12/12/22  WC Final 4 is Set Games 2 pm Tu/Wed, Grant Wahl dies covering WC, IU Men in 17th NC Mon 6 pm, WC Final Sun 10 am

World Cup News  The Bracket

Wow this World Cup has really been unbelievable – the QF games between Argentina and the Netherlands along with Croatia and Brazil – both going over 135 minutes played with penalty kicks finally deciding both games. The GKs for Croatia, the Netherlands and Argentina all made spectacular saves. Messi was well – Messi – that pass for the first goal and both PKs were magisterial. (Goal call Cantor) (Full highlights) PK shootout.  I thought the reffing in the Dutch/Argentine game was horrific – but both teams were way out of line. A lot of hate/disrespect in the game started by Dutch manager Van Gaal- great coach but an absolute arrogant a$$. Sets up a fantastic Semi with defending finalist Croatia and sentimental favorites Messi’s Argentina. Brazil vs Croatia was equally exciting – as the Samba kings were sent home on penalties. Look at these SAVES by Croatia’s GK Dominik Livakovic. More Great Saves in GK below.  In the other bracket Morocco surprised Portugal and Renaldo, while France held on to beat England (I guess its not coming home boys) when England Captain Harry Kane missed a PK in the final 10 minutes. It sets up Argentina/Croatia Tuesday at 2 pm on Fox, while Morocco enjoys being the first African Nation in the Semi-Finals ever vs France on Wed 2 pm on Fox. I picked Argentina to start and won’t back off now – like them 2-1 over Croatia and I think France will inch by Morocco 3-2. Then give me Argentina 2-1 in a classic over France as the World’s top player for this generation Lionel Messi finally lifts the trophy. (then comes to MLS in 2024).

Gio Reyna Almost Sent Home During World Cup

Wow it should like we all owe US Manager Gregg Berhalter an apology (myself included) as word comes out that Reyna was almost sent home for lack of effort in practices leading up to the first game. See stories below in US Section. Negotiations continue as it appears Berhalter is keen on finding a club job in Europe after the World Cup.

Grant Walh US Soccer and Renowned Soccer Writer Dies At World Cup

Hugely sad news that US Soccer Writer Grant Wahl, the pre-eminent soccer writer in the United States has died at the World Cup.  Evidently he developed a horrible chest cold while covering the World Cup 24/7 and died in the press room at the Argentina vs Netherlands game of cardiac arrest.  Devastating news – I have followed him for over 20 years at Sports Illustrated, Fox and CBS and included at least 1 story of his per week in this blog from his private blog https://grantwahl.substack.com. The Twitterverse is full of 100’s of folks writing nice statements about how Grant helped their life. For me he was the my goto writer when it comes to what’s happening in Soccer around the world and especially from the US soccer fans perspective. I honestly feel like a best friend has died – and I never met him. Here’s Fox’s Rob Stone and his eloquent announcement on Fox Coverage this AM.  RIP Grant Wahl and Best wishes to your wife CBS and CNN contributor and Epidemiologist Dr Celine GounderQuestions regarding his sudden death will no doubt continue, he wrote scathing stories about Qatar and their treatment of migrant workers but that’s for another time for now appreciation for the Best American Soccer Writer of our generation. Indy Star Gregg Doyel’s Story on Wahl More Stories and Tributes below.

ALSO Congrats to Indiana University’s Men’s Soccer who advanced to Monday night’s NCAA Finals (their 17th) vs Syracuse at 6 pm on ESPNU after being Pitt 2-0.  (Highlights)

CARMEL FC GOALKEEPERS : Wednesday Night Trainings Dec-Mar – Badger Indoor Fieldhouse 5:30 pm U12//6:30 pm U13-U14//8:30 pm HS U15+. 

Not sure what other clubs have – but Carmel FC has former US Men’s National Team World Cup GK & Coach Juergen Sommer coaching the high school age, Hall of Fame Canadian World Cup GK Carla Baker coaching the U15s and myself coaching the U12s this winter. 

Coach Sommer showing technique to the high school group of Carmel FC Goalkeepers at Badger Field House. Wed nights 8:30.

WORLD CUP GAMES ON TV

Mon,  Dec 12                      NCAA Mens Final

6 pm ESPNU                       IU vs Syr/Creight

Tues Dec 13                        Semis – Final 4                  

2 pm  Fox                             Argentina vs Croatia

Wed Dec 14                        Semis – Final 4                  

2 pm  Fox                             France vs Morroco  

Sat, Dec 17                          third Place                         

10 am  Fox

Sun, Dec 18                         FINALS                 

10 am  Fox

Wed, Dec 21                       League Cup

2:45 pm ESPN+                  Blackburn vs Nottingham Forest

2:$5 pm ESPN+                  Newcastle United vs AFC Bournemouth

3 pm ESPN+                       Man United vs Burnley

Thur, Dec 22                       League Cup

3 pm ESPN+                        Man City vs Liverpool

Mon, Dec 26                       Boxing Day

7:30 am USA                       Brentford vs Tottenham

10 am USA                          Aston villa vs Liverpool

10 am Peacock                  Crystal Palace vs Fulham (Robinson, Ream)

3 pm Peacock                    Arsenal vs West Ham United

Tues, Dec 27                      

12:30 pm USA                    Chelsea (Pulisic) vs Bournmouth

3 pm USA                            Man United vs Nottingham Forest

Wed, Dec 28                      

3pm  pm USA                     Leeds United (Adams, Aaronson) vs Man City  

Thurs, Dec 29                    

1 pm USA                            Queens Park Rangers vs Luton Town (US GK Horvath)  

Fri, Dec 29                          

2:45 pm USA                      West Ham vs Brentford  

3 pm Peacock                    Liverpool vs Leicester City

Soccer Saturday’s are every Sat 9-10 am on 93.5 and 107.5 FM with Greg Rakestraw

CARMEL FC PLAYERS : Winter Players League (WPL) – Badger Indoor Fieldhouse
As the fall season comes to a close over the next month, we wanted to let you know that we will be launching an indoor soccer league over two six week sessions within our new Badger Fieldhouse. Games will be played on either Friday night ( 6pm to 10pm) or Sunday afternoon (1pm-5pm) depending on age groups: U8s, U9&U10, U11&U12, U13-U15 and U16+ (Coed Teams allowed). Referees for each game, 50 minute games, 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 matches.
Session One (6 weeks): Jan 6th, 13th, 20th, 27th / Feb: 3rd, 10th
Session Two (6 weeks): Feb 17th, 24th / Mar 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th
Gather teammates and be ready to play!

US Men

Reyna Almosst Sent Home from World Cup – Yahoo Sports – Bushnell
Sources: US almost sent Reyna home from WC
5hJeff Carlisle

Contract Talks in Motion with US Coach Gregg Berhalter?  ESPN Jeff Carlisle

Will Berhalter be next US Coach? ESPN Jeff Carlisle
Where is the next FIFA World Cup? The 2026 tournament is coming to a city near you.

Despite World Cup exit, U.S. knows it’s heading in right direction

Culture USMNT built during this World Cup is central to its continued progress | Opinion

Grant Wahl

Grant Wahl, American Soccer Reporter, Dies at World Cup – Time Sean Gregory
American soccer journalist Grant Wahl dies at Qatar World Cup. Here’s what we know

FIFA joins tributes to journalist Grant Wahl after his death at the World Cup

‘This is a heartbreaking night’: Sports world reacts to death of soccer journalist Grant Wahl

LeBron James honors legacy of late soccer journalist Grant Wahl: ‘May he rest in paradise’

Indy Star Gregg Doyel’s Story on Wahl

Appreciation: Grant Wahl and the big, generous soccer life he …

World

Each Semifinalists’ Biggest Key to Winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup
Three Players From Each World Cup Semifinalist Nation Who Will Define Tournament

World Cup penalty records: How the 2022 quarter-finalists have fared through history

Croatia v Argentina: Keys to the World Cup semi-final

Mbappé to face good friend Hakimi in World Cup semifinal

Messi: Van Gaal ‘disrespected’ me before QF win
  14hESPN
Argentina revel in ‘home’ support at World Cup

Croatia’s mental strength has deep roots, says World Cup hero Petkovic

Croatia’s masterful midfield trio key to World Cup dream

Morocco makes history, becoming first African nation to reach World Cup semifinals | Opinion

Metronomic Antoine Griezmann proves why he’s France’s ‘go-to guy’

In winning the Kylian Mbappe battle, England lost the war

What happened to the great dispatcher? Harry Kane folded in the face of close friend Hugo Lloris

Southgate future in focus as England digest World Cup exit

‘It’s utter heartbreak’: How the world reacted to France’s quarter-final win over England

Kane sends penalty, England’s World Cup hopes, over the bar

Right-sided thinking and old-fashioned crosses: How the quarter-final was won and lost

England vs France score and final result: Harry Kane’s missed penalty condemns Three Lions to World Cup defeat

Ronaldo won’t make ‘heat of moment’ decision after Portugal exit

World Cup that began with controversy and uncertainty will end with history being made

Neymar ‘psychologically destroyed’ by World Cup exit

Germany captain Manuel Neuer breaks leg while skiing

Koeman’s next in Dutch bench after World Cup exit
  GOOD TO SEE VAN GAAL GO

Goalkeeping

SAVES by Croatia’s GK Dominik Livakovic.
Bounou takes long and winding road to Morocco stardom

Bono Brings Spain to Tears with Saves

Bono PK Saves vs Spain

Bono big saves vs Portugal

Morocco’s Bono with his son post game

A little love for the Great Goalkeeping in this World Cup

Reffing

Gary Neville calls Brazilian referee for England’s defeat to France ‘an absolute joke’
Pepe and Fernandes blast Argentine referee after Portugal exit

FIFA charges Argentina for disorder at World Cup match

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Gio Reyna apologized to USMNT during World Cup for his lack of effort, sources say

By Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal


Multiple sources close to the U.S. men’s national team have provided details to The Athletic that help explain attacker Gio Reyna’s lack of involvement at the World Cup.The sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said that Reyna showed an alarming lack of effort in training ahead of the U.S.’s opening match of the tournament against Wales on Nov. 21, including in a scrimmage against Qatari club Al Gharafa SC on Nov. 17. Reyna’s lack of intensity in the scrimmage — sources described him walking around throughout his time on the field during what was otherwise an intense session — caused significant frustration within the team. The lack of effort was so pronounced that it was unclear whether Reyna was protecting against an injury or just frustrated that he was not set to be a starter against Wales.The drama surrounding Reyna crescendoed during the Wales game, when Reyna threw his shin guards after not being subbed in, and then into a post-Wales training session in which Reyna’s lack of effort continued again. It prompted several veteran players to speak with Reyna, including DeAndre Yedlin and Aaron Long, who pulled him aside and urged him to show more effort moving forward.The sources said that the situation became untenable and that it had to be addressed multiple times, including with the coaching staff, until, finally, Reyna stood up before a video session and apologized to his teammates for his initial lack of intensity and said he understood he was part of a collective group. After the apology, several players on the team spoke up to hold Reyna accountable for his actions. Sources said players believed the group and its culture would be able to overcome the issues after Reyna’s apology, and that the 20-year-old turned a corner in regards to his effort in training. Within the team, the issues with Reyna ended there, the sources said.U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter appeared to reference the Reyna situation without naming the player at the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership in New York last Tuesday, comments that were published in a Charterworks newsletter this week. (UPDATE: A U.S. Soccer spokesperson said the summit in which Berhalter participated was supposed to be “explicitly off the record.”)

