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Football frenzy

I watched nearly every minute of the FIFA World Cup the past two days. I tuned into the France-Argentina match after 20 minutes, then watched the full 90 in Portugal-Uruguay, and the full 120 plus in both Spain-Russia and Croatia-Denmark.

France scored three second half goals to overcome a 2-1 deficit, then had to hold on when Argentina scored in stoppage time to cut the margin to 4-3. France held on to win by that score.

Les Bleus will play Uruguay Friday in the quarterfinals. The South American side scored early vs. Portugal and dominated the first half, leading by that 1-0 tally at halftime. The European champions scored just after the one-hour mark to equalize, but Uruguay came right back to regain the advantage. Portugal tried desperately to gain its second goal throughout the final 20 minutes plus stoppage time, but Uruguay did a great job of defending Cristiano Ronaldo and prevailed 2-1.

Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who played his final World Cup match for Argentina, both gone on the same day. However, France-Uruguay will not disappoint.

Speaking of not disappointing, today was something else.

The morning match in Moscow was expected to be a cakewalk. Spain has had issues aplenty since winning the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European championship, but it was expected to have no trouble with Russia, which took advantage of an ridiculously weak draw in Group A, defeating Saudi Arabia and Egypt before being hammered by Uruguay.

Just before the 12-minute mark, a Russian defender attempted to clear the ball deep in the penalty area, only to knock into the net. Own goal. Spain leads.

With five minutes to go in the first half, Russia had a corner kick. The ball flew into the box and went off the head of a Russian forward and then off the back of the hand of Spanish defender Gerard Pique.

Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers blew his whistle immediately. Pique knew he was busted.

A handball inside the penalty area by the defending team is an automatic penalty kick to the offense. If the handball is determined to be intentional, the offender is shown a straight red card, which means not only does he miss the remainder of that match, but he’s suspended for the next match as well.

Artem Dzuyba stepped to the mark for Russia. He blasted the ball past Spanish keeper David De Gea, and just like that, it was level 1-1.

It stayed that way throughout the second half, with Russia turning back numerous Spanish scoring chances. Kuiper blew his whistle after four minutes of stoppage time in the second half, sending the match to extra time.

In association football, extra time is 30 minutes, played in two 15-minute periods. The entire extra time is played, unlike the National Football League and National Hockey League, where sudden death applies.

From the opening of extra time, it was clear the Russians had one objective: get through the 30 minutes without giving up a goal, which would mean kicks from the penalty mark, or a shootout as Americans like to call it.

The Spaniards completed over 1,100 passes in the match and had nine shots on goal to Russia’s one, yet it did not score again after the early own goal. When the whistle blew to end the second 15-minute extra period, most of the crowd in Moscow cheered loudly.

They had good reason to.

Russian goalkeeper Igor Afkineev became his country’s conquering hero by stopping two Spanish kicks, which combined with a perfect 4-for-4 from Russian kickers, put the host nation into the quarterfinals.

Think about this. Russia, the lowest rated nation out of all 32 entered in this year’s World Cup (70th according to the most recent FIFA rankings prior to the tournament), is one of the last eight nations playing, yet Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Portugal and now Spain are all gone.

Face it. Russia would be nowhere, either, if the host nation doesn’t gain automatic entry into the World Cup. Qatar will make its debut in the 2022 World Cup because of this rule. Canada is on its knees right now hoping FIFA will allow all three hosts (Canada, Mexico and the US) automatic entry in 2026.

Denmark and Croatia kicked off in Nizhny Novgorod about 80 minutes after Spain-Russia ended.

The Danes scored in the first minute, only to yield the equalizer to the Croatians less than four minutes later. We’re in for a barnburner, a high scoring affair, right?

Nope.

Both teams had numerous opportunities to score throughout the remaining 84 1/2 minutes (plus stoppage time) of normal time and the first 24 minutes of extra time.

Then Croatia appeared to have its golden ticket to the quarterfinals.

Marcelo Brazavic took a pass at the top of the penalty area and maneuvered around Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel, the man who helped Leicester City win the 2015-16 Premier League championship. Nobody stood between Brazavic and the goal, but Mathias Jorgensen hauled him down just before Brazavic could put the ball in the net.

Croatia was awarded a penalty kick. Jorgensen should have been shown a red card for denying the obvious scoring opportunity, but only received a yellow.

In association football, any player may attempt a penalty kick. This is different from hockey, where the player who is denied an obvious scoring opportunity must take the penalty shot; for instance, the Capitals could not select Alex Ovechkin to take a penalty shot if Brooks Orpik is the one taken down from behind.

