Sean Beckwith: Stirring at the sounds of soccer
Waking up via buzz saws and construction has never been more welcome than this past month. As opposed to setting an alarm and deepening my hate for all rousing beeping noises, hammers and screwdrivers served as my alarm to grab my tablet and turn on the World Cup. There’s no better sporting competition — and I’m including the Olympics — than the Cup.
This particular iteration featured loads of goals, drama, soccer’s version of the replay booth, few red cards and, of course, all the watch-site goal celebrations you can stream. (Just once I want the elation of throwing beer and screaming with my countrymen.) Here are some of the highlights from Russia.
Manager Didier Deschamps did his best Jose Mourinho impression by getting some of the most explosive offensive talent in the world — Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezman — to focus on defense. The Bleus surrendered only one goal in the group stage and, outside of a wonder strike, mental error and ricochet, gave up only two more in elimination stages.
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Fortunately for Griezman, Mbappe’s breakout performance as a 19 year old — which included a fantastic goal in the final and a solo, box-to-box, penalty-inducing run against Argentina — will overshadow his awful Fortnite goal celebrations. Some people (*cough* Brazil *cough*) take stifling creativity and talent as a personal affront, but winning takes precedent in the most important soccer tournament on the planet. Also, kudos to Croatia for not mucking up the final like the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup title match against Spain. The 4-2 result was a game worthy of this Cup.
While own goals aren’t ideal, they’re better than no goals because the game is forced to open up — and this tournament featured a record 12 own goals. That said, however many weird bounces and caroms happened this Cup, it still featured plenty of scintillating strikes. The France versus Argentina match featured two double-take deep blasts with Angel di Maria lining up a screamer from well outside the box, and Benjamin Pavard making a half volley his own personal introduction to the world stage.
Belgium’s walk-off counter goal against Japan after trailing 2-0 with 20 minutes left had to be the most dramatic, with Toni Kroos’ Cup-saving, (for the time being) short-handed set piece against Sweden a close second. South Korea’s goals to eliminate Germany were up there, too, due to the Asian-Mexican celebration they set off.
Germany not making it out of their group is the equivalent of the Golden State Warriors getting bounced in the first round. A rumor of a locker room divide between old guard and “Bling Bling” cliques may have had something to do with it. Or it could’ve been their normally expertly organized defense failing them not once (Mexico) but twice (South Korea). That and Mesut Ozil approaching the Cup like the apathetic Arsenal midfielder we saw all season in the English Premiere League.
Brazil and Spain’s exits weren’t as easily foreshadowed, though. Spain played keep-away with Russia to the tune of 50,000 passes and very few opportunities. Russia equalized 1-1 late and won in penalties, resulting in Crying Sergio Ramos, which is the best kind of Sergio Ramos.
Belgium’s superb counter-attacking class gave them a 2-0 lead against Brazil before half and had the Devils treading Neymar-infested waters for 45 minutes-plus before being rescued by the buzzer in a 2-1 thriller. That result earned them a trip to the semifinals where they lost to France.
The Golden Ball for player of the tournament went to Luka Modric for leading Croatia to the final, which included surviving two penalty shoot-outs and an extra-time victory over England in the semifinal. While a friend who knows vastly more about soccer than me suggested it go to France’s N’Golo Kante for doing his best Ed Reed impression for a dominant defensive side, he’s biased and rewarding a defensive midfielder is un-American. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding Modric, a veteran underdog and someone who ruthlessly put Argentina close to group-stage elimination in a 3-0 win.
Harry Kane’s Golden Boot was largely due to surgical set pieces and penalty finishes set up by England’s tactical approach that almost got them to the final. Credit Gareth Southgate’s planning and managing for England’s run and also vanquishing the ghosts of England’s shootout past.
Also, mentioned above, Belgium’s world-class frontline, including Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, featured some of the best goals and counters of the tournament.
While Fox’s coverage was average thanks to Alexi Lalas’ stunningly bad takes — he sets the perception of American soccer back every time he talks — the color guys and analysts did a good job. Rob Stone and the foreign experts saved the studio. The choice to go with John Strong and Stu Holden as a lead duo was as confusing as Stu’s high-pitched voice. Derek Rae and Aly Wagner should’ve called the main contests. While Stu and John are alternating cliches, Rae’s credentials (he’s Scottish) and Wagner’s insight were great throughout. For example, describing a shot 20-feet over the goal as “highly optimistic” is far more entertaining than matter-of-fact American announcing.
Now it’s time to get to all the productive things I’ve been guiltlessly putting off for the past month because, you know, it’s baseball season.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor for The Aspen Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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