“In this last World Cup, we had a player that was clearly not meeting expectations on and off the field,” Berhalter said. “One of 26 players, so it stood out. As a staff, we sat together for hours deliberating what we were going to do with this player. We were ready to book a plane ticket home, that’s how extreme it was. And what it came down to was, we’re going to have one more conversation with him, and part of the conversation was how we’re going to behave from here out. There aren’t going to be any more infractions.“But the other thing we said to him was, you’re going to have to apologize to the group, but it’s going to have to say why you’re apologizing. It’s going to have to go deeper than just, ‘Guys, I’m sorry.’ And I prepped the leadership group with this. I said, ‘OK, this guy is going to apologize to you as a group, to the whole team.’ And what was fantastic in this whole thing is that after he apologized, they stood up one by one and said, ‘Listen, it hasn’t been good enough. You haven’t been meeting our expectations of a teammate and we want to see change.’ They really took ownership of that process. And from that day on there were no issues with this player.“As a coach, the way you can deal with things most appropriately is going back to your values. Because it’s difficult to send a player home. It was going to be a massive controversy. You would have been reading about it for five days straight. But we were prepared to do it, because he wasn’t meeting the standards of the group, and the group was prepared to do it as well.”Attempts to reach Reyna’s agent, Dan Segal, about an hour before publication and after Berhalter’s comments were published by Charter, were not immediately successful. Segal later provided The Athletic with the following statement.“Gio obviously did not have the experience anyone hoped for at the World Cup. The situation, relationships and interactions among parties are far more complicated than what has been reported. It is disappointing and disrespectful for certain parties to be commenting on private team matters publicly, especially when some do so without full knowledge of the facts and others do so in a self-serving manner.“At this point, our view is that nothing more is gained by those associated with the national team turning on each other, and we plan no further comment on this matter.”Some of the issues with Reyna leaked out into the public during the tournament after Reyna did not play against Wales.Berhalter used his first four subs while the U.S. led that match 1-0, then chose to bring winger Jordan Morris on for Tim Weah after Wales equalized in the 82nd minute. After the match, Berhalter explained his decision to opt for Morris over Reyna, saying that “in the phase of the game that we were at, we went with Jordan, who we felt could give us something with speed and power.” He noted that the team had done a “last-minute check” on Reyna, deemed him “OK” and said that he envisioned him playing a role against England in the U.S.’s second match of the group stage.Asked to clarify what the last-minute check was for, Berhalter said “you could see there was a little bit of tightness” during the scrimmage with Al Gharafa a few days prior, that the team had been “building him up” and that “we think he can play a big role in this tournament — question is when, and hopefully on Friday (against England) he’ll be one further step ahead.”A few minutes later, Reyna told reporters in the mixed zone that he was fully healthy.“I felt good, I felt ready to go,” Reyna said. “But it was just his decision.”On the day of the England game, former U.S. national team forward Eric Wynalda brought up Reyna’s lack of playing time during a Twitter Spaces with LA Times columnist Dylan Hernandez. Wynalda claimed that there was “internal strife” within the team about Berhalter’s decision to not play Reyna. He also alleged that Berhalter lied to the media when he told reporters after the Wales match that he held Reyna out of that match because of an injury. Wynalda claimed that he had spoken with Gio’s father Claudio, the former U.S. captain and Berhalter’s childhood friend and teammate at multiple World Cups.

“With Gio Reyna out of the lineup right now, which has been a massive controversy within the team — even his own teammates are wanting him on the field and it seems to be (causing) internal strife with the (team) and manager Gregg Berhalter,” Wynalda said. “I don’t know how much I should comment on that, but I’ve been trying to console Gio’s father, Claudio, for the last couple of hours, well, the last couple of days with everything that’s been going on. He was fit to play, Berhalter did lie to the media and say that it was an injury, ask the player to kind of go along with that story, which caused a rift between the two of them and now he’s on the bench which is really unfortunate. The situation should have been handled very differently.”Wynalda slightly backed off his initial comments in a tweet posted to his account the day after his initial comments.

Berhalter wasn’t asked about Wynalda’s claims in his press conferences before or after the England game, though he did clarify in an answer that it was a “coach’s decision” not to play Reyna against Wales. Reyna played seven minutes against England. Berhalter then was asked before the Iran game if there was any rift between him and Gio Reyna and if he had, as Wynalda alleged, lied to the media and instructed Reyna to tell reporters that he was hurt after the Wales match.

“Speaking of the four-year journey, right, there’s been also four years of interacting with you guys (the press contingent). And what I’d say is, you know, I’ll leave it to you to decide if I asked Gio to lie about it,” Berhalter said. “That’s just not who I am. That’s not what I represent. So, you know, if you have to take Eric’s word or my word or whatever, feel free, but I know what happened, that’s not what I represent. Like every other person, Gio is a member of this team that we care deeply for and we know can help the team. It’s a matter of when he can help us and how he can help us.”Shortly after that response, Wynalda walked back his initial statement even further on his SiriusXM show.Reyna didn’t end up playing against Iran on Nov. 29 as the U.S. spent the second half protecting a narrow 1-0 lead.“I think a lot of it comes down to timing and circumstance,” Berhalter said before facing the Netherlands in the round of 16. “If you look at how the games have unfolded, we’ve had the lead and had to hold on to the lead later in games. The only game that we didn’t have that scenario, we actually put him in to help get the victory. So it’s just how we can use him in the most effective way. Really talented player, and we’re looking for the right moment. But he can, no doubt, help his team.”Berhalter did use Reyna more significantly in the U.S.’s loss to the Netherlands on Dec. 3. Down 2-0 at halftime, he brought the Borussia Dortmund attacker on for the second half, then shifted him to the wing when he inserted center forward Haji Wright. Reyna largely failed to make an impact in the contest, ending his first World Cup having played a total of 52 minutes as the U.S. were eliminated having scored just three goals in four matches.Reyna scored for Dortmund in a shortened, 60-minute friendly against Rapid Bucharest, the fourth-place team in the Romanian SuperLiga on Saturday in the “Christmas Cup” in Bucharest.

World Cup semifinals: Key team factors, predictions, schedule and more

11:57 AM ET ESPN

The 2022 World Cup semifinals are here. After a thrilling round of 16 and quarterfinals, we’re into the business end of the tournament with four teams remaining. There’s plenty of star power, great matchups and top players who all have their eyes set on hoisting the trophy on Dec. 18.

The action begins Tuesday with Croatia and Argentina kicking off, then defending champions France take on underdogs Morocco a day later. But before the games begin, preview each team with key things to reaching the final, players to know and predictions from our ESPN writers.


Tuesday

Croatia vs. Argentina
Lusail Stadium; 2 p.m. ET

Have they met recently? This is their third meeting at a World Cup, but first in the knockouts. Argentina won the first meeting 1-0 in 1998’s group stage, with Croatia winning 3-0 in 2018.

Odds to win World Cup (via Caesars Sportsbook): Argentina +155; Croatia +650.

Argentina are -150 to advance from the semifinal, while Croatia are +450.

Why Croatia will reach the final

Coach Zlatko Dalic spoke a lot in the aftermath of Croatia’s quarterfinal victory over Brazil on penalties about their “fighting spirit,” and even though it’s not something you can quantify with statistics or data, it will be the one thing that worries Argentina most.

EDITOR’S PICKS

Croatia have a fantastic ability to stay in a game. Their midfield three of Luka ModricMateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic have the technical ability on the ball to control large spells and when they have to defend, they are dogged and organised.

Argentina, even with Lionel Messi, will find it very hard to break them down and the longer the game stays even, Croatia will only grow in belief. Eight of their past nine knockout matches at major tournaments have gone to extra time, beating both Japan and Brazil on penalties during their run in Qatar. They also won two shootouts — against Denmark and Russia — on their way to the final in 2018.

Croatia will hope to disrupt Argentina and Messi long enough for panic to set in and then look to take advantage. Their record at the past two World Cups suggests it’s a well-formulated plan. If they can knock out Brazil, they can certainly do the same to Argentina. — Rob Dawson

Why Croatia won’t reach the final

The most obvious reason for Argentina reaching the final over Croatia is that, simply put, they have better players. There’s a reason that Argentina and Messi arrived in Qatar aiming to lift the trophy while Croatia and Modric turned up hoping to make it through the group stages — expectation based purely on the depth of talent each coach has available.

Aside from putting four past Canada in the groups, Croatia have found the net just twice in their other four games and scored in the 116th minute against Brazil with their only shot on target — and even that needed a significant deflection.

They had a marvellous run to the final in 2018, but once there, the final hurdle against France felt like one game too far. They conceded four goals in 65 minutes. It was hardly a surprise given they’d played the equivalent of an extra game in the knockouts after going for 120 minutes in the round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal.

After extra time and penalties against Japan and Brazil, there is a danger Croatia might run out of steam against Argentina, particularly when coach Lionel Scaloni can turn to his bench and throw on a number of world-class players. — Dawson

Why Argentina will reach the final

Maybe it’s nothing more, or less, than fate. This is almost certainly Lionel Messi‘s last shot at winning a World Cup, and he has dragged Argentina to this stage by his brilliance and force of personality. He isn’t the player he was in his prime, with that electric burst of pace, but at 35, he has shown he is still capable of making the crucial difference.

His goals against Mexico and Australia set Argentina on their way to big wins, while his reverse pass for Nahuel Molina to score in the quarterfinal against Netherlands was one of the moments of this World Cup.

Messi will have to find something magical again to overcome a Croatia team that manages tournament football better than most. The 2018 World Cup finalists are a tough, proud team with Modric as influential as Messi. But there does feel a sense of destiny about Argentina this time around. — Mark Ogden

Why Argentina won’t reach the final

Take Messi out of the team and Argentina are a limited side. For a country that has produced some incredible players, there is a real shortage of world-class support for Messi. Julian AlvarezEnzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister have all had a good tournament in Qatar, but they are not world beaters. How Argentina could use one of their former great strikers, such as Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Batistuta right now.