Croatia selected its best striker, Luka Modric, to challenge Schmeichel. Modric, one of the stars for Real Madrid, is ranked right up there with Ronaldo, Messi and Luis Suarez as one of the world’s best, and the commentators on Fox gave Schmeichel next to no chance to stop Modric from scoring.

Schmeichel, however, has been tested time and again in practice by Jamie Vardy and by some of the world’s best playing for the Foxes, and he showed it, diving to his left and stoning Modric.

The match soon slipped into kicks, and the commentators were now favoring the Danish thanks to Schmeichel.

Schmeichel stopped two of the four kicks he faced, but his Croatian counterpart, Danjiel Subasic, was even more brilliant, denying Denmark three times out of five.

With the shootout level 2-2, Ivan Raktic turned downtown Zagreb into the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day when he blasted the ball past Schmeichel.

I had mixed emotions. Yes, I picked Croatia to win, and I actually have them losing in the final to Brazil. On the other hand, Leicester City is my favorite football team anywhere on the planet, and I would have loved for Schmeichel to be the hero.

It will be Russia vs. Croatia Saturday in Sochi, in the same stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics were held.

Kicks from the penalty mark were not introduced to the World Cup until 1978, and it wasn’t until 1982 that it was first used. That year, West Germany defeated France in the semifinals in (ironically) Barcelona. Two World Cup finals have been determined by kicks, Brazil over Italy in 1994 and Italy over France in 2006.

I hate kicks from the penalty mark. Hate it. It’s the equivalent of overtime in high school and college football. Penalty kicks are not real football. It’s whether or not a goalkeeper can guess which way the kicker will go when he takes the kick, and if the kicker doesn’t bungle it by clanging it off a post or the top of the goal, or firing it into the crowd the way Roberto Baggio did for Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.

I’ve gone on too long. I’ll save how I would decide a match for another post.

Tomorrow’s fun starts at 0900 with Mexico vs. Brazil, then continues at 1300 with Belgium vs. Japan. I would expect Brazil and Belgium to win, but this World Cup proves nothing is guaranteed.

Oh LeBron is going to sign with the Lakers. That’s all I have to say about that subject.

Sports’ REAL Sweet Sixteen

The World Cup knockout stage begins tomorrow. The first matches in the round of 16 are Uruguay vs. Portugal in Sochi and France vs. Argentina at Kazan.

Three of the world’s best players will be on display tomorrow. Luis Suarez (Uruguay) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) go head-to-head, while Lionel Messi will look to keep Argentina alive for its first championship since 1986, when Diego Maradona dominated the tournament in Mexico.

In fact, today is the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final. Argentina maybe should not have been there, thanks to Maradona’s handball goal vs. England in the quarterfinals, now referred to around the world as the “Hand of God” goal.

Argentina struggled in Group D, playing to a 1-1 draw vs. Iceland in its first match after Messi was stopped on a penalty kick, then falling 3-0 to Croatia. Somehow, the South American side did enough to get through, as a 2-1 victory over Nigeria pushed them to four points, while Nigeria was stuck on three.

Europe and South America have all but two spots in the round of 16. The interlopers are Mexico (CONCACAF) and Japan (AFC), which advanced as the second place team from Group H over Senegal on something called FIFA Fair Play points.

For those of you less invested in association football, here’s what happened.

Japan and Senegal ended the group play with one win, one draw and one loss. Wins are three points, draws are one, so that left each side with four points.

The first tiebreaker is goal differential. Japan and Senegal each had a goal differential of zero. That’s no good.

The next tiebreaker is goals scored. As it turned out, each nation scored four goals in the group stage.

Head-to-head is the next tiebreaker, but a 1-1 draw rendered that moot.

Prior to 2018, had this situation occurred, a coin toss would have been conducted to determine which team went through.

However, FIFA decided after the 2014 World Cup that there should be more competition factors involved in tiebreakers before the coin toss would be necessary.

Therefore, the FIFA executive committee came up with a fair play formula, which would penalize teams for yellow and red cards accumulated. Here’s the breakdown:

  • yellow card–minus 1 point
  • second yellow card leading to red card–minus 3 points
  • straight red card–minus 4 points
  • yellow and straight red–minus 5

Senegal picked up two yellows in its first match vs. Poland, while Japan had one in its opener with Colombia.

The countries then met head-to-head in the second match of the group stage. Through the first 89 minutes, each county accumulated one yellow. But in the final minute of regulation plus stoppage time, Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi issued three, two to Senegal.

Heading into the final group stage matches, Senegal trailed minus-5 to minus-3 on fair play points. Of course, the African side could take care of business itself by defeating Colombia, which would have sent Senegal through regardless of the outcome of Japan vs. Poland.

