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World Cup Russia 2018, Part Four.

Before I make my picks, allow me to express my dissatisfaction with the current structure of the bracket. The Group A winner knows they’ll play the Group B runner-up. The winner of that match knows they’ll play the winner of the match between Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up. And on it goes. I think this teensy bit of foreknowledge injects a little too much gamesmanship into the last games of the group stage.

For instance, there was a broad consensus that the loser of Group G’s final match would end up in the easier half of the bracket, given that by the time the match started, 14 of the 16 second-round slots had been filled. In one half of the bracket, call it the “left” half, were four past World Cup champions (Argentina, Brazil, France, Uruguay) and the reigning champion of Europe (Portugal). In the “right” half of the bracket was one past World Cup champion (Spain). No disrespect to the other teams in either half of the bracket, but the left half is clearly tougher than the right. And Group G’s winner– Belgium– won the right to be in the tougher, left half of the bracket. England, meanwhile, should have an easier path to the semifinal.

We could rectify this problem with randomization akin to bracket selection in UEFA’s Champions League. For the Round of 16, randomly pair group winners with group runners-up. For the quarterfinals, randomly pair winners of the R16 games. For the semifinals, randomly pair the quarterfinal winners. This would remove the aforementioned incentive to win by losing. The only caveat I’d throw in would be that you cannot be paired with the other team from your own group prior to the final.

I’d still like group winners to have some additional incentive, so give the group winners the certainty of knowing where their R16 match will be played. For example, you could announce that the winner of Group A will play its Round of 16 match in Moscow. As soon as they win Group A, they can pack their bags, head to Moscow, settle in, relax, and prepare for their next opponent. Meanwhile, the Group A runners-up have to wait until the Group Stage is completely finished to be informed where they’re playing, then rush to get there, only to meet a well-rested opponent.

Anyhow, my picks:

Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.

Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. I think Mexico’s 3-0 loss was misleading. They out-shot, out-passed, and out-possessed Sweden but just couldn’t get a goal. They got their reprieve thanks to South Korea beating ze Germans, and they’ll give Brazil a tough game… but lose. England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. We’ll see what the MRI says. Also, England beat the stuffing out of two weak teams, played their reserves against a tougher team… we’ll see if these results have masked true might or true mediocrity. And Sweden over Switzerland. Sweden won two games in a really tough group, and arguably should have beaten Germany also. Switzerland tied Brazil, which was impressive, but gave up three goals to Serbia and Costa Rica. Sweden just plain looks better, even though 538 gives Switzerland slight odds to win.

The toughest quarter of the bracket, which is being played tomorrow and which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. Uruguay has shut down their weaker opponents; Portugal has not. Uruguay’s been getting better, Portugal has not. And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France. Messi, experience, guile, and an emotional upswing that would rival any Argentine telenovela will overcome France’s youth and blandness. France will be felled by the negative karma generated by their lame 0-0 draw with Denmark.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part Three.

My prediction performance so far:

A: Uruguay, Russia. Right teams and order.

B: I picked Portugal to win and Spain to finish second. Right teams, wrong order. The last 10 or so minutes of the Group B games were the most intense of the tournament to that point. It went from the sharks jostling for the top spot to a minnow, Iran, almost knocking off either one of them. Great stuff.

C: France, Denmark. Right teams and order, though I thought Denmark would need a tiebreaker. They didn’t. FRA-DEN was the worst game of the tourney so far, and neither team should’ve gotten a point for that scoreless blah.

D: I picked Argentina and Nigeria. Argentina squeaked through at Nigeria’s expense, and Croatia beat everyone, which I didn’t see coming largely because I pay no attention to international soccer aside from the World Cup and the Euro tournament. So one right pick, but in the wrong spot.

E: I picked Brazil and Costa Rica. Brazil won the group and is getting better. Switzerland finished second, which would’ve been the smart pick to begin with, but refer back to my commentary in the previous paragraph.

F: I picked Germany to win and Mexico to place. Group of Death indeed. Sweden surprised everybody, Germany flopped, Mexico did well despite the breakdown in the last group game.

A few words about Germany: I was disappointed to see zem fall victim to Alfredo di Stefano’s warning that “goals are not deserved, they are scored.” But it’s not like ze Germans were outclassed or outgunned. Zey averaged 67% possession, out-shot zeir opponents 67 to 31 (20-15 on target), and had 25 corners to zeir opponents’ 7.

Zey didn’t play negative soccer. Zey attacked. If anything, maybe zey attacked too much, given zeir lack of a defensive midfield. Zey just couldn’t buy a goal. Such is life. Shouldn’t have taunted the Swedish bench after zeir win.