Argentina’s lack of pace and creativity hasn’t been a major issue so far, but as the tournament approaches its decisive stage, the key details matter and they will need to find something extra to beat Croatia.

Lionel Scaloni’s team need to find a way to stop Modric dominating the game with his movement of the ball in midfield, but that is the same challenge for all of Croatia’s opponents and few are able to pull it off. This game will come down to whether Argentina can stop Modric, but also how they can threaten Croatia in ways that don’t involve Messi. — Ogden

One Croatia player to watch: Luka Modric

Modric is the obvious choice because of his status and experience, but RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol, 20, has been one of the best young players at the World Cup and Croatia will need him to be in top form again.

Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the star against Brazil, and you would think he’s going to have to make at least a couple of saves against Argentina if there’s going to be another shock result.

If Croatia want to hurt Argentina, Celtic right-back Josip Juranovic is a good outlet. Argentina haven’t settled on their full-backs and Juranovic caused Brazil problems with his runs down the right flank. — Dawson

One Argentina player to watch: Emiliano Martinez

The Argentina goalkeeper has had his critics in this tournament, but he rose to the occasion during the penalty shootout win against Netherlands. And because no team takes games to penalties as often, and successfully, as Croatia, Argentina may need the Aston Villa No. 1 to produce heroics again.

But Martinez’s role goes beyond his ability with penalties. He is a commanding presence and one who will try to dominate the penalty area, so Argentina at least know they have a keeper they can rely on. — Ogden

Predictions

Argentina 2-1 Croatia (AET): It’s Croatia, so it’s going to extra time, but this time they’ll find Argentina have too much firepower and won’t be able to hold on for penalties. — Dawson

Argentina 1-1 Croatia (Argentina win on penalties): This game feels like it will be a tense battle for 120 minutes and will eventually go to penalties. If that happens, both sides know from recent experience how to win on spot-kicks. — Ogden

Burley lauds history-making Morocco

Craig Burley is full of praise for Morocco’s performance and resilience after they become the first African team to make it to a World Cup semifinal.


Wednesday

Morocco vs. France
Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; 2 p.m. ET

Have they met recently? This is the first time since 2007, when they drew 2-2 in a friendly. They have never met at a World Cup.

Odds to win World Cup (via Caesars Sportsbook): France +120; Morocco +1000.

France are -200 to advance from the semifinal, while Morocco are +625.

Why Morocco will reach the final

No team has the same momentum, no team has as much support locally and globally as these potential history-makers. This isn’t just the first African nation to reach the semifinal, it’s also the first Arab nation and only the second Muslim nation. In a sport that has traditionally been a closed affair between Europe and South America, much of the rest of the world is cheering them on … they’re not just playing for themselves here.

They also match up well with France. They’ve conceded just once all tournament (and that was an own goal), they’ve shown the ability to defend stoutly and concede very little space behind for Kylian Mbappe to run into. They have the World Cup’s outstanding keeper thus far (Yassine Bounou), they have two midfielders in Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi who are on fire in terms of quantity and quality, and they have wingers in Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech who can invent something out of nothing to get you a goal, which is often all it takes at this stage of the competition.

Most of all, they’re gritty and they’re hungry. You’d back them in a street fight and, let’s face it, this is knockout football. Games are tight and it’s so often about intensity, chutzpah and mental toughness.

Now, who do you think has more in that department? Morocco or France, who needed Harry Kane to blast a penalty over the bar and some slightly dubious calls to get past England? Look at the penalties Les Bleus conceded in the quarterfinal (especially the Theo Hernandez one), look at the way they were outplayed for much of the game and ask yourself: who is more focused right now?

That’s right. It’s Morocco. — Gabriele Marcotti

Why Morocco won’t reach the final

Let’s live in the real world here. France are the reigning world champions for a reason. They can throw up a stinker against England and still win. Morocco’s entire first-choice back four are physically hurting.

Achraf Hakimi is battle-scarred and hurting. Romain Saiss played carrying an injury against Portugal and had to come off. He may grit his teeth and play, but he’s held together by masking tape and adrenaline right now. Nayef Aguerd, the other outstanding centre-back missed the Portugal game, as did Noussair Mazraoui, the other fullback. Both are unlikely to feature, both would give a kidney to be there.

Next man up? Sure. But there’s a reason some stuff only works in movies. Battering ram cult hero supersub Walid Cheddira is also suspended after picking up two yellows in minutes against Portugal, which means Youssef En Nesyri, also banged up, will need to lead the line on his own.

What’s more is that France boss Didier Deschamps has no qualms about shutting up shop if he needs to. He won the last World Cup playing essentially counterattacking football. This time, France have been a little more expansive, but, fundamentally, they have so many one-on-one threats all over the pitch (Mbappe, Ousmane DembeleAntoine GriezmannKingsley Coman off the bench, Aurelien Tchouameni from distance) that a goal can come any time, from anywhere.

And, on set pieces, Olivier Giroud, France’s all-time leading goal scorer, who bagged the winner against England, plus the gigantic Dayot Upamecano are serious threats. There are a ton of ways France can win this game.

For Morocco, the path is far narrower. On paper, too narrow to squeeze through. — Marcotti

Why Mbappe is the best player at this World Cup

Mark Ogden gives his analysis on the best players in Qatar so far.

Why France will reach the final

France showed against England all their resilience, ruthlessness and mental strength. It will be a very different game against Morocco, but they have everything they need to beat them.

Morocco beat Spain and Portugal because these two teams were too one-dimensional. Les Bleus have so much variety. Giroud is the old school centre-forward always in the box. Mbappe and Dembele have the pace, skills and tricks to beat anyone on a one-vs.-one, which Spain and Portugal lacked. Griezmann will play between the lines, while you can expect Hernandez to bomb forward from his left-back position.

The French have been there before. They are used to playing big games, unlike the Moroccans. The current world champions have the experience and know-how in these kind of games when the pressure is high.

They are also fit. There are no injury worries (unlike for the Moroccans), no fatigue, no suspensions, no players missing either. They are full of confidence and momentum after the way they beat England in the quarterfinals. They have the best player in the world in Mbappe, who will face his best friend Hakimi, who he knows by heart and will want to beat so he can go back to scoring ways to clinch the Golden Boot award. — Julien Laurens

Why France won’t reach the final

It is well-known that this French team can get carried away and arrogant at times, and there is a risk that they could take this game a bit lightly and get surprised by a dangerous Morocco side. We saw it against Tunisia, albeit with a B team. It could happen again.

The French were under pressure against England. Harry Kane forced Dayot Upamecano to make some mistakes that could have proven costly. Morocco and En Nesyri will surely target Upamecano with long balls behind his back.They will also target Jules Kounde at right-back, the biggest weakness in the French defence. Boufal, the Morocco winger, is in great form this tournament and will have a go at Kounde.

On the other side, the pair of Ziyech and Hakimi will also target Hernandez and the not-so-keen-to-defend Mbappe. So France could suffer a bit defensively and they might not find the key offensively either against the best defence of the tournament so far.

Apart from Coman, Didier Deschamps doesn’t have an option off the bench who is as strong as the starters. He has good young forwards (Marcus ThuramKolo Muani) and midfielders (Youssouf Fofana) but no one who can realistically change the game. So the lack of depth could be an issue if France can’t break the deadlock. — Laurens

One Morocco player to watch: Achraf Hakimi

He’s arguably Morocco’s key attacking threat from deep, bursting down the right flank, overloading the midfield and delivering crosses. But he will also have the single toughest task on the day: containing his club teammate Mbappe, the fastest thing on two legs at this World Cup.

It’s a huge ask for any right-back, let alone one like Hakimi, a natural wingback who is more about technique than flat-out athleticism. You don’t shut down Mbappe, but you can contain him for most of the game, like Kyle Walker did for England. But there will be times he gets away from you. And that’s a problem. Hakimi will need to monster this game at both ends of the pitch. A huge task for a man who has been huge this tournament. — Marcotti

One France player to watch: Adrien Rabiot

The Juventus midfielder has been outstanding so far, and we don’t say it enough. He is complete. He defends, he attacks, he compensates, he shuffles, he tackles, he presses, he intercepts, he creates, he runs forever, he wins headers and he even scores goals and assists, too. He has been a revelation and such an asset for France in every single game.

In a match where Les Bleus will have a lot of the ball against a really low and compact block, his movement and impact with the ball will be important. France’s left hand side is the strongest with Rabiot, Hernandez and Mbappe, and Rabiot will have to make it work again. He will have to play high to bring a numerical advantage for the French to unlock the tight Moroccan defence. — Laurens

Predictions

France 1-0 Morocco: After the scare against England, you can expect Deschamps to get Les Bleus at their minimalist best. Finding a goal through one of their superstars and then bolting the door. — Marcotti

France 2-0 Morocco: Morocco have been outstanding so far, but France will be a step too high. I don’t think they can recreate a third miracle in a row. The French will be too strong. — Laurens

This Argentina picture has everything that makes the World Cup great – just enjoy it!

Sam LeeDec 10, 2022

More joyless carping about footballers showing emotion then, is it? Fresh from Brazilians dancing it’s now Argentinians celebrating.In fairness, it was more than just celebrating. There was plenty of aggro in it but surely the first time you saw the photo (the one at the top of this article) you didn’t think, ‘Oh that’s out of order’ but, ‘Oh I wonder what the story is there’?There’s always a backstory, although that’s not really the point here.The first part of that backstory is that it was obvious the Netherlands players had done something to provoke Argentina. You don’t celebrate a penalty shootout victory by rubbing the opponents’ noses in it without reason.It can be seen from the overhead cameras that the Dutch players were approaching Argentina’s penalty takers on their way to the spot. And that’s fine too!This isn’t an absolution of the Argentina players and demonisation of the Dutch. It’s a celebration of all of it.The Argentina players did it as well. Emiliano Martinez, the goalkeeper, waited at the penalty spot for Steven Berghuis, held the ball out for his opponent to grab, then tossed it to the side (before then saving the spot-kick). Hilariously petty.

Steven Berghuis took the Netherlands’ second penalty (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

This kind of stuff is part of the game and, more than that, it’s part of what makes the World Cup special.And even if teams act like that without provocation, isn’t that part of the fun, too? A lot of people don’t like Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and their ‘dark arts’ — just listen to the British commentators for a Champions League game — and they don’t need any provocation, but it’s all part of the rich tapestry of football.What’s the alternative? No bad guys? No trouble? How boring would that be? In fact, you need bad guys.Was Leandro Paredes out of order to nail Nathan Ake with a foul and then boot the ball at the Dutch bench? Yes, absolutely, but it was great fun. He got his comeuppance when Virgil van Dijk bounced him to the ground. Nobody was hurt, yellow cards all around and on we go.Even the referee, Mateu Lahoz, who irritated nearly everybody with his determination to book everyone — apart from Lionel Messi for an obvious handball, strangely — was part of the entertainment.We would genuinely all love World Cups, Champions Leagues and everything else to be full of thrilling, end-to-end games where both sides give total disregard to closing spaces between their lines and try to score as many goals as possible, but that’s not how football is now, and it’s certainly not how it is in these seismic matches.And that brings us to the second point. When have you ever seen Messi saying anything controversial after a match, cupping his ears at an opposition manager even? It doesn’t happen. So why did it happen on Saturday?Pressure. And pressure does strange things to people.This is his last World Cup and the pressure on his shoulders is incredible. The pressure on the rest of his team-mates is incredible too, for what it means to them and for what it means to him. The emotional investment in this tournament at home in Argentina cannot be overstated.

