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Achtung, Baby! It’s the World Cup, Without the Germans
June 29, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

It’s enough to make grown men cry.

No, actually, it is — as in literally, as in the camera focusing in tightly on hundreds if not thousands of grown men — and women — bawling tears of sadness and regret. Or is that joy?

It depends on your perspective and the color of your passport.

The former midfielder Gary Lineker — holder of England’s record for most goals in the FIFA World Cup finals, with 10, and a broadcasting mainstay for BBC-TV and Radio 5 Live since the late 1990s — once famously described soccer as “a simple game where 22 men run around for 90 minutes, and Germany always wins.”


Because, as viewers watching Fox Sports this past week now know, Germany choked —“bottled it,” as the English say — against South Korea (right), a side that had already been mathematically eliminated from the tournament.

Somehow Germany, defending champions who spanked Brazil 7-1 in their own backyard in the 2014 semi-finals, conspired to find a way to finish bottom of their group — the first time that proud soccer nation had been knocked out in the first round since 1938.

That did not augur well for a happy 1939, as Europe was soon to learn.

It’s worth noting, too, that in South Korea’s first game of this 2018 World Cup, the soccer-playing minnow proved itself an early contender for the title of “worst side in the World Cup.”

That game, a 1-0 loss to Sweden, was described by one onlooker as an epic display of uneventfulness. “There are some games so uneventful,” Jonathan Wilson wrote the following morning in The Guardian, “that their uneventfulness itself becomes heroic.”

Soccer aficionados on this side of the pond will know that Sweden was playing without its one and only star player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right), now toiling for the L.A. Galaxy in MLS, and who famously announced his arrival in that city of the stars by taking out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times in April with a simple message for the humble residents of that not exactly star-stricken town, “Los Angeles . . . You’re welcome!”

He then scored a goal in his very first game in Los Angeles so outrageous — think the soccer equivalent of a 95-yard touchdown pass in the NFL — that it became a YouTube sensation (5,800,000 views and counting, as of this past week) and caused the TV voice-over announcer to scream, “Oh, come on! Come on!

Sweden, even without Ibrahimovic, is in, and play Switzerland in the knock-out phase on Tuesday; Germany, defending World Cup champions, are out.

The Mannschaft, as Germans call their national team — loosely defined as “a collective working together for achieving a common goal” — proved in the final analysis to be anything but.

Yes, clap your hands together in glee and cheer if you want, but the Germans even have a word for that, too: schadenfreude, which loosely translates as taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Fans of The Simpsons know that schadenfreude has played a time-honored role over the years in that long-running ‘toon (“Schadenfreude is a word borrowed from the German . . . schaden means ‘harm’ and freude ‘joy.’ It is indeed a sad thing that this word exists”).

Not everyone is a fan of “the beautiful game,” of course. TV ratings in the U.S. are down 44 percent compared with the last tournament in 2014, according to Nielsen, in part perhaps because the U.S. failed to qualify ahead of Panama and Costa Rica — which is what happens when you conspire to lose to Trinidad and Tobago on a last-minute goal in your final qualifying game —  but this has been an entertaining World Cup nonetheless, at least for those who like their entertainment wrapped in the rainbow colors of 32 of the world’s other nations.

As of this writing, that has been whittled down to 16 nations right now, prior to Saturday’s first of eight knockout games, the infamous round-of-16. The math from here on is simple: Win, and you stay in. Lose, and you go home, and take a long swig of sour Gose German beer. (“Be warned,” The Independent warns, perhaps stating the obvious: “Sour beers are not to everyone’s liking.")

The actual soccer in this World Cup has been a horror show, or so say the experts.

It has been a funny World Cup, though, in terms of peculiar results and unexpected near misses — also-ran Iran tying up European champion Portugal in knots in one of the most bad-tempered soccer games ever played; overmatched Morocco playing former world champion Spain to a standstill; Iceland, that soccer hotbed, total population 300,000, fighting off heavily favored Argentina to a 1-1 draw, with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi (below), who some say is the best player in the world and others insist is the best player who ever lived, missing a penalty against Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Dór Halldórsson, a part-time music producer and video director who — and this is true — produced the video for Iceland’s entry in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

It has been a funny World Cup, too, in the traditional sense of the word: laugh-out-loud funny.

“I want to watch more football matches with you,” podcaster — and Cambridge University alumnus — Max Rushden told his surly French sidekick, the singer-songwriter, musician, and “football journalist” Philippe Auclair, in a Football Weekly podcast this past week (football, of course, being the U.K. word for soccer).

“Why is that?” Auclair replied doubtfully.

“Because there’s swearing and there’s excitement whenever there's a shot.”

What this World Cup most resembles, Rushden continued, reading a listener’s tweet, is the Eurovision Song Contest.

“Is the World Cup to football like Eurovision is to music? Think about it. The music is terrible. But you watch it because it’s interesting to see nations against each other, and England’s song is always bad.”

“No,” Auclair replied, after a long, sullen silence. “I disagree entirely.”

For the record, this hasn’t been a particularly brilliant tournament for former champion France, either. France (right) has qualified for the round-of-16 (they play equally underperforming Argentina in the second of Saturday’s knock-out games), but France’s performances, so far, playing the beautiful game have been more répugnant than what Brazilian legend Pelé meant when he first coined the phrase in his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game (o jogo bonito, to use Pelé’s original Portuguese) in 1977.

