Dispatches From the Road: The World Cup From the Couch

Brazil’s Neymar, center, vies for the ball with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez, left, and Hector Herrera, right, during the round of 16 match between Brazil and Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Samara Arena, in Samara, Russia, Monday, July 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

The street in front of my house was littered on the morning of July 5 with the detritus of city-grade fireworks set off by my neighbors the evening before, a dangerous but seemingly unstoppable tradition on our most patriotic of holidays.

The 4th and 5th were off days at the World Cup – a global, thoroughly un-American tournament that seemed more remote this time not only because the Yanks, a nickname for the U.S. team, inexcusably failed to qualify, but also because the tournament took place in Russia.

FIFA, the governing body for soccer, supposedly cleaned up its act after multiple bribery allegations relating to the awarding of this cup to Russia and the next to tiny, oil-rich Qatar.

Qatar is smaller than Connecticut and has never had a team qualify for the World Cup. In fact, it’s never finished better than fifth at the Asian Cup, that continent’s quadrennial tournament.

Alcohol is usually restricted to elite hotels in Qatar, though organizers plan on setting up special zones to allow for drinking at the cup, and special courts to deal with public drunkenness, which is illegal, as is being gay.

Allegations have surfaced that slave labor is being used to build the stadia and other infrastructure in Qatar. In fact, the nation’s human rights record in general is spotty.

And the summer heat is so intense there that FIFA bandied about the idea of enclosing all the stadiums and pumping in air conditioning. In the end, during this year’s cup, the league said the 2022 Qatar games will be played in the winter during the middle of the season for most club teams, instead of the traditional summer window when the vast majority of leagues are on break.

That announcement sent the soccer world into a tizzy. Former players and coaches decried the move. Some threatened not to watch. Perhaps teams should boycott.

England supporters celebrate Harry Kane’s winning goal as fans watch the World Cup soccer match between Tunisia and England at the Lord Raglan Pub in London, Monday, June 18, 2018. (Nigel French/PA via AP)

Let’s be real. Fans will still tune in, though it will be interesting to see the attendance levels at the matches. While there were plenty of fans from various countries in Russia this year, more than one pundit noted that there seemed to be a lot more from faraway South America than nearby Europe, and the lack of English spectators relative to past tournaments was pronounced. Perhaps the alleged poisoning of former Russian spies on English soil a few months before the tournament had an effect. But that is just one way the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has been recently almost gleefully reinforcing its claim as the most dangerous and destabilizing force in the world.

Still we watch, in part because the actual games are an escape, though Putin made that hard, feted as he was in the opening match by leaders from some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

But once the games started fans were treated to a sublime and unpredictable cup that saw defending champions Germany crash out at the group stage, followed soon after by the likes of Portugal and Argentina.

A few underdogs defied the odds.

One country with a storied history – including one European championship – stood out. While the team qualified for the last three major tournaments they lost each time in the group stage, with one elimination blamed on a laser pointed at their goalkeeper’s face while he tried and failed to save a deciding free kick.

The team had played poorly in the run-up to the tournament, which saw them plummet in the FIFA rankings and enter the tournament as the lowest-ranked team.

Then again, most fans and pundits take the FIFA rankings with a bucketful of salt. To wit, even though they didn’t make the cup, Chile was ranked 9th. Peru, dumped out in the first round, came in at 11th. Even though they too got knocked out in the first round, Poland took the 8th spot. Peru and Chile play in one of the hardest confederations to advance from, and Chile had won the last two South American tournaments. Poland combined a) adequate performances in past tournaments, b) winning a qualifying group that included such soccer giants as Armenia and Kazakhstan and c) a refusal to play exhibition matches, thereby gaming the system and further improving their ranking. How sporting, and telling.

The United States for the record watched the 32-team tournament from home, ranked 25th.

Back to the plucky team with the storied history. They played well. Or at least well enough to beat Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the first two matches to advance to the knockout round.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech prior to the match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup as FIFA President Gianni Infantino, left, applauds at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 2018. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Attentive readers know by now that I’m talking about Russia. I watched the games closely in part to see how the team would react to the pressure of being host, but also to see if I could spot anything unusual, like blatantly bad refereeing decisions going their way or players who seemed to have more energy or could jump higher or run faster than seemed normal.

This is Russia after all, not long removed from a large doping scandal in an Olympics the country hosted.

But I didn’t note anything odd. Instead I saw a hard-charging, gritty team feeding off the home support that increased each game, a team that played to the level its talent indicated it should, unlike, say, Germany, Argentina – or the Yanks during qualifying.

The Russians rode their luck in the first knockout round match, though their opponent Spain perhaps should have been awarded a penalty in added extra time.

This tournament featured video assistant referees, or VAR, for the first time. And though many joked on social media about Putin controlling the VAR booth in Moscow, their job was to assist with, among other things, clear and obvious refereeing mistakes.

One can argue the Spanish team’s penalty claim was clear and obvious. One can also argue it was not. It was close, but not too different from other penalties that were not given and not close enough to set off alarm bells.

And somebody still would have had to convert the penalty shot.

After checking again for smoldering firework material on my property that morning, I clicked on a column from a local rag about the cup.

The columnist found it “suspicious” that lowly ranked Russia made it through the group stages. The columnist indicated the story could be read as that of the plucky underdog, or interpreted as something sinister before acknowledging that Russia had a ridiculously easy group draw and host countries often exceed expectations.

But Russia is different, the columnist wrote, and then mentioned just a few of the objectively terrible things the Russian government has done in recent years and the connections between the Olympic doping scandal and the soccer federation.

Believe me, dear reader, I’m not here to defend the Russian government. Far from it.

But, I ask, if the team involved had been from anywhere else, would the columnist have written such an article?

French President Emmanuel Macron reacts during the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 15, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Before someone screams “that’s exactly the point,” and that I too watched for the nefarious because of who the host was, I would say fair point. But I would also ask, should we not try to focus on the awful acts the Russian government has committed for which there is ample evidence, instead of trying to shoehorn a geopolitical conspiracy into the actual soccer matches if there is no indication, let alone proof, of anything untoward happening on the pitch, though geopolitics were admittedly impossible to ignore on the periphery?

Anything else smacks of that much abused term fake news.

Though we are a maligned and beleaguered lot, we members of the media can hold our heads up and know history might hold us in high regard if we stick to what we know.

Otherwise we’re playing into the hands of those who would like us to believe we’re living in a post-truth world.

Or maybe I’m naive.

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