The 40,000 Argentine fans who have stolen the show off the pitch in Qatar will have given you some idea of that purely from watching it on TV. So you can imagine the scenes at the Obelisco in Buenos Aires or the Monumento in Rosario.)Messi has been living that for more than a decade and the whole Messi-Diego Maradona debate is going to be decided by whether he wins the World Cup or not. He has been at the top of the game for 12 years, with barely a bad run of form, but it will be this World Cup that has the biggest say in how he is remembered. And had that penalty shootout gone differently, it would have been over.

No wonder he was the only player to run to the goalkeeper, ‘Dibu’ Martinez, as the rest of them headed for Lautaro Martinez. Dibu kept his World Cup alive. His legacy, in a way.In fact, Messi was one of the few Argentina players not to get involved in the baiting of the Dutch when Lautaro converted the winning penalty, but he was certainly part of the aftermath.They’re already selling phone cases and T-shirts with ‘que miras, bobo?’ on them in South America, the words Messi said to Wout Weghorst in the middle of a post-match interview — ‘What are you looking at, dummy?’. It could be dummy, it could be dopey, it could be idiot. You get the idea.Dibu didn’t hold back either. “I heard (Netherlands manager) Louis van Gaal saying, ‘We’ve got an advantage in penalties. If we go to penalties we win.’ I think he needs to keep his mouth shut.” He told him that in person, too.This part of the story is harder to understand. It all stems from the fact the Argentina players had felt slighted by Van Gaal’s comments in the build-up, but nothing really stood out as controversial outside the camp.The Argentinian media, who will talk about absolutely anything regarding their national team at this World Cup given all the air time afforded to it, ran Van Gaal’s quotes about Messi not working off the ball and the Netherlands’ penalty advantage but they didn’t go overboard on it. It wasn’t a big controversy by any means.Clearly, it was a different story inside the Argentina camp. In hindsight it might be easy to see why Dibu would be annoyed, given he has a reputation for saving penalties — as he showed on the night — but it was fairly innocuous stuff on the whole, certainly not enough to provoke that kind of reaction.So maybe Argentina weren’t right to take those sentiments into the game. Maybe the Dutch players weren’t right to provoke the Argentinians, maybe the Brazilian players were disrespectful in their dancing.Maybe the opposite is true in every case… but that’s not really the point. It’s part of the game, it’s part of the fun. Enjoy it.

Free to Read: My 3 Thoughts on Brazil-Croatia

GRANT WAHLDEC 9
 
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Luka Modric and Croatia are back in the World Cup semifinals after bouncing Brazil, incredibly, on penalty kicks (Photo by Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

This post is presented by TENLEGEND, The Gentlemen’s Football Brand


Croatia advanced to the World Cup semifinals past Brazil in a jaw-dropping game decided by penalty kicks (4-2) after a 1-1 tie in which the Croatians equalized late in extra-time after Neymar had put Brazil ahead earlier in the extra stanza. Here are my three thoughts on the game:

• Croatia’s steel is absolutely legendary. This game appeared over after Neymar’s brilliant 106th-minute goal finally broke through for Brazil, which had 11 shots on goal compared to Croatia’s one. But that one shot on frame was a beauty. In the 117th minute, Bruno Petkovic’s shot took a deflection off Marquinhos and beat Brazilian keeper Alisson to silence the celebrating Brazilian fans and give Croatia a lifeline. Croatia is unstoppable when it comes to penalty shootouts—this is the second straight World Cup in which it has won two knockout games on penalties—and goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic got things started off right by saving Brazil’s first spot kick from Rodrygo. The Croatians were uncanny in converting all four of their penalties, which kept the pressure on Brazil dialed to the max until Marquinhos cracked in Round 4 and hit his kick off the post to give Croatia the spot in the semifinals. Why Neymar didn’t take one of Brazil’s first four kicks is beyond me. You shouldn’t be “saving” him for Round 5 if that round never comes, and it didn’t. But let’s hear it for Croatia. This tiny country of 4 million people punches above its weight unlike any other soccer nation. It has eliminated tournament favorite Brazil (population: 216 million) to reach Croatia’s second straight World Cup semifinal appearance (and third going back to 1998). Incredible.

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• Going out in the quarterfinals is catastrophic for Brazil. This was viewed as a defining World Cup for the Brazilians heading into the tournament. They were the favorite to win it. They hadn’t won in 20 years, since 2022. And during that time the gap had grown wider between the top European teams and the rest of the world (including Brazil and Argentina). This World Cup was the chance for Brazil, which had gone out to European teams in four straight World Cups, to close that gap. But in the end, the Brazilians couldn’t do it, and they went out to a European team for the fifth straight time. Neymar’s phenomenal goal, which came after not one but two wall passes, appeared to make the difference and serve as a career-defining moment for the Brazilian No. 10. It was a classic Brazilian scoring sequence, and it tied Neymar with Pelé for the most international goals scored by a Brazilian man. But Brazil couldn’t kill the game after that, and those players will regret that for the rest of their careers. The fact is that Brazil should have capitalized more on its chances in a game that didn’t need to even go to extra time. Brazil’s expected goals advantage was 2.63 to 0.66. What a way to go out.


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• This side of the bracket is wide-open now. Of the four teams on this side of the bracket, Brazil was the on-paper favorite to reach the final ahead of Croatia, Argentina and the Netherlands. A lot of people here were already foreseeing a Brazil-France final. And Croatia? They looked like they might go out against Japan, much less Brazil, and now, two penalty shootout wins later, they’re back in the World Cup Final Four. Can they make it to another improbable final? Why not? No matter whether the opponent is the Dutch or Argentina, Croatia has shown time and again that it can go toe to toe with any team in the World Cup. It has shown twice in this tournament’s knockout rounds that it can come from behind to force penalties, and then slam the door during the shootout itself. I’ll admit it. I thought Croatia was too old heading into this tournament. But I was wrong. Luka Modric keeps showing at 37 that he has the energy to go all the way in these games, and the fight these Croatians show is legendary. I can’t tell you how much I admire them.

Grant Wahl was my idol and my friend. A selfless, wonderful man

Alexander Abnos Dec 11, 2022

Everyone working in or covering American soccer has a Grant Wahl story. Some, like me, are lucky enough to have several.Here’s one.In 2014, while covering the World Cup in Brazil as a freelancer, I was mugged at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro. A man put a gun to my back, took me around an alleyway, then took my bag off my back and rode away. My laptop, wallet, phone, and several other valuables were gone. It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me, and it was a shock to the system.Grant was one of the first people who found a way to contact me afterward. (I honestly don’t remember how he did it when I didn’t have a laptop or phone. I suppose there’s a reason he was such a good reporter.) He recommended we meet up at a nearby spot, Bar do Gomes in the Santa Teresa district. He greeted me warmly, and simply allowed me to talk about what happened, listening intently the entire time. He allowed me to process the experience in real time, on my own terms.Only at the end did he remind me of something I once read but had long since forgotten as a longtime fan of his work chronicling American soccer. He, too, was once mugged at gunpoint on a reporting trip.His experience was in Honduras in 2009, and he admitted to me that night in Rio that he went through a lot of the same feelings I was experiencing. He said that the things he lost that day were ultimately just material; he still had his life and the opportunity to continue living it fully.

The next morning, I woke up energized and hiked up the Corcovado, the 2,000-plus-foot high peak upon which rests the iconic Christ The Redeemer statue. At the top, I felt an exhilaration and triumph that simply would not have existed without Grant’s words the night before.

This sounds more like a story about me and less like a story about Grant, but that’s how Grant stories tend to go. Despite being one of the most prominent soccer journalists in the U.S. — someone whose rich, vibrant, and serious coverage on TV and in print helped grow the sports’ American popularity exponentially over his career — he had a way of making things about you.

Grant is honoured at England v France (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Grant Wahl, my one-time idol, my former co-worker and my friend, died early Saturday morning in Qatar after being taken ill reporting on Argentina’s World Cup quarter-final against the Netherlands. So naturally, I’ve been thinking of a lot of my Grant stories, and how similar they are to others I’ve seen in the last 24 hours.My Grant stories aren’t special at all, and that’s the point: they are representative of his true nature. His habit. Search his name on Twitter and you’ll find countless others from hundreds more people — young writers who would get seemingly random compliments from him on recent work; editors who received his detailed recommendations on the up-and-coming talent to hire; behind-the-scenes producers who he treated like the professionals they are; fans who he engaged in enjoyable conversation.The people telling these stories come from women’s and men’s soccer at nearly every level and across most continents. They speak English and Spanish and French and all sorts of other languages. A mosaic of kindness big enough to cover at least 100 soccer fields — but that only became fully visible this weekend, when we all had the worst reason to share.

I remember being a teenager in the early 2000s, surprised to find out that the soccer guy at Sports Illustrated wasn’t just from the Kansas City area, where I grew up… he went to my exact high school. We profiled him in the school newspaper and he was gracious and kind to the reporter.If one professional soccer journalist could come from Shawnee Mission East High School, where at the time any semblance of soccer culture was minimal, why couldn’t there be another? My path was set instantly even if I didn’t know it yet, as were at least a few Kansas City-native soccer figures who realized the same thing, whose tributes I have been reading today. I am crestfallen every time I remember that Grant won’t be around to see the 2026 World Cup come to his hometown, played in the same stadium as his (and my) beloved Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL.

I remember moving to New York City in 2011, then taking nearly a full year to work up the nerve to email Grant out of the blue, explaining that I was a fellow Kansan just getting his start in soccer journalism, that my school newspaper did an article on him once, and that I’d like to buy him lunch and chat.He responded quickly and said congrats on what I’d been doing — though what I’d been doing was absolutely not worth congratulations.A week later, we were sitting in an all-but-deserted coffee shop on the ground floor of the Sports Illustrated offices, and he was asking me what I wanted to do in this business — and picked up the bill. It’s staggering how many times I’ve seen versions of that same story floating around in the past 48 hours, with different names, different focuses, different settings. I don’t know how the man had time to do anything else but offer young, soccer-mad people hope of a career working in or covering the sport.