G: England, Belgium. Right teams, wrong order.

H: I picked Senegal to win and Colombia to place, so everything was going to plan until Colombia scored late. I was rooting hard for Senegal at the end; they fought hard but fell victim to “diStefanoism” much like ze Germans. A lot of folks have called Japan disgraceful for not attacking late in the game, but they did what they had to do to advance.

The actually disgraceful part was that Japan advanced because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal did. Here are the tiebreakers as they currently stand:

1. Points obtained in all group matches;
2. Goal difference in all group matches;
3. Number of goals scored in all group matches;
4. Points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question;
5. Goal difference in the matches played between the teams in question;
6. Number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question;
7. Fair play points in all group matches (only one of these deductions shall be applied to a player in a single match): First yellow card: minus 1 point; Indirect red card (second yellow card): minus 3 points; Direct red card: minus 4 points; Yellow card and direct red card: minus 5 points;
8. Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.

FIFA needs better tiebreakers to replace #7 and #8. A few ideas:

Proposal 1. Best performance against the highest-ranking non-tied team in the group. In this case, Japan would advance because they beat the group winner, Colombia, whereas Senegal lost to Colombia.

Proposal 2. Repeat the goals scored/difference sequence in tiebreakers 2, 3, 5, and 6 above, but with corner kicks instead of goals. That might make the last matches of the group stages a little weird; imagine Japan and Senegal trying to play for corners instead of goals. In this case, Senegal would advance due to having a +1 corner difference against Japan’s -2 corner difference.

Proposal 3. Same as Proposal 2, but with shots-on-target instead of corners. Problem: this would be more subjective than using corners. In this case, Senegal would advance due to having a +4 shots-on-target difference against Japan’s -2 shots-on-target difference.

Whatever the drawbacks of Proposals 2 and 3, they would’ve gotten Japan to attack at the end of that mess instead of sitting back and accepting a 1-0 loss.

Proposal 4. Tie goes to the lowest-ranking team according to FIFA’s World Ranking. In this case, 61st-ranked Japan would advance instead of 27th-ranked Senegal. The higher-ranked team should’ve done better. They didn’t? Punish them.

Proposal 5. [Warning: This proposal is sheer lunacy, but still better than this “fair play points” tripe.] Conduct a shootout at the beginning of each group stage game, so after tiebreaker 6, you can look at records in the shootouts. The shootouts would only matter if it is necessary to use tiebreakers; they would not affect the scores or results of the matches themselves.

Anyhow, back to the larger point of this post. I got 12 second-rounders right with 7 in exactly the right spot. I’m losing it; in 2014 those numbers were 12 and 11 respectively. Oh well.

I had some other ideas but I’m too tired to think of them right now. VAR commentary, seeding commentary, and picks tomorrow.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part Two.

We’re halfway through the 64-game tournament. All but one of my picks are still alive. The exception is Costa Rica, which has been eliminated after just two games. I probably should’ve done a bit more research before picking them based largely on a really cool photograph of Hector Marchena doing a mid-air scissor kick in 1990. No biggie, except that it makes the USA’s failure to qualify that much more embarrassing. Costa Rica’s no good, Panama just plain sucks… and we couldn’t get past either one of them. Oh well.

Some quick and shallow notes, group by group:

A: Russia looks good. Granted, they’ve played two of the weakest teams in the tournament, but they blew both of them out, which is exactly what a decent team should do. Putin (probably) didn’t even have to assassinate anyone to make it happen. Suarez hasn’t bitten anyone, so that’s good. I fear tomorrow’s Russia-Uruguay game will be boring because both teams will advance to the Round of 16, where think there won’t be much difference between playing Spain or Portugal. So there might be a little less incentive to perform than usual.

B: For my money, the Spain-Portugal tie was the best of the tournament so far. Spain’s second goal (Diego Costa off the well-executed misdirection free kick) was my favorite of the tournament. We’ll see if that holds up. Spain has played better than I expected, given they fired their coach the day before the tournament started. Ronaldo’s been good. Iran’s going home tomorrow.

C: France has impressed me so far. They’ve got two one-goal victories, but they’re pretty good for such a young team. If they don’t win this time they’ll be in good shape to do so in ’22.