Senegal’s M’Biyae Niang picked up his country’s sixth yellow card of the tournament in the 51st minute. The game was still scoreless, so hope was not lost.

Meanwhile, Poland took a 1-0 lead in the 59th minute on a goal Jan Bednarek.  Several minutes later, Colombia got on the board in the 74th minute courtesy of Yerra Mina.

With 20 minutes plus stoppage time remaining in its match, Japan gave up the ghost. Poland was only too happy to oblige, since it had no chance to advance.

Therefore, Senegal, called one of the most exciting teams of the 32 in the field by most commentators, would be on a flight back to Dakar the next morning, while Japan remained in Russia to prep for Monday’s match with Belgium.

It’s a tough way to go for Senegal, but all it had to do was earn a draw vs. Colombia and it would still be playing, and Africa would still be in the tournament.

I expect it will be down to Europe and South America by 1500 CT Monday.

Mexico’s 3-0 loss to Sweden in its final group match forced it into a matchup with Brazil, which is hungry to prove its 7-1 embarrassment by Germany in the 2014 semifinals at Belo Horizonte was a one-time fluke and not an irreversible trend.

Japan has next to no chance against Belgium, which looked mighty good in its group matches, including a 3-0 dispatch of England Thursday.

Here’s how I’m thinking the knockout round goes:

ROUND OF 16

  • Portugal over Uruguay (Ronaldo is the best in the world, period)
  • France over Argentina (Messi won’t rescue his country this time)
  • Brazil over Mexico (tough luck, Landon Donovan; CONCACAF is a third-rate federation compared to UEFA and CONMEBOL)
  • Belgium over Japan (second most one-sided match of the round of 16; the next match is the most one-sided)
  • Spain over Russia (that Russia is in the knockout round is an absolute joke)
  • Croatia over Denmark (there is a lot of buzz on the streets of Zagreb, and with good reason)
  • Sweden over Switzerland (a lot of commentators are picking the Swiss. Can’t go against the Swedes after impressive display vs. Mexico)
  • England over Colombia (should be a great match)

QUARTERFINALS

  • Portugal over France (Ronaldo too much for les bleus)
  • Brazil advances over Belgium on penalty kicks (this match is a prime example of why FIFA should conduct a random draw before each knockout round prior to the final)
  • Croatia over Spain in extra time (should be a great showcase for European football)
  • England over Sweden (first time in the semis since 1990 for the Three Lions)

SEMIFINALS

  • Brazil over Portugal (a man vs. a team. The team wins)
  • Croatia over England (crying in the pubs of London, Liverpool, Manchester and all other points)

FINAL

  • Brazil over Croatia (redemption is complete)

Jealous aren’t we?

Apparently, many American association fotball fans are still bitter the United States lost to Germany in the final round of group play June 26.

ESPN.com is currently conducting a poll on its front page asking fans who deserved to win the Golden Ball, the World Cup’s equivalent for the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. The choices are the man who won the award, Argentina’s Lionel Messi; Germany’s Thomas Muller, who scored five goals for the championship side; Colombia’s James Rodriguez, who won the Golden Boot award for most goals with six, even though Colombia lost in the quarterfinals to Brazil; or “someone else”.

With almost 66,000 votes cast as of 8 p.m. Central, Messi leads with 35 percent. Muller has 31 percent, Rodriguez 24, and “other” 10. I’m sure many of the “other” vote was for U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose herculean effort vs. Belgium was the only reason the Americans even reached extra time. Had Howard not been stopping nearly everything in sight, Belgium wins 4-0 or 5-0.

That Messi won the award galled Brazil. Their hatred for Argentina is legendary. It may be the most heated rivalry in all of association football. The biggest fear going into this tournament wasn’t Brazil wouldn’t win, but Argentina would on Brazilian soil.

Imagine if the Soviet Union won the Olympic ice hockey gold when the Winter Olympics were held at Lake Placid. I doubt there would have been violence, but many Americans would have been incensed. Thanks to the Miracle on Ice, that spectre was mooted.

I’m thinking there is a lot of strong anti-German sentiment out there. Some of it is deep-seated, because Germany spawned Hitler and the Nazis, although an ignorant few have forgotten Hitler has been dead since 1945 and many of the Nazi leaders were executed after being convicted by the Nuremburg war tribunal. Some of the sentiment may come from South American expatriates who were upset the Germans beat Brazil and Argentina in the last two rounds. A lot of it, though, I bet comes from Germany’s 1-0 win over the Americans.

Given Germany beat the crap out of Brazil 7-1 last week, and drubbed Portugal 4-0 in the first group match, the United States should feel good about its effort against the eventual champion. Why the jealousy?

Personally, I believe Muller is the only person who deserves the award. He was the best player on the best team by far.