I remember starting work at SI.com sometime later and occasionally being called upon to “edit” his stories for the website. I barely ever had to change a thing. I might have removed a double period once. His raw copy was as clean as a Lionel Messi first touch, and the ideas within it always crystal-clear and refined. I remember when he described Carli Lloyd’s half-field goal in the 2015 World Cup final as an “angry parabola”, and Mario Chalmers’ 2008 national title-winning shot as “a space capsule in low-earth orbit”.

Millions of people read his stories, which were replete with scenes and phrases just like that, to say nothing of the consistently informative content, which held power to account when need be. He built a huge platform and brought the world of soccer alive for a country that had been asleep to it for generations.

I remember his “congrats” and “nice work” or “good story” notes that would reliably accompany my professional milestones over the years, just like all the people here (and many more) probably do. I remember that these came regardless of whether the work I did was for Sports Illustrated or someone else. He was constantly checking in on my career; consistently interested in what I had to say… just like he did for so many others. He wanted the whole garden to grow, and it did.And yes, I also remember some of his less-glamorous moments — Twitter spats better left alone, occasionally-combative calls with PR officers and editors that I couldn’t help but overhear from his cubicle on the rare occasions he was in the SI office. Nobody’s perfect. But as I think back on those moments now, I realize that by and large they were based in a fierce protection of his work and his reputation, and it’s hard to blame him.I remember this past Wednesday night, when I visited Grant at the villa he was renting in Qatar. We discussed the tournament so far, his recent work, and new stories he found interesting. As always, he was quick to make connections, introducing me glowingly to those I did not know, and conveying the same about them back to me. At one point, he asked a colleague a version of one of his favorite questions, one he asked me in that first meeting in the coffee shop and one I’d heard him ask several people in the years we knew each other: “So, how’d you get into soccer?”Almost without fail, that question got people to open up about their lives. And it occasionally got him to return the favor. Grant truly fell in love with soccer in Argentina, he’d say — surely at least part of the reason he loved including “Fútbol” in his project titles. He finagled a way to travel there and write about it for college credit as an undergraduate at Princeton. He said in a few places over the years that, as a journalist, he isn’t really a fan of any soccer team in the world… except (Argentine club) Boca Juniors.The fact that an Argentina game is the last one he saw feels significant to me. Now, given his passing, even thinking about what my emotions might be if Messi and company win this World Cup next Sunday gets me teary-eyed.I don’t know what I’ll do if it happens.But thanks to Grant, I know I’ll be far from alone.

Out of respect for Grant’s family and friends we’d like to ask people to refrain from speculating about the details of his death and instead use the comments section to pay tribute or tell stories about his life. 

Doyel: Live like adored soccer writer Grant Wahl and smell those roses

Gregg Doyel Indianapolis Star

Editor’s note: This column was inspired by a series of tweets IndyStar’s Gregg Doyel wrote after learning of former colleague Grant Wahl’s death on Saturday morning.

Do yourself a favor, if you don’t know much about U.S. soccer journalist Grant Wahl, and search for his name online. See the response to his death early Saturday morning at the World Cup in Qatar, at 48. It is overwhelming. His death is overwhelming. His life was overwhelming.

This happens, though rarely, because Grant was rare. Someone dies unexpectedly, before the world has had a chance to give him or her their flowers, as the saying goes, and the outpouring is bittersweet. You love to see the impact, but wish they were here to see it too. To know.

But now I’ve decided: Grant knew. He wasn’t smug about it, but he knew the greatness he had shown, and I’m not talking about journalism, though he was GREAT, all caps. Quick aside: I met Grant in 1996. I’m the Marlins beat writer for the Miami Herald. He’s an intern.

I was 25, young and decent at my job and a bit cocky. Grant was 21, youngr and a lot better and so humble it hurt. He once wrote a sidebar from the Marlins game we covered together with some reference to the Pleistocene Era, and he made it sing. He had no idea how good he was.

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Sports Illustrated hired him out of college, which didn’t happen in 1996, when print journalism was still our main thing and SI was everyone’s dream job. But he was unusually great. Read him once, and you know. But this is about another kind of greatness.

This sort of reaction happens rarely, as I said. Happened in 2012 when one of my bosses at CBSSports.com, Craig Stanke, died in his sleep at 56, hours after running a 5K in 22 minutes, 41 seconds. Oh my gosh I just found the obit I wrote at CBS. It was one of many, which is why I started mine this way:

For years I fooled myself, lied to myself, that Craig Stanke and I had a special, unique relationship.Well, don’t get me wrong. It was special. Almost every relationship he’s ever had, near as I can tell, was special. But what we had wasn’t unique, and I thought it was — and that discovery doesn’t make me sad.It is uplifting, inspiring, something good to hold onto today as people like me — and apparently there are a whole lot of people like me — try to process the tragedy that was Craig Stanke going to bed on Monday night and not waking up on Tuesday morning.

https://cm.indystar.com/article-body/inline-desktop-anon_120622_EOYsale_A

It always hurt me that I’d never told Stanke what he meant to me, that I’d never given him his flowers. I’ve seen this outpouring in my business a few times since, when ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure died in 2020 at 48, and Yahoo Sports NFL reporter Terez Paylor in 2021 at 37.

This sort of nationwide or even global outpouring of love — mourning the underlying goodness of a great talent — happens in other areas, of course, but it’s rare. Actor Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting,” among other films) in 2014 at 63. “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman in 2020 at age 43. Basketball coach Skip Prosser in 2007 at age 56. Singer Selena in 1995 at age 23. Princess Diana in 1997 at age 37.

Now, Grant Wahl. But only now, with Grant, have I come to decide: Truly good people like this don’t live their life needing their goodness rewarded. Their goodness is their reward. They get joy from it, and down deep, I suspect, they know how we feel about them.So read about Grant Wahl. See the life he lived, and the worldwide mourning — from friends and family, FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation, world-class players, LeBron James and Billie Jean King — he has inspired. How do you want to be remembered by your circle, whatever its size? Then live in a way that deserves it. Enjoy those flowers.

Reporter Grant Wahl, Who Died at the World Cup, Elevated Soccer in America

Journalist Grant Wahl (right) works in the FIFA Media Center before a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between Wales and USMNT at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. He had been detained earlier by stadium security for wearing a rainbow-colored t-shirt before later being allowed to enter the stadium.

Doug Zimmerman/ISI Photos—Getty Images

BY SEAN GREGORY 

UPDATED: DECEMBER 10, 2022 11:43 PM EST | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 10, 2022 9:44 AM EST

In 1998, when American soccer journalist Grant Wahl covered his first World Cup, at 24, for Sports Illustrated, soccer was seen as a sort of a JV beat at America’s most influential sports publication. While most young writers of his generation yearned to cover more established U.S. sports like baseball, basketball or football, Wahl— who died on early Saturday, while covering the World Cup in Qatar, at 49 years old, had fallen in love with the game. He foresaw a global beat he could own. And in the process, he helped elevate a game, cherished around the world but long dismissed in America, to once unimaginable heights in the States.

“For much of its history, Sports Illustrated, like most major media companies, had been pretty dismissive of soccer,” says former Sports Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Stone, now a deputy managing editor at the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of people ride the wave of a sport’s popularity. Grant really helped create a great deal of the popularity around soccer in this country.”Wahl’s untimely death in Qatar, where he was writing daily World Cup stories for his own subscription website on Substack, shocked the soccer world. Wahl collapsed in the press box during extra time of the Argentina-Netherlands match on Saturday, and died in a Qatar hospital. Wahl was working around-the-clock in Qatar and had been sick during his time there. “My body finally broke down on me,” he wrote on Dec. 5. “Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you. What had been a cold over the last 10 days turned into something more severe on the night of the USA-Netherlands game, and I could feel my upper chest take on a new level of pressure and discomfort. I didn’t have Covid (I test regularly here), but I went into the medical clinic at the main media center today, and they said I probably have bronchitis. They gave me a course of antibiotics and some heavy-duty cough syrup, and I’m already feeling a bit better just a few hours later. But still: No bueno.”“I’m coughing a lot,” Wahl also said in a podcast before he died. “It sounds like a death rattle sometimes.”

Wahl said he caught up on some sleep during the two-day break between the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals.

Wahl aggressively covered the struggles of Qatar’s migrant workers. “They just don’t care,” read a Dec. 8 sub-headline on Wahl’s Substack website. “Qatari World Cup organizers don’t even hide their apathy over migrant worker deaths, including the most recent one.” Before the United States’ opening World Cup game against Wales on November 21, Wahl wrote that security staff detained him at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium for wearing a rainbow shirt, in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Homosexuality is criminalized in Qatar. He was eventually granted access to the game, and Wahl said FIFA apologized. He wore the shirt in media center.

Stunned reactions poured out worldwide. “We offer our deepest condolences to Grant’s family, friends and his many close colleagues in the media,” a spokesperson for Qatar’s The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy wrote in a statement. “We are in touch with the US Embassy and relevant local authorities to ensure the process of repatriating the body is in accordance with the family’s wishes.” FIFA noted Wahl had recently been honored, along with other journalists, for covering eight straight men’s World Cups. U.S. Soccer confirmed Wahl’s untimely passing. “Here in the United States, Grant’s passion for soccer and commitment to elevating its profile across our sporting landscape played a major role in helping to drive interest in and respect for our beautiful game,” U.S. Soccer said in a statement. “As important, Grant’s belief in the power of the game to advance human rights was, and will remain, an inspiration to all.” “I am so thankful for the support of my husband @GrantWahl‘s soccer family & of so many friends who’ve reached out tonight,” Wahl’s wife, noted epidemiologist Céline Gounder wrote on Twitter. “I’m in complete shock.”

‘Rural Church Mouse’

Wahl grew up in the Kansas City area, and attended Princeton University. For his senior thesis, he spent a summer in Argentina studying the political culture of soccer teams. Wahl excelled as a sportswriter at the Daily Princetonian, his preternatural talent clear to anyone reading his coverage of Princeton’s soccer and basketball teams. (I was one of those awed readers, as a student two years younger than Grant). “Long after Pete Carril leaves the coaching profession, last night’s scene here will remain imprinted in the national consciousness,” Wahl wrote, in his senior year, about Princeton basketball’s now-famous upset win over UCLA in the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament. Princeton was led by Carril, the school’s irascible, diminutive coach who passed away in August. “Here was Carril, college basketball’s rural church mouse, scurrying about in some postmodern, ethereal dome, outcoaching the 1995 Coach of the Year, UCLA’s Jim Harrick.”

