Wow, it just gets more and more ridiculous at the World Cup. The German national team posed for the pre-game photograph with their hands over their mouths after FIFA refused to let them wear a captain’s armband supporting LGBT rights. The Qatari fans responded by holding up pictures of Mesut Özil, the World Cup-winning player who was blackballed from the German national team after alleging anti-Muslim bias in the federation. This is, um, actually a good point, since his charges led to a lot of heated reactions by high-up Germans saying that their country had wiped out racism. They did? Sounds nice.
The Qatari team was eliminated at the earliest possible moment with their loss to Senegal combined with the draw between Netherlands and Ecuador. The home team switched to a goalkeeper who seemed vaguely aware of where the ball was, and it didn’t help. Also, some fans turned up in the Middle East only to find that the hotel rooms they paid for weren’t there because the buildings were unfinished. To rectify this, the Qatari government offered to let them stay in shipping containers in the desert for $200 a night. I’d rather stay at Motel 6. They’re cheaper and they give me free wi-fi. Let’s get to the questions.
How should we feel about USA’s Black Friday draw with England?
Better than the one against Wales. Gregg Berhalter got his tactics right, as USA played in a 4-3-3 alignment with the ball (with Christian Pulisic acting as a third forward alongside Haji Wright and Tim Weah) and then falling back into a 4-4-2 when England had the ball (with Pulisic and Yunus Musah acting as wingers). Central defenders Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman nullified one of the world’s great goal-scorers in Harry Kane. Fullbacks Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest both caused trouble for England’s defense. It all combined for a draw where even the British press admitted USA outplayed England. Now it’s on to the last match against Iran.
So it’s in the bag, right?
Ten years ago, I might have agreed with that. Not before this tournament, and certainly not now that Iran beat Wales after Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey tried to decapitate Mehdi Taremi and got red-carded. Even before that, Team Melli was better than the Dragons and should have gone ahead in the sequence when their strikers managed to hit both goalposts within a few seconds of each other. The Iranians have multiple offensive threats, and a draw won’t do for USA unless Wales completely spanks England in the other game. Also, I mentioned in my last post that England have never beaten the Americans at the World Cup, but it’s equally true that USA has never beaten Iran. Their one previous meeting was in 1998, when the Iranians pulled the upset in what was a dismal tournament for the Yanks. USA will come into the game with confidence after the way they played against England, but Iran will have a head of steam too after only the second World Cup win in their history.
How did that play in Iran?
With a wave of violence against women, as the latter took to the streets to celebrate and also protest the government, while mobs of pro-government men assaulted them and chanted “Islamic Republic of Iran!” The words “Islamic Republic” are properly part of the country’s name, but U.S. Soccer briefly posted a picture of the Iranian federation’s logo with those two words scrubbed off to express support for the women. Now the Iranian government is calling for USA’s immediate expulsion from the tourney and a further suspension on top of that.
Will FIFA do that?
Nah. This governing body has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t have the stomach to take decisive action, and expelling anyone at this stage would create logistical problems that they’d rather not face. The mullahs in Iran have bigger things to worry about, too, thanks be to Allah.
So, how do we beat them?
I have questions about the Iranian defense. They were stingy in World Cup qualifying, but this World Cup is their first set of games since 2018 against non-Asian nations, and USA’s offensive talent is better than any Asian country’s right now. We saw Iran let in six against England, and even if USA doesn’t score that many, they won’t need to. The midfield of Musah, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams must strangle the supply to Iran’s forward line, much as they did against England. None of USA’s players received a second yellow card in that last match, so they’ll all be available. This is grim to think about, but reportedly, the Iranian players have been receiving death threats back at home because of their support for the Mahsa Amini protesters. Let’s hope the players on both sides hold up an “Amini 22” jersey like the protesters have been doing in Iran. The number represents her age at the time of her murder.
What else is going on in the tournament?
After opening losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Argentina managed to save themselves from embarrassing early exits with a draw to Spain and a win over Mexico, respectively. Costa Rica were skunked by Spain in their opening match but saved their tournament with a shocking win over the Japanese. The other CONCACAF countries have been unimpressive: Mexico hasn’t scored a goal yet and, more worryingly, hasn’t looked close to doing so. Maybe they’re saving their attacking moves for the Saudis, but a team with Hirving Lozano on it should not be putting me to sleep. My sleeper pick Canada made me look stupid by crashing out early. The Canucks were desperately unlucky to lose the game to Belgium, but they imploded against Croatia after their English coach John Herdman needlessly gave the Croats bulletin-board material. Meanwhile, Morocco did what the Canadians couldn’t do and beat the Belgians, who are currently looking very old. Middle Eastern teams typically don’t do much at the World Cup, but this tournament in Qatar has given a number of them a boost, with the Saudis, Moroccans, and Iranians netting wins. They all have hopes of advancing to the next round.
Who else is impressing?
The sub-Saharan African teams contributed a pair of wildly entertaining matches in their second outings. Cameroon went down 3-1 against Serbia only to come back and salvage the draw, with Vincent Aboubakar scoring on a delicious chip. Ghana threw away a two-goal lead against South Korea only to pull back a late winner. You get neutral fans to root for your team by playing games that are chaotic and fun.
Who should be concerned?
The Netherlands only managed a draw with Ecuador and De Oranje (this is weird to say) don’t have a dominant goal-scorer. Meanwhile, Brazil have tons of offensive talent, but when Neymar got hurt and missed the Switzerland match, all of them were looking at one another to step up instead of doing it themselves. They needed Casemiro’s shot to deflect in off the ass of defender Manuel Akanji. That was doubly fortunate, because the win qualified Brazil for the knockout stages and they can spend the match against Cameroon sorting this out.
What else should we look for in the final group-stage matches?
After Australia’s win over Tunisia, they just need a draw against Denmark to advance. Let’s hope we see Denmark’s all-black uniform, marking the deaths of all those workers who were killed building Qatar’s stadiums. Argentina’s fate is still up in the air, and they’re playing a Poland team with Robert Lewandowski having finally scored his first-ever World Cup goal in their win over the Saudis. Who knows how the Spain vs. Japan match will go with the latter team playing so inconsistently? Since Portugal is assured of advancing, they might rotate their starters for that last game against South Korea. Of the 32 teams here, 27 still have everything to play for as the group stage winds down. Desperation makes for great drama at the World Cup.