In a World Cup without my own native country — ye olde tattered red, white, and blue — as well as my adopted love of Italy, not to mention mainstays Chile and the Netherlands, in a World Cup without, apparently, any dominant side, at least so far, the tournament is ... actually really fun!
Given the above unfortunate truths of the matter, and the mere half-hearted passion I’ve been able to conjure for the three teams for which I’m sort of rooting for — Uruguay, Argentina (RIP basically), and Croatia — my excitement for the 2018 World Cup in Mother Russia has actually surprised me, and, what’s more, I think that perhaps viewing the tournament without any side for which I’m passionate has provided a more objective understanding of what I like about this whole thing. And that’s pretty cool. Because there’s sure a lot to hate about FIFA, what with the rampant, incessant corruption within the organization, the bloated egos at the top, and, lest we forget, the death-tainted heat conditions of construction workers preparing the site for the 2022 in Qatar. (How did that happen again? [No offense, Qatar...])
But you know what? Damn it, I like this sport, and I like this tournament. I like that the tactics are flawed and that teams are sloppy because they don’t really play much together; I like that I’m watching something different than the well-oiled machines of the Champions League (prone to mistakes as even those teams are, since, well, they’re made up of a bunch of humans). I like Iceland and the fact that literally every player on their World Cup roster has a last name ending in “-son” — with the exception of goalkeeper Frederik Schram, born in Denmark to a Danish father and Icelandic mother. I like that Egypt’s starting 11 sported five Mohameds. I like Nigeria’s dope jerseys and the discovery that some players who I rather loathe outside this event I inexplicably love in it (I’m ... a Luis Suarez fan?). I like Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, but I also kind of like the fact they’ve been smoked to a crispy exterior.
So here’s a manic medley of World Cup thoughts.
Best Juventino of Week 1
If you thought Mr. No Good was going to sail away quietly into the night like one of the seven endings of the Peter Jackson-directed film iteration of the end of the last movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you were wrong! First lesson of being a Juventus fan: you are always wrong in your negative opinions of Mario Mandzukic.
Juve’s favorite No. 17 was back in action in his more usual center forward spot, and boy did he create havoc against Nigeria (sorry, Chuks ... ) and Argentina. In the first game, he provided some helpful hold-up play, a couple of very nice layoff passes, and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — defensive reinforcements.
He also basically created the two goals for Croatia against Nigeria. The first was a glancing header off a corner that nicked a Nigerian and shimmied into the back of the net, and the second was instigating himself into a scenario in which, hilariously, he was sort of tackled in the box, leading to a penalty, leading to a Luka Modric goal. Well done, Mario. I’m sure he’ll be in the running for this next week.
Against Argentina, Mr. No Good missed one wide-open header — difficult though it was — and another half-chance, but he still did what he does that Higuain doesn’t do: wreak havoc. Mandzukic is basically the perfect striker for this Croatia squad; he sacrifices himself constantly and simply disrupts the opposition. When the rest of your team is a scoring threat down to the central midfield and on the flanks (Rebic, Perisic, Modric, Raktic), then that’s the kind of dude you need.
Worst Juventino of Week 1
Don’t call it a comeback, but Casper the Friendly Ghost has returned with a vengeance. In a cruel twist of fate, as we’ve all been thinking about and discussing the midfield lately, including Sami Khedira’s essentially stellar last third of the season, the midfielder featured terribly in a loss against Mexico (more on those guys later). According to WhoScored, he was the second-worst German. According to manager Joachim Low, he was the first-worst German (although, can we really trust a guy who left Leroy Sane chillin’ at home?).
Fact: I am not the national team manager for Germany, the defending World Cup champions, but I’d probably throw Leon Goretzka into the midfield next time. But that’s just me! We’ll see how this lifeless squad lines up over the weekend against Sweden.
Marko Pjaca: By now he is very used to his token five minutes at the end of the game, so that was probably comfortable for him against Nigeria. No minutes in game two.
Juan Cuadrado: I did not watch this game. He got substituted off and his team lost — bummer.
Stephan Lichtsteiner (I know he’s with Arsenal, calm down): Featured pretty well against Brazil, I thought. The left winger for Brazil had a weird sort of bird nest haircut thing going on, and the Swiss Menace / Express earned himself a nice yellow card, so that was cool. The Swiss tied Brazil! Yes!
Gonzalo Higuain: Game one: really, Pipita? Game two: eh.
Paulo Dybala: Not great, bud! But I (and maybe some others — let’s not start this war again, though) think he should’ve featured earlier (i.e. a starter), and I do think Argentina looked better with him on the field.