After college, Wahl turned down an offer from the Miami Herald for a fact-checking job at Sports Illustrated. But he quickly rose through the writing ranks, and was assigned to his first World Cup just two years after college graduation. For many years, Wahl split his time between soccer and college basketball. In 2002, he even wrote SI’s first LeBron James cover, headlined “The Chosen One.” (James was a high school junior when the piece came out).“He was always pretty cool to be around,” James said on Friday night. “He spent a lot of time in my hometown of Akron covering me over the course of time before that cover story came out. And I’ve always kind of watched from a distance. Even when I moved up in the ranks and became a professional and he kind of went to a different sport and things of that nature over the years, anytime his name would come up I would always think back to me as a teenager and having Grant in our building down at [St. Vincent-St. Mary High School]. So, it’s a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as he was and I wish his family, like I said, the best. And may he rest in paradise.”

Covering The Beautiful Game

Around 2010, Wahl convinced Sports Illustrated’s editors to let him cover soccer full-time. “For Grant, there was something about the sport and the internationalism and the excitement of a rocket ship about to take off,” says his long-time Sports Illustrated colleague L. Jon Wertheim. “For Grant, when the game started, it was the least interesting time. It was everything surrounding it—the politics and the force of good and the corruption. It was this prism for humanity.”

He built an enviable following, of nearly 855,000, for example, on Twitter, covering the game from all angles. He wrote profiles and books about the stars, like David Beckham and Leo Messi, while also sharing with readers stories of being robbed at gunpoint in Honduras and running for president of FIFA. Besides writing cover stories for Sports Illustrated, he worked in television, for Fox Sports and more recently, CBS Sports. In 2020, Wahl and Sports Illustrated parted ways under less than amicable circumstances, but Wahl went out on his own, building his subscription website into a must-read for any halfway serious soccer fan.

It’s not a coincidence that, for example, while Wahl’s career took off, Americans could watch Saturday Premier League Games on NBC, or began to follow the U.S. women’s team with great intensity. As the most prominent soccer reporter in America, he sparked interest in the machinations of international club teams, and analyzed the women’s game with the same care he did on the men’s side.

“He always covered the game with a conscience,” Leeds United coach Jesse Marsch tells TIME, through tears, after hearing about Wahl’s death. Marsch met Wahl in the winter of 1994, while they were stuck in the Princeton infirmary, watching the Lillehammer Olympics together. Wahl covered Marsch throughout his career in Major League Soccer, and his coaching stops in the U.S. and overseas. “He tried to talk about the women’s game as much as he talked about the men,” says Marsch. “He talked about the important topics, like the fight for LGBTQ rights, up until his death. He was aware that it’s a global game and knew how important it is to treat it as such. He did it with a heart, he did it with integrity. He did it the right way.”Wahl always made time to give back, whether it was speaking to journalism classes, or mentoring young reporters looking to follow in his footsteps. He singlehandedly elevated American soccer reporting. Those who follow Wahl can only try to meet his standard. “The one thing you can never say about Grant, was that he didn’t care,” says one of Wahl’s mentees, ESPN soccer analyst Luis Miguel Echegaray, who worked with Wahl at Sports Illustrated. “He cared so deeply, not just about the sport, but what the sport can do to communities. And that’s so deep, because we live in a day and age where everybody’s just about clicks. He didn’t give a shit. And that to me is the most important thing. We will never have another Grant Wahl.”

USA passed and pressed like a modern club side. Will they have convinced the world?

John Muller Dec 6, 2022

“On day one,” Gregg Berhalter said before the World Cup, “when I got the guys together, I said, ‘We want to change the way the world views American soccer’.”As mission statements go, that sounded pretty ambitious. Can you imagine some congressman getting appointed to a term as Secretary of Transportation and being like, “We want to change the way the world views the American commute?”. Sure, dude, you’ll probably make some strategic investments in light rail or whatever, but we’re still going to drive lifted F-250s with truck nuts. It’s just who we are as a people.In Berhalter’s case, however, the moment seemed ripe. A restructured youth development system and booming Major League Soccer academies were turning out better American players younger than before, and European scouts were noticing. Throughout this World Cup cycle, Berhalter rarely fielded a line-up that couldn’t have qualified as an Olympic under-23s squad, but these kids were playing for Champions League heavyweights such as ChelseaJuventusBorussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.

So why shouldn’t the USMNT play like those clubs?

Turns out there were a lot of reasons why not, ranging from “Have you seen international football?”, to “A global pandemic locked down the world at unprecedented scale and it was kind of hard to train for a year there”. (Not ideal, from a coaching perspective. Lot of tactics talks on Zoom. Lot of learning to bake sourdough.)Along the way, Berhalter’s vision for how exactly the world ought to view American soccer started to get a little hard to pin down.At first, the mantra was “disorganise the opponent with the ball to create goal-scoring opportunities”, which apparently meant “be Manchester City, but against Curacao”.By year two, the emphasis shifted to “a dynamic three in midfield who can cover ground, press in a 4-3-3, aggressive”. Be Liverpool — who, coincidentally, had just won the Premier League — but against El Salvador.Last year, “verticality” was the buzzword du jour (Bayern Munich ought to be able to handle Honduras, right?) and Berhalter’s line-ups favored the kinds of players Jesse Marsch might have liked (and some he actually did recruit when he got the Leeds United job).The road to Qatar 2022 had some memorable highs (beating Mexico in a final that one time; beating Mexico in a final that other time) but also lows (any game against Canada). The identity thing never seemed totally sorted out. Inconsistent qualifying performances were understandable from a liquid line-up that could never get the team’s highly-breakable best players on the field all at once, but that made it hard to know what to expect come tournament time.In the end, it was deja vu all over again.At the 2010 World Cup, the United States advanced out of the group stage with a plus-one goal difference from one win and two draws, including a ballyhooed stalemate against England, and then lost in the round of 16. Sound familiar?In 2014, they advanced with four points, including a respectable draw with Portugal, but lost in the round of 16 again.

Kevin De Bruyne scoring Belgium’s opening goal against United States in the 2014 round of 16 (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

This time around, for all the world-changing talk, the result was more of the same: five points, a draw with England, got out of the group, and you can guess how the round of 16 tie went.

So was the whole Berhalter project a disappointment, a diaphanous dream of some idealised football altogether too beautiful for a country that remains one hundred per cent sure LeBron James could be the world’s best attacking midfielder if he ever felt like it?

Actually, you know what, maybe not.

Results aside, this team really did look different than before. They played like they knew what they were about, and what they were about wasn’t the scrappy counter-attacking game that’s kept the USMNT punching above its weight for the last 20 years. Maybe, just maybe, American soccer had changed.

“What I see is a vision,” Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal said after prepping to face Berhalter’s team in that round of 16 game, and that’s coming from a guy who knows a thing or two about coaching. “What I see is a team that is keen to execute that vision, and that is of the utmost importance.”

But what exactly was that vision, in the end, and how is America supposed to measure progress?


Warning: weird data ahead

First, a word of caution.

Taking stock of a World Cup side using stats is always a tricky business. There are only a handful of games to go on, and this is a chaotic sport where even a full club season of 30-plus matches is barely enough to draw conclusions from data.

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World Cup games are especially wacky, too. Opponent strength varies widely. The schedule is cramped. One team might be fighting for its life while the other lets its third string stretch their legs. Penalties and red cards up-end matches. Even in close games, the stakes are so high that a single goal can dramatically change how teams play, as this year’s USMNT repeatedly reminded us.

Each new edition of the World Cup brings new, potentially data-distorting innovations, such as draconian digital offside mannequins and footballs that need charging. And since we only get a snapshot every four years, it’s tough to compare stats across tournaments in a game that’s always evolving.

Phew, that’s a lot of caveats.

Despite it all, there’s something to be said for trying to stake out a little patch of objective ground truth in the world’s most mythologised, most argued-about and probably most misremembered sporting event. Data has its limitations, but so too — and please don’t tell him this, it’s not worth it — does that extremely loud man at the end of the bar.

So sure, whatever, let’s try it.

In search of the cold, hard facts of Berhalter’s new American soccer, the play-style that was supposed to change the world’s mind about whether my editors should let me get away with not typing “football” there, let’s see what did and didn’t show up in the numbers…


Possession

Surprise! The one stat everybody thought would be synonymous with Berhalter’s preferred style of play didn’t stand out at the World Cup. The United States ranked 13th out of the 32 teams with 53 per cent possession — which is, by definition, just a little above average.

That did make them a more ball-dominant side than their Jurgen Klinsmann-managed predecessors in 2014, who took only 43 per cent of the attacking touches in their games, but not that much more than Bob Bradley’s 2010 team, who had 49 per cent possession.If the new American footballing identity was just “We will have slightly more of the ball than the other team, whereas before we had ever so slightly less”, you could maybe forgive the world for not snapping to attention.


Long balls

They did at least try to play like a principled possession side. The Americans only launched a little over four per cent of their passes at least 30 yards forward, good for eighth-lowest at the World Cup so far in a category where the six outliers are the powerhouses everyone liked to win this thing.

This stat is noteworthy in part because the US spent a lot of the group stage defending a lead and didn’t trail for the first time until 10 minutes into the knockouts.Teams that aren’t confident in their passing might protect a lead by shipping it long distance and taking their chances on second balls. This team tried to play through pressure on the ground instead. It didn’t always work, but it was ambitious in a betting-on-yourself sort of way.It also marked a cultural shift. The United States ranked in the bottom half of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for their frequent long balls. Hitting and hoping has always been a cherished part of the national identity, like scratch-off lotto tickets and fireworks-related trips to the emergency room. We’re a nation of ill-advised gamblers.Score this one for Berhalter winning hearts and minds.


Field tilt

The United States may not have had a ton of possession but they had it at the right end of the pitch. By field tilt — a name for one team’s share of both sides’ touches in the attacking third — they ranked eighth again, just below some heavy hitters.

Berhalter said after the 3-1 loss to the Netherlands that his team “were clearly on top, clearly dominating” early in the game, which triggered a million arguments about what it means to control a football match. As a simple proxy for what he may have had in mind, you could probably do worse than field tilt.It’s good to have the ball near your opponent’s goal. It’s bad for them to have it near yours. If you can maximise one and minimise the other, you’re in control.There’s more to football than that, sure, and the struggle between field position and control on one side and space and speed on the other is part of what keeps things fun. But it’s pretty clear which side of that argument wins more games.Spain ranked first at the 2010 World Cup for field tilt. Germany in 2014 ranked second. Even 2018 France, an unusually counter-attacking champion with a dysfunctional midfield and Kylian Mbappe doing zoomy-motorcycle noises up the wing, still came in 12th for their share of final-third touches. Sort any competition by field tilt and the best teams are almost always toward the top.Against World Cup competition, the US has always been squarely in the “space and speed” camp. Even a pretty good 2010 team ranked a little below average for field tilt at the World Cup, and Klinsmann’s 2014 version finished second to last, between Algeria and Iran.If the USMNT really does become a field-tilt side after 2022, that could change the way even America views American soccer.


