick which was taken by the French star Mbappe who easily scored.

Before anyone had recovered from the penalty kick, Mbappe scored a second goal to tie it. That’s how it stood as regular time expired.

About 10 minutes into the 30 minute overtime period, Argentina scored its third goal when the French goalie made a terrific save but the rebound went to – who else – Lionel Messi, who drilled it towards the net. Another French player, not the goalie, was inside the net and intercepted Messi’s ball but not before it had crossed the goal line so the score counted. Everyone celebrated as if Argentina had won and the odds were that they had, but there was still ten minutes of overtime to play.

Five minutes later as the French attacked the opposing net, an Argentine player trying to block a shot had the ball deflect of his elbow. The call was a hand ball and the result was a penalty kick by the French, taken by Mbappe who scored. I don’t know if they call it a hat trick in soccer, but it was his third goal.

The tie continued until the end of the overtime period so the came was to be decided on penalty kicks. Here’s how that went:

France scored
Argentina scored (1 to 1)

France blocked by goalie
Argentina scored (Argentina ahead 2 to 0)

France missed the net
Argentina scored (Argentina ahead 3 to 0)

France scored
Argentina scored and won (The PK score was now Argentina 4, France 2, so even if France had scored on its fifth ball and Argentina had missed, Argentina would have won 4 to 3).

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On Tuesday, Argentina easily handled Croatia, winning by a score of 3 to 0. Argentina jumped to an early lead when its star, Lionel Messi, scored on a penalty kick two-thirds of the way through the first half. In the penalty kicks I’ve seen, the goalie tries to guess which side the shooter is aiming for and then dives in that direction. When the goalie guesses wrong and the shooter goes the other way, it’s usually a goal. But if the goalie has guessed right, he often makes a save. I’ve not seen many players try to shoot the ball into the top of the net, just beneath the crossbar. Of those I’ve seen try that, most shoot it above or off the crossbar. That makes guessing the goalie’s dive direction more attractive. But Messi just calmly fired the ball towards the top of the net and it zoomed into it, just beneath the cross bar. The goalie had even guessed the correct side but his dive was low and the shot was high. One to nothing, Argentina.

A few minutes later, Argentina scored again. The third goal was scored in the second half. Three goal leads in soccer are insurmountable.

Croatia has found success by keeping the score close, tying the game near the end, and then deciding the outcome on penalty kicks. On Tuesday, they couldn’t keep the score close and their opponent Messi took the only penalty kick of the game.

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On Wednesday, defending World Cup champion France faced Morocco, the Cinderella team of the 2022 World Cup. France scored just a few minutes into the game but Morocco kept it very close and had plenty of scoring chances only none of them went in. France scored its second goal 79 minutes into this 90 minute match which gave them a bit of a cushion. Still, Morocco fought hard to the very end. Unlike Tuesday’s game in which the outcome seemed apparent almost from the start, the tension remained high in the Wednesday game until the final whistle blew.

As Rory Smith, the superb soccer reporter from the New York Times wrote about the Moroccan team, “The latter stages of World Cups are, ultimately, as much a test of resources as of talent.”

Smith wrote that both France and Morocco had played six games within 23 days. That workload is better handled by a team like France where the gap between the starters and the reserves is far smaller than it is for a team like Morocco.

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Yesterday, Croatia defeated Morocco in the consolation game by a score of 2 to 1. As the game began, one of the TV commentators said consolation games (like this one) gave players feelings of “freedom and liberation” and the game can be “wide-open.” That was certainly the case early on. Croatia scored about 6 minutes into the game but it’s lead was short-lived when Morocco tied it just 90 seconds later.

The game calmed a bit after the frantic opening but Croatia scored its second goal just before the half. There was a scramble in front of the Moroccan net and it looked like the defenders would clear the ball, but it squirted off to the side to an uncovered Croatian player who fired it across the goal mouth, over the outstretched arms of the Moroccan goalie and into the inside of the far goal post from which it ricocheted into the net.

The 2 to 1 score stood until the end. Everyone looked tired through most of the second half. There were moments of excitement but no more scores.

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There was some controversy emanating from the US Men’s team after its elimination from the tournament last weekend. Speaking at a (supposedly) off the record event, US coach Gregg Berhalter said he almost sent home an unnamed player who was not meeting expectations in practice. At the same time, there were reports of strife on the team due to the lack of playing time for 20-year old Gio Reyna, a talented goal scorer who played very little during the tournament. Reyna posted something admitting that his effort in practice was substandard, that he had apologized to his teammates for that, and was disappointed that something that should have stayed within the team was now public.

The Berhalter/Reyna story has slid into the World Cup background but things like that never entirely disappear, so we’ll likely hear more about it in the coming months and years.

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Much of the off field coverage of the World Cup since last Saturday in the US has been about the untimely death of Grant  Wahl, a 49-year old soccer journalist who died in the press box during the Argentina v. Netherlands match. Although there was initially skepticism about his death, an autopsy revealed an aortic aneurism which is almost always fatal unless the victim is already in the hospital when it happens.

As a soccer neophyte, I was not familiar with Wahl’s journalism, but the response to his death from those in the soccer world make clear he was talented and widely respected.

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I confess to suffering World Cup withdrawal this week. For a month, almost every day there was one or more games to watch, listen to, or follow online. In most of them, the quality was very high, with more upsets than blowouts.

I’m already looking forward to the next World Cup in 2026.

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