Rodrigo Bentancur: Played fine, not amazingly, in Uruguay’s first game. There were some team issues there moving through the middle of the park, but hopefully they figure it out. Our favorite squad youngster stepped up his game against Saudi Arabia. I know, Saudi Arabia. But still! The Saudis threatened a couple times late, and Bentancur did a hell of a job snuffing out a few chances, leading his team in tackles. Way to go, kiddo.
Wojciech Szczesny: Conceded two goals against an incredibly fun (I thought) Senegal team, absolutely loaded with speed. The first was not his fault at all — what a brutal deflection that was. The second was ... not really his fault too much, I guess. The referee allowed the re-entrance of a sidelined player at a strange time, and thanks to some dopy defending from the Polish (that was a frequent element of this game) Woj tried to come way off his line and clear the ball. It did not work!
Medhi Benatia: That was unfortunate.
Blaise Matuidi: For all their talent, France looked extremely mediocre against Australia (go Australia!) in their opener. Juve’s hardworking midfielder substituted into the game in the 77th minute and — call me crazy — I think he needs to play more! Matuidi is not a guy who’s going to hog the ball; he’s going to bust his ass and hand it to a teammate, just like he does at Juventus. I think he’d be helpful with his incessant pushing.
Matuidi, part II: For what it’s worth (not anything), I wrote the above paragraph before France’s second game, in which Matuidi started and, I think, helped a hell of a lot. He played sort of high up the pitch almost as a winger, and was basically used as a pestering press machine. I am now accepting the vacant Argentina national team manager position. See you soon, Leo.
Transfer Wish List
Here’s a name you’ve never heard: Aleksandr Golovin. Right? Oh. OK . . . I’m now seeing this piece, and this and this and this and this. I won’t say anything except I think he is a fine young lad and we ought to make him a footballer on our team. Go team!
Other players have been extremely exciting to watch, some of whom have been linked with Juventus in some form or manner in the past, and some of whom have not. Some are young and some are old. But with no consideration for cash or basic logic or any knowledge of player willingness or club communications, here are three dudes who have caught my eye:
1. Mexico’s Hirving Lozano
The one guy who has actually been linked with Juventus at some point in the past, Lozano not only scored the lone goal in the brilliant Mexico-Germany clash but was a key part of Mexico’s constantly threatening counter attack. The defending champions looked so weak at the back (and in the midfield), that the Mexican players actually tired of counter-attacking so frequently and vigorously.
Lozano doesn’t look like a world-beater to me, but he turns 23 next month and he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.
2. Senegal’s Ismaila Sarr
Senegal vs Poland has randomly been one of my favorite games (sorry Woj), and the lanky, speedy winger Sarr was one reason why. With M’Baye Niag and Sarr on the wings (though Niang played higher up the pitch on top), Senegal has super speed in droves, and they play smart as hell, and they harass, and they’re fun, and they danced at the end and I love them. I would certainly not be sad to see someone this speedy get on Juve’s roster to add to the increasing athleticism we’ve seen lately with acquisitions like Emre Can and Douglas Costa.
3. Switzerland’s Denis Zakaria
Zakaria is a big defensive midfielder who plays in the Bundesliga and who I pretty much always used to buy on FIFA 2017, and he entered the game as a substitute for the Swiss against Brazil. Sure, his statistics from the match are awful: he completed five of six passes and earned himself a single foul (and the foul was in precarious territory, to boot). That’s it.
But here’s the circumstance around his entrance: Valon Behrami had been doing a hell of a job marking Neymar, but Behrami is 33 years old and not immune to getting tired and he was putting in a heck of a physical workload. Switzerland replaces him with Zakaria, who’s tasked with the same charge of disrupting the Brazilian attack just as the (maybe) tournament favorites are really ramping things up. And he’s only 21!
The Mexican Quandary
The other day at my office, a dude who sits nearby became extremely offended when I told him I was rooting for El Tri. Maybe he was thinking of this extremely inane Landon Donovan controversy situation, in which, for unknown reasons, you must hate Mexico’s national team if you are American (according to a number of the USMNT members, and whatever ridiculous monicker their fans have ... the Outlaws, right?).
I subscribe to the Deadspin take in the article to which I linked: root for Mexico if you want, but don’t root for them if you don’t want to!
I’m from Texas. There are lots of people of Mexican heritage here; there are lots of Mexicans here. Mexico is, in fact, right across the way. That’s a reason to root for them according to me . . . or a reason not to root for them according to some other people. And that’s totally fine. Everybody calm down.
(Viva El Tri!)