Possessions reaching the final third

Berhalter’s World Cup 2022 team may not have been great at scoring goals (three in four games, and the expected goals numbers weren’t that much better) but they were very good at getting the ball close to goal. As of the day they went out, only three teams in the tournament had successfully taken a higher share of their possessions into the final third than the Americans’ 46 per cent.

That’s not a totally new thing for the program — the US’s 37 per cent final-third entry rate ranked 10th at the 2010 World Cup — but it’s a reassuring sign of life from this year’s attack, which couldn’t put it all together in front of goal.“When you look at the difference of the two teams, to me there was offensive quality, offensive finishing quality, that Holland had that we’re lacking,” Berhalter said after the round of 16 loss. As in: we did all the other stuff — don’t blame me. He may have had a point.


Cross entries

This team’s inability to turn final third possession into chances wasn’t just bad luck, though. It also had to do with the way they tried to create chances.More than just about any team at the World Cup, the Americans’ approach to putting the ball in the box looked like a Texas jewellery store: lots and lots of crosses.

Compared to the other stats on this list, a low cross entry share isn’t really that related to winning. Croatia, for example, made the final of the previous World Cup four years ago with the third-highest cross entry share in the tournament. But they also had Mario Mandzukic up top, whereas Berhalter tended to prefer strikers who were good with their feet but didn’t exactly strike terror into opposing centre-backs as target men.Relying on crosses is nothing new for the USMNT, but this year’s team turned those balls into the box into just over one expected goal per game, much less than in 2010 or 2014.


Counter-pressing

If it wasn’t generating chances, what was the point of that whole high-and-wide possession game? Well, it made the US pretty good at the other part of football: keeping the ball out of their own net.

In particular, they joined some elite company as the fifth-best team in Qatar at winning the ball back quickly after losing it in attacking areas.

When other World Cup coaches looked at the Americans, that front-foot defending was the first thing they saw.Van Gaal called them “energetic”. England’s Gareth Southgate praised them as “a very athletic team who are very well organised defensively”. Their counter-pressing when they lost the ball could make it hard for opponents to get out of their half.This was another big shift from 2010 and 2014, when the US were bottom half for their counter-pressing. This team has always been athletic and energetic, but that energy has never been this organised and concentrated on winning the ball back fast and high.


Changing the way the world views American soccer

You know that old Jurgen Klopp line about how a good counter-press is the best playmaker in the world? Yeah, well, obviously it didn’t work out like that for Berhalter’s anaemic attack, but the sentiment does sort of tie together the different parts of the United States’ tactical identity at this World Cup.They passed well enough to tilt the field toward the opponents’ goal. They overloaded wide areas and crossed a lot because they didn’t really have a central playmaker. They pressed loose balls in the middle to cut off counter-attacks, then hoped for a few bounces to go their way.That’s exactly how they produced their tournament’s what-might-have-been moment in the opening minutes against the Netherlands, when a Sergino Dest cross led to Weston McKennie winning a loose ball in the middle and a big chance fell at Christian Pulisic’s feet…

It’s true that, as Michael Cox writes elsewhere on The Athletic, the chances the Dutch had on Saturday “came from more deliberate play and more obvious combination football” compared to the American opportunities, which “tended to come from freak events”. But this whole sport is made out of freak events.The new American style, if that’s what we saw at this World Cup, is about trying to control the chaos everywhere else on the pitch so that accidents will happen where they’re more likely to help than hurt.Was it successful? That’s up for debate. Results were same old-same old, and expected goals (another fraught measure of success for all the reasons caveated earlier) still had the US middle of the pack…

…but something had definitely changed.This traditionally counter-attacking side played on the front foot for long stretches of all four of its games, including against a couple of major European powers. The United States passed and pressed like a modern club side, which helped them take full advantage of a new crop of kids playing at some of the best clubs in the world.You could see the new style literally taking shape, as Berhalter’s emphasis on building from the back gave the US a series of well-structured pass networks in its adjustable 4-3-3 that captured the new tactical identity…

And you could see the new American soccer in the numbers, as metrics like long ball share, field tilt, and counter-pressing rates captured a style that has a lot more in common with the best teams in the world than it used to. The results may not be there yet, but the signs are encouraging.“I think the American public should be optimistic,” Berhalter said after what may be his final game in charge of the national team. “I think when you look at the way that we want to play — and did play — it should be positive. Guys should gain confidence about the fact that we can play with anyone in the world the way we want to play.”We’ll see if they managed to convince the world of that, too.

How Argentina vs Netherlands descended into chaos – taunts, tantrums and tears

Craig ChisnallLuke Brown and more Dec 10, 2022

There was a game of football amid the mayhem of a World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and the Netherlands that had it all. If feisty is your thing, then this was the match for you.Seventeen yellow cards, two of them to coaches, a red card after the final whistle, an all-in melee, and somehow Argentina’s hero Emiliano Martinez avoided a caution of any kind. Whether he does get punished for his post-match comments about referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz remains to be seen.The actual football will be remembered for an assist for the ages from Lionel Messi and a brilliant Dutch comeback that was inspired by Wout Weghorst, the 6ft 6in (197cm) striker who flopped in the Premier League at relegation-bound Burnley last season.But you’ve not got this far to read about that…


The first flare-ups

A sign of things to come came two minutes before half-time when Lahoz booked four players, including Weghorst, at the time a substitute yet to enter the action, and Argentina assistant coach Walter Samuel, no stranger to a yellow in his days as a no-nonsense defender. Marcos Acuna’s booking for fouling Jurrien Timber will cost him a place in Tuesday’s semi-final against Croatia.

But that was only a precursor of things to come. Ten minutes into the second half, Messi was penalised for the most deliberate of handballs but somehow avoided a caution, something Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk was quick to query with Lahoz.

(Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert showed he wasn’t afraid to indulge in the trash talk as Messi prepared to take his second-half penalty.

Messi ignored that and doubled the lead but that only ramped up the tension — as team-mate Martinez, no stranger to gamesmanship, went on the offensive.

The Argentina goalkeeper claimed a cross under pressure from Luuk de Jong before he stood over the striker and baited him. Those histrionics would come back to bite him before the end of normal time.

Tensions spill over 

But it was the 89th minute when the simmering tensions really came to a boil.

Leandro Paredes was rightly booked for clattering Nathan Ake

…but he wasn’t done. He sprung to his feet and hammered the ball into the Dutch dugout from close range. The defender hit the ball so hard that both his feet were off the ground — fortunately for the Netherlands’ coaches and substitutes, his time-wasting clearance strikes an empty seat, rather than an opponent.

(Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Dutch bench personnel emptied onto the pitch in reaction and a melee broke out, with Paredes lucky not to receive a second yellow and Van Dijk a similar fate after body-checking him to the ground in the aftermath. Steven Bergwijn, who had already been substituted, was booked for his part in the incident.

The fouls kept coming and Argentina were punished in the 11th minute of added time as Weghorst levelled from Teun Koopmeiners’ clever free kick.Messi was booked for dissent, which would have meant a red card if he had not avoided punishment for that handball earlier, and the Argentina bench staff and players could not contain their anger at the final whistle. Angel Di Maria had to be held back from remonstrating with Lahoz while his manager Lionel Scaloni confronted the Spanish referee face to face.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Penalty shootout chaos

A semblance of calm descended during the 30 minutes of extra time before the penalty shootout became a free for all — with Martinez again front and centre with his antics.He saved the first two Netherlands penalties, but they were a sideshow compared to his mind games.Having kept out Van Dijk’s opening spot kick to give Argentina an instant advantage, he walked towards the second Dutch taker, Steven Berghuis, before lobbing the ball off to the side to delay the Ajax midfielder.

martinez kicking ball away

He is told off by Lahoz, but not booked.

martinez getting told off

The goalkeeper then came out on top again by saving Berghuis’ shot to leave the Netherlands up against it. Spurred on by that and his side’s two successes from 12 yards, Martinez then tries to get in the head of Koopmeiners, who took the third Dutch penalty.

The 24-year-old ignores him and finally gets Louis van Gaal’s team on the board in the shootout but Martinez continues to push his luck when fourth taker Weghorst steps up with some delaying tactics by his left post.

martinez told off again

Again Mahoz speaks to him, but again there is no card for the Aston Villa man.

Clearly rattled, Denzel Dumfries attempts to get back at Argentina with some mind games of his own but is accosted by Di Maria.

final penalty

Yet despite all of Martinez’s mayhem, Lahoz now books Dumfries.

This all proves to be the warm-up act for what follows, Lautaro Martinez converting the winning penalty as the victors get in the faces of the Dutch and goad them.

(Photo: Stefan Matzke – sampics/Corbis via Getty Images)

And it is all too much for Dumfries, who is shown a second yellow in the ensuing chaos.

Even Messi could not help but become embroiled in it. Apparently irked by the Netherlands coaching staff, the Argentina captain has a clear disagreement with head coach Van Gaal and assistant Edgar Davids.

Messi and Davids clash

For those watching from home, it was easy to miss that, after scoring his second-half penalty, Messi celebrated with his team-mates before walking on his own to the dugouts’ side of the pitch.There, and in full view of the Netherlands coaching staff, he did this:

Messi’s second-half celebration (Photo: Getty Images)Messi’s second-half celebration (Photo: Getty Images)

Which doesn’t seem so inflammatory until you see it from the opposite angle…

The pose — with both hands held around his ears — bears a remarkable similarity to former Argentina forward Juan Roman Riquelme’s trademark goal celebration, a fact not lost on Argentine fans who quickly began speculating as to the reason why Messi had adopted it.

Riquelme celebrating a goal in 2002 (Photo: Getty Images)Riquelme celebrating a goal for Barcelona in 2002 (Photo: Getty Images)

Messi did not elaborate on the reasons why after the match. But Riquelme’s short-lived Barcelona spell was effectively ended by Van Gaal in his 2002-03 debut season, starting him only six times in La Liga before he was sent to Villarreal on a two-year loan the next summer following the signing of Brazil international Ronaldinho. Messi was a Barcelona youngster by then and will have seen how his countryman was treated. After Lautaro’s match-winning penalty, as Argentina players continued their celebrations and Dutch players began to peel themselves off the turf they had fallen to in dismay, Messi calmly walked in the direction of the Netherlands coaching staff.

Television cameras caught Messi making a beeline for Davids, while pointing towards the tunnel and moving his thumb and fingers together in a ‘talking’ motion. 

Messi confronted the Netherlands bench after the game (Photo: Getty Images)

Davids — another who was a Barcelona player in Messi’s youth-team days — then placed a hand on the Argentina captain’s back, as the three engaged in an apparently heated conversation. Di Maria then led his skipper away, towards the tunnel.