D: I badly underestimated Croatia. The way they beat up and beat down the Argentinians was shocking. Nigeria looks good to me despite the opening loss against Croatia. Argentina’s melting down at the worst possible time, but if they can somehow flip the switch and get a win tomorrow, anything can happen in the knockout rounds. I’m not going to put too much money on that happening. Messi looks like he has no help. Some folks are comparing this team to Maradona’s 1990 team that lost its opening match, but that team played desperately and cynically enough to claw their way to the final that year. This team looks bloodless. Lifeless.

E: This one is going roughly as expected. Brazil will yawn their way out of the group, and the Swiss will beat the Ticos.

F: The Group of Death has been the most entertaining group. Mexico’s earned their spot on top of the group fair and square. They played ze Germans exactly right, they dominated South Korea, and there’s no cynicism in their game. That said, I loved watching both of ze Germans’ games. Germany-Sweden was my second-favorite match so far, despite the ref and the VAR pooching the non-penalty call in the first half. (More about the VAR later.) Ze Germans are the best team in the group, zey’re trying desperately to win, but zey just don’t have a defensive midfield, so the counters are killing zem. And until the second half yesterday, zey couldn’t buy a goal despite out-possessing and out-shooting zeir opponents by far.

G: England has finally showed up for a World Cup. They and Belgium (who I usually think are overrated) have done exactly what they’re supposed to: beat the tar out of the minnows in their group. Hopefully they have a 6-5 goal-fest on Thursday.

H: Another entertaining group. Senegal and Japan are going through. Senegal’s going to knock out ColOMbia, who, despite blowing out Poland, are too inconsistent for my taste. That’ll leave ColOOOOMbia stuck at three points, and Japan already has four.

I am grateful for the VAR, which has been the star of the show so far. Again, I’ll write more about that later.

I am also grateful for the fact that there have been no zero-zero draws, and hopefully there will be none the rest of the way. If you ask me, scoreless draws should count as losses for both teams. No goals? No points.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part One.

The Greatest Month in Sports is back. The US and Italy are out, leaving me in the position of caring far less than usual. Once they got eliminated, I stopped following the news. I don’t know who all qualified, or what the groups are, or even what the ball looks like. Let me look up the official ball real quick.

That’s odd, not a single photograph of the ball finished loading. I’ll assume my connection is slow and that they haven’t gone with an ugly design that invokes the incessant creep of tech into every aspect of our lives and subtly reminds us of Russian hackers and election interference.

Anyhow, who to root for? Or for whom to root? I’m a quarter Irish, so let’s see who Ireland’s grouped with… ah. Apparently they’re grouped with the US and Italy. Great.

I have no national or ethnic stake whatsoever in this stupid tournament, so I’m left to do what I normally do when my favorite teams get eliminated: root for good games and lots of goals. Adopt whatever teams try to win via offense and against the teams that pack the box and park the bus in hopes of winning shootouts. Pray for the divers to get caught and ejected, and that Suarez won’t eat anyone.

Here’re my ill-informed-because-I-only-tuned-in-the-day-before-kickoff group stage predictions for the record, group winners listed first:

A: Uruguay, Russia. Uruguay’s decent, and Putin’s paid off whoever he needs to pay off to get out of the group stage.

B: Portugal, Spain. Spain changed coaches today– literally, today, the day before the tournament. They’re good, but that’s bound to rattle them.

C: France should win easily. No feel at all for second place. I’ll say Denmark advances on goal difference.

D: Argentina, Nigeria. These two teams seem to keep running into each other and having good games.

E: Brazil, Costa Rica. Brazil is Brazil and will hopefully embark on an entertaining quest of redemption. The Ticos made the quarters last time, so they’re an easy pick. Easy for me, that is, not for them.

F: This will be the Group of Death. But Germany will win and Mexico will place.

G: England, Belgium. I find Belgium keeps getting overrated, and England will finally perform well instead of simply showing up and assuming they’ll do well, as was the case the last few World Cups.

H: I have no idea. Four non-traditional powers, none of whom jump out at me. So for no reason whatsoever, I’ll go with Senegal winning and Columbia placing.

I don’t like the fact that the knockout bracket is defined. They should do a drawing after each round, like in the Champions League. It might complicate travel a little bit, but not too much.

Anyhow, here’s to a tournament entertaining enough that I forget none of my teams are involved.

Happy 108th!

Gram would have turned 108 today. Here she is, working with a small fishing rod at a lake with one of her daughters. If that’s her oldest, which I think it is due to the stern look on her face, then this would be the late 1930s.

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That fish was probably turned into a feast of great comfort. I take that back. Half that fish was probably turned into a feast of great comfort, and the other half was probably put in the freezer only to be baked into cookies or a “frittad” six months later.

Happy birthday!