We’ve reached the first 48-hour break in what has been a delightful frenzy of World Cup matches. The round of 16, our first knock-out stage, concluded Tuesday. Quarterfinals start Friday. Through the magic of YouTubeTV and its DVR function (we cut the cable cord in June), I’ve managed to see most every game. A few observations:
This may strike one as extremely small bore but I think the marginal sideline in/out decision is called wrongly more often than anything else in top-class football. The statute is clear: FIFA’s Rule 9 reads, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly crossed the goal line or touch line whether in the ground or in the air.” The advent of goal-line technology has given us a new, better perspective on this rule. A birds’-eye view of the ball is what matters; the ball is in play until it’s entirely over the line, until there can be seen (from above) a sliver of green grass between the ball and touchline. Technology, now in the hands of a Video Assistant Referees (VAR), has brought new accuracy to goal-line decisions (and schooled observers on the over-arching rules relating to all in/out decisions — but touchline decisions remain in the hands of linesmen and the man in the middle, and they get it wrong way too often. I’ve noticed this for years now but VAR has brought in into clearer focus. Touchline decisions are called differently and I think I know why: Linesmen aren’t looking at it from above, of course. From a ground level view, if linesmen see any sort of green between ball and line they judge the ball to be out of play when the entire ball, according to Rule 9, has clearly not passed wholly over the line — something that would be obvious with a birds-eye view. The lead image atop this post (a screen grab; thanks again, YouTubeTV) provides a perfect example. This ball was called out for a corner. One can sorta tell the players are increasingly peeved by this double standard and why shouldn’t they be? Players on the ball do have a bird’s-eye view. There appears to be one standard for the goal line and another for every other boundary on the field. I’ve not seen nor heard nor read of VAR ever being used to mete out a touchline decision. I’m not advocating for that. But possession is important and in/out should better hew to the standard spelled out in Rule 9.
The short-handed Colombians were put out of the tournament by England Tuesday in a Round of 16 affair that was at once pedestrian and completely riveting. That’s what an otherwise punchless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks can do, especially where England are involved. Just the idea that some 60 million Brits were watching the game — increasingly pissed, in the fetal position, waiting for something catastrophic to happen — imbues all of their knock-out fixtures with that certain, extra-special something. Their boys didn’t disappoint — blowing the game, then rescuing it — and the rest of us duly lapped up the many layers of shadenfreude. The English did indeed have it won before conceding a 94th minute equalizer and sleep-walking through extra time toward penalties, the tie-breaking mechanism that has put them out of three World Cups and three European Championships. It’s a tragically accurate running joke in England that the national team cannot cope with, much less win, a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament (Tuesday’s win makes them 2-6 overall). It’s harped upon nearly as often as the fact that, “We invented this game.” But they won this shootout, celebrated accordingly, and they’re off to face plucky Sweden in a Saturday quarterfinal where the stakes, the alcohol intake, the national anxiety will be that much higher.
Golden Boy James Rodriquez was the reason Colombia played short-handed Tuesday, having pulled up lame in the last group game. James (pronounced hah-mez) bears a fairly striking resemblance to a young John Harkes, US midfielder from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Colombian and his coiffure cut a more metrosexual pose than Harkes and his period mullet ever could. But close enough to meet the ‘Separated at Birth’ threshold, eh? Or maybe first cousins?… This is the sort of thing an American soccer fan is reduced to when we fail to qualify.
I’ve now watched and participated in hundreds of these penalty shootouts (the Round of 16 produced three in eight matches). I’m surprised goalkeepers, at this elite level, don’t hold their ground at least once in the first couple kicks, if not to account for a Panenka or blast down the middle, then to plant in the heads of subsequent shooters the possibility that he might not be guessing/diving one way or the other as the shootout progresses. For keepers, this guessing has been the long-standing strategy: Shooters are so close that goalies must guess which way a shooter is going with the ball — and hope for the best. Yet so many elite players today basically trust their ability to see the keeper’s movement and, at the very last second, go the opposite way with the ball. A goalie who doesn’t move would completely freak the shooter out – and give every succeeding shooter uneasy food for thought.
More observations from the first two weeks: Poor Japan. They deserved better than a 3-2 Round of 16 loss to Belgium on the last kick of the game. But honestly, WTF were they thinking — committing so many men to a corner kick (tiny team vs. big team) in the 94th minute tied at 2? It was a bold decision, I’ll grant you. But I’d have put a few token dudes in the box, stayed behind the ball essentially, and taken my chances in extra time… Sweden has played 50 World Cup matches in its history. Only Mexico has played more without winning a Cup. Yet Sweden’s international record is far more decorated. Indeed, Sverige is perhaps the globe’s most underrated soccer nation. This country of just 7 million souls, where one cannot play outside all year round, has produced a World Cup finalist (1958), three semifinalists (1938, 1950, 1994) and two quarterfinalists (1934, 2018). It may well better a last-8 finish this year — all without Zlatan Ibrahimovich, the finest Swedish player of his generation (perhaps of all time) who, though still active (in MLS), petulantly retired from international play two years ago. Sweden’s example is something for American soccer boosters to ponder when reckoning grandiose future goals. The US has reached a single quarterfinal, full stop… FIFA is as corrupt as they come, but it’s important to recognize the root and nature of that corruption. Since the late 1980s, FIFA’s particular corruption is born of the fact that each and every participating nation (all 211 of them) have a vote in where the World Cup will be held every four years. And make no mistake: Those votes do in fact get bought. But let’s also be real: Without this sort of arrangement (which leads to both coalition-building and corruption), there would never have been World Cups in Africa, or Russia, or the Middle East. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that Qatar paid through the nose, to literally hundreds of national football federations, order to secure the 2022 event. And yes, repressive regimes benefit from buying such events — but so do the soccer-loving masses in those countries and regions. Ask an African soccer fan if it was worth it to have the 2010 event in South Africa. Ask a Saudi if they’re happy the World Cup is coming to Qatar. Moving the Cup around is good for the world game. Without its particular brand of corruption, the event would be held somewhere in Europe or North/South America every four years, forever… Mark Geiger, the only American referee participating in this World Cup, drew a very tough assignment in the England-Colombia match. It’s hard to imagine how a more experienced, skilled ref would’ve handled things without killing the game: Colombia deserved to have 2-3 guys sent off for dissent alone following the quite-right penalty kick decision that put England up 1-0. Radamel Falcao has complained publicly about Geiger’s performance, claiming he favored the English. But any neutral observer could plainly see the Colombians, down a goal, ratchetded up the physicality in hopes of turning the match back in their favor. Unfortunately, Geiger didn’t want to decide said match by sending anyone off — something the savvy Colombians sensed immediately. In bending over backward to preserve Colombia’s chance of ultimately getting a result, Geiger may have torpedoed his own career at this level.