Auclair wasn’t having any of it, though.

“The technical level of most of the games has actually been technically very, very poor,” Auclair sniffed, “and we’ve been a bit fooled by the fact that there are full stadiums and people are wearing those lovely shirts, and that if we saw that in a (professional league) game, we’d ask for our money back.”

“Sounds like Eurovision to me!” somebody chimed in, with a bray of laughter. “Lovely shirts! Full house! Poor quality!”

“The difference for me,” Auclair huffed, “is that England have actually been one of the better teams in the tournament so far.”

Yes, well, there’s always that. England knocking six goals past Panama means the earliest they can go home is Tuesday or Wednesday of next week when they play their first knockout game.

Nobody expects England to actually win, of course: With Germany out, the favorite to win is down to 2010 champion Spain and World Cup perennial Brazil. If nothing else, the two nations are on opposite sides of the draw, so the only way Brazil can play Spain is if they meet in the July 15 final, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (all games Fox Sports and the Fox network).

Another difference between this World Cup and World Cups past — from a sheer entertainment point of view — has been TV technology, and not just because it’s Fox.

This is the first World Cup to use video review to settle disputed calls. The TV replays have turned into a spectacle in their own right, from the name VAR (left, “Video Assistant Referees,” if you must know) to the visual of a trio of referees, sitting in an underground TV bunker somewhere in full referee uniform, flanked by an assistant on either side and watched over by a kind of super-referee, also decked out in a referee’s kit, all eyes fixed on a bank of 12 TV monitors like it’s the control center at NORAD.?This would all be very well and good if it sped things up and settled disputed calls in an amicable manner — the whole point behind VAR in the first place — except that, in practice, it has created even longer delays. “Avanti! Avanti! Forward! Let’s go!” the exasperated match referee shrieked into his mouthpiece toward the end of the Nigeria-Argentina game this past week, as an interminable video delay threatened to spill over into anarchy and chaos; “Nigerians rain curses on Turkish referee, Cakir!” the headline blared the following day in Lagos, Nigeria’s Daily Post.

Video review has provoked at least one near international incident (Switzerland-Serbia-Albania-Kosovo — it’s complicated, but look it up in Google News, if you’re so inclined, or better yet, check out the mayhem on YouTube).

“Who knew VAR would make football so utterly brilliant?” Rushden cried, after controversies involving Spain-Morocco and Iran-Portugal — not just on the same day, but at the same time, in real time; one needed two TV’s going at the same time to keep up.

“A breathless two games of mindless violence, missed penalties, dubious penalties, superlative rage, and the odd fantastic goal as well!” Rushden cried. “Ridiculous, shambolic — but incredible fun!”

Ridiculous, shambolic and incredible fun — that sounds about right.

The Germans are still annoyed.

TV pundit and former German international scorer of Bayern Munich’s opening goal in the 1999 Champions League final, Mario Basler, said of highly rated German midfielder and Arsenal star Mesut Ozil, “His body language is that of a dead frog.”

Then there’s the ridiculous — the attention accorded Brazilian superstar Neymar’s (left) ever-changing hair (stylist Nariko, colorist Wagner Tenorio) which one wag referred to as “looking like a cat that’s been dropped on its head,” to the fact that the TV ratings in Iceland for that country’s first game, a 1-1 draw with Argentina, was watched by all but 0.4 percent of Icelanders watching TV in their country at the time; the competition at the time was America’s Funniest Home Videos, The Biggest Loser, and a rerun of The Great British Bake Off.

Soccer will never catch on with U.S. TV networks the way the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball have because it’s not stop-and-start enough a game to appeal to advertisers.

The World Cup — which comes along only every four years, after all — is entertaining, though. Even the video replays.

In Iran’s ill-fated 1-1 draw with Portugal this past Monday, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz — himself Portuguese ironically enough, and a former manager of Portugal’s national team — lost his mind following a TV video replay that, to his eye, got it wrong.

Paraguayan referee Enrique Cáceres decided not to dismiss Portuguese star player Cristiano Ronaldo (left) for throwing a WWE-style elbow on Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji, following a video review that lasted more than three minutes. “It’s a red card [for the elbow], or it’s not a red card!” Queiroz cried on live TV. “My daughter can’t come home and say I’m sort of a granddad; either she’s pregnant, or she’s not!”

Cristiano Ronaldo was not named after former US President Ronald Reagan, by the way, though there is some truth to that story.

There was a Ronaldo who was supposedly named after Reagan, but that was the retired Brazilian forward Ronaldo, aka Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

Ronaldo, the Reagan one, won the FIFA World Player of the Year a Reagan-esque three times, in 1996, 1997, and again in 2002.

Ronaldo’s parents were huge fans of the 40th President of the United States, or so the story goes. That may be true or it may not, but if nothing else it shows “the Beautiful Game’s” unifying effect around the entire world, regardless of whether one is a fan of the game or not.

This wild, wacky, wonderful World Cup is certainly proving that.

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Dave Brown
Great article! I'd make one correction though - "soccer" is the American/Canadian word for the sport that the rest of the world knows as football. The British are not the outliers; we are.
Jul 1, 2018   |  Reply
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