Messi later told Mexican television network DeporTV: “I was angry because a coach like Van Gaal is, with the experience he has… That he talks the way he spoke, that he lacks respect.  “It didn’t have to be like that, it didn’t make sense. I feel like he had disrespected the Argentine national team.”

Messi and Martinez take aim at FIFA

Not content with picking a fight with the Netherlands, Messi and Martinez next turned their attention to referee Lahoz.Messi was up first, interviewed on the pitch by FIFA. “It’s very frustrating, very frustrating. (The match) didn’t have to end that way,” he said.

“I do not want to talk about the referee, because you’ll (himself) be punished. You cannot be honest. You can’t say what you’re thinking. If you do, they’ll sanction you for a match.”Messi then proceeded to… say exactly what he thought about the referee anyway:

“We were scared before the game because we knew what this was. I think FIFA must think about it, they cannot put a referee like that for these important games, for such a pivotal game — a referee who isn’t up to the task.” Martinez went even further when he was interviewed by beIN Sports a few moments later. “The referee was giving everything to them. He gave 10 minutes (of second-half stoppage time) for no reason,” he said.

“He gave a free kick outside the box to them two or three times. He just wanted them to score, that’s basically it. So hopefully we don’t have that referee anymore, because he’s useless.” FIFA’s disciplinary code forbids players from calling the integrity of match officials into question.The Athletic has contacted FIFA for comment.

Messi’s media round continues

The next incident came when Messi was shepherded over to Argentine sports channel TyC Sports. The interview began but Messi cut short one question by becoming involved in another altercation.“What are you looking at, fool?,” he says to somebody behind the camera. “Go on that way, fool. Go away.”It’s unclear exactly who Messi was talking to. But given the numerous on and off-pitch incidents before, during and after the game, there is no shortage of contenders.

What the USMNT needs if they’re going to have a better showing at the 2026 World Cup

By Christopher Kamrani Dec 4, 2022


In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. men’s national team getting eliminated from this World Cup, one report for The Athletic phoned fans speckled all around the country — from Manhattan to Missoula — to hear about their match day experience. These USMNT fans exuded pride and belief that, going forward, this young core has the makings to achieve something the team has never done before, even in the minutes after the U.S. were bounced 3-1 by the Netherlands in the round of 16.But there was one frustrating topic each fan volunteered to discuss unprompted. It’s one that’s all too familiar to American fans: the striker position. These fans lamented the what-could’ve-been aspect of this team, had there been a formidable goal-scorer installed in the spine of this, at times, tantalizing and youthful group.But as USMNT fans painfully know: It’s so much easier said than done.Yes, it’s still very early on the heels of the World Cup exit, but it’s never too early to peek forward in time through the looking glass at 2026 when the tournament will be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. One could argue the USMNT has never been this stocked with top-end talent across the senior team pool, but that doesn’t negate the reality of serious gaps that must be addressed in this next cycle in order for the U.S. to be a more well-rounded team against the world’s powerhouses.Of course, it starts with the position tasked with scoring and setting up goals.

A dire search for a reliable striker

Immediate caveat here: Some of this may depend on who the manager of the USMNT is in this next cycle. If it’s Berhalter, we already understand how he wants to play by primarily attacking down the wings, with the luxury of talented wingers the U.S. have. If it’s not Berhalter, then we will have to wait and see.But if you watched the U.S. through four matches in Qatar, you saw an attack that often had an easy time building up in possession toward the attacking third and then stalling out quickly. The Americans quickly became an easy scout. They were going to stick to their strengths out wide and overlapping with their attack-minded fullbacks. There was never a serious threat through the middle of the field, though, and that often led to stale launches forward.In this post-Jozy Altidore existence, the U.S. have been on the prowl for a go-to No. 9 in whatever system managers have trotted out, and they have yet to find one. The experimental stages of Aron Johannsson to Gyasi Zardes were maddening, but perhaps most frustrating is that, in theory, there is a cluster of young forwards playing overseas who haven’t yet risen to establish themselves as the primary option.Haji Wright (24 years old, seven caps, two goals) had his Julian Green moment in the Netherlands match, but overall he had a tournament to forget. Josh Sargent (22, 23 caps, five goals) had bright moments, but most soccer purists would agree he isn’t the type of center forward option needed. At Norwich, Sargent has carved out a spot in a system that either starts two forwards up top or he plays out wide as a right winger. Jesus Ferreira (21, 16 caps, seven goals) was a Berhalter favorite in the qualifying process, but the false 9 approach rarely works out on a stage like the World Cup (unless you’re, say, Spain!).

Revisionist history exists for a reason, but one can’t help but wonder how this U.S. team would have fared having Ricardo Pepi (19, 12 caps, three goals) on the roster. Wright over Pepi was the most dissected Berhalter decision when the World Cup roster was revealed and, yes, Wright scored a goal in a knockout match against the Dutch, but ultimately there was just so much left to be desired from the position.In four matches, the U.S. scored three times. Not all of that is due to lack of a primary threat down the middle, but having one the opposition has to account for undoubtedly helps. The Americans need a target man to develop in the coming years. Hell, even an opportunistic poacher who is a consistent thorn in the side of opposing defenders would do. Will Jordan Pefok (26, nine caps, one goal) be in the mix during this next cycle? What about Daryl Dike (22, eight caps, two goals), who suffered a serious thigh injury in August that derailed his hopes of being part of the roster? Had he been healthy, Dike could’ve provided a fascinating alternative for Berhalter, considering his mix of size (6-foot-2) and speed to keep a backline honest.Beyond that? There isn’t much in the youth pipeline. The U.S. U-20s won the CONCACAF Championship in July playing without a true striker. Either Berhalter or the next manager will surely comb the globe for potential dual nationals, too.Arsenal forward Folarin Balogun (21) was born in New York City to Nigerian parents but raised in England and can represent any of the three national teams. Balogun has represented England’s the youth national teams at the U-18, U-20 and U-21 levels. Loaned to Ligue 1 club Reims in August, Balogun has scored eight goals and notched two assists in 15 appearances so far this season.Moving forward, the U.S. has to build depth at this position because it’s obvious fans no longer want to see Gio Reyna thrust into a false 9 role in the final 45 minutes of a win-or-go-home match. Whether that’s Berhalter’s task once again or someone else’s, it is the paramount necessity ahead of the next World Cup on home soil.

A new generation of (healthy!) center backs

Is it fair to be critical of a central defense that conceded four goals in four matches at a World Cup? It is, unfortunately, when three of them came in an elimination match in the round of 16. At 35, Tim Ream played in his first and likely only World Cup in Qatar and fared well serving as a veteran left-footed presence on a back line that was, like the rest of the starting lineup, very green. Walker Zimmerman (29) unwisely conceded the penalty to Wales in the opener and had a decent tournament, but isn’t the caliber of technical center back the U.S. needs moving forward.

Zimmerman became a staple under Berhalter during qualifying and served a vital role in a backline that routinely suffered injuries to other potential starters. Who is the ideal center back pairing, though?Presumably it’s Miles Robinson (25) and Chris Richards (22), both of whom missed this World Cup through injury. Cameron Carter-Vickers (24) started in the 1-0 win over Iran and was solid. He should be part of the conversation during this upcoming qualifying cycle.

Depth behind the indispensable MMA midfield

The “MMA” midfield of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams overall had a very strong tournament. The trio struggled against the Dutch and it was impossible to not notice the heavy legs the trident had early on in the match. You have to achieve the primary goal of advancing out of the group stage, though, and Group B of Wales, England and Iran wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been, either. Berhalter understandably kept the MMA midfield out there together as often as he could, but having reliable depth in the midfield could’ve helped keep the trio fresher ahead of the round of 16.As the most indispensable player of the tournament, Adams went the full 90 minutes in all four matches, but McKennie (233 minutes out of a possible 360) and Musah (345 minutes played out of a possible) were nowhere near as effective against the Dutch as they had been in group stage play. While more attack-minded in nature, could Brenden Aaronson have earned a start against either Wales, England or Iran to spell either McKennie or Musah? While this starting midfield combination proved to be as formidable as hoped, there isn’t enough depth waiting in the wings to sustain the team through a series of matches in a compact tournament format or a significant injury to one member of the main trio.

Kellyn AcostaLuca de la Torre and Cristian Roldan were taken as potentially supplemental players in case of emergency, but as we move into this next qualifying cycle, who else should emerge? Gianluca Busio, Paxton Pomykal and the younger Aarsonson, 19-year-old Paxten, who recently was transferred to Eintracht Frankfurt come to mind. The Berhalter regime has also been high on Johnny Cardoso, who at 21 is a regular for Internacional in Brazilian Serie A, but Cardoso has struggled in senior-team caps.But again, the true game-changer for the U.S. is finding a striker. Over the next three and a half years, someone has to emerge…right?

The origin of penalties – and the dreaded shootout

By Michael Walker Dec 8, 2022 37


Were FIFA, or anyone else, making a film this week on the delicious, delicate subject of penalty kicks, the opening could go something like this:

Scene 1 – Morocco versus Spain, 2022 World Cup; as Achraf Hakimi steps forward confidently to dink the most audacious of penalties beyond Unai Simon and win a dramatic, historic last-16 shootout watched by multimillions from Casablanca to Caracas, the camera pans to Sergio Busquets 50 yards away, hands on hips, trying to comprehend the magnitude of his miss before Hakimi’s hit. Around the two men is vibrant colour and incessant noise, global noise.

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Scene 2 – Silence. A church in rural Ireland. It is Saint Mark’s, Armagh. A grave. A white iron fence surrounds a family plot. It belongs to the McCrums, of nearby Milford. In the middle is a replica black and white football, World Cup 1970 vintage, on a small plinth. More silence. Pause.

What connects these two very different scenes is the man who lies buried in this seldom-regarded corner of County Armagh. His name was William McCrum and he invented the penalty kick.

McCrum grew up two miles away, down the Monaghan Road, where today the entrance to the village declares you are now in, ‘Milford: Home of the Penalty Kick.’

It feels a long way from Doha — from a World Cup, from Antonin Panenka, Roberto Baggio and all the penalty kicks that have ever been taken in the game — but this is where it began, between the ears of a young man dismayed at the lawlessness of early amateur and professional football.

William McCrum saw this first-hand, because he was a player. He was under-protected in a sport emerging from the physicality of rugby. He felt this sharply because he played in goal.

Yes, the penalty kick was the creation of a goalkeeper.


Who was William McCrum, and how did he come to change the nature of the most popular sport in the world?

McCrum was born in 1865 into a wealthy family whose fortune came from the linen industry. The McCrums built Milford — a model, redbrick village — for their workforce to live in. William, a keen sportsman and theatre-lover, left to attend university in Dublin and when he returned he joined Milford FC, founded in 1885.

Football, or soccer, was an embryonic sport then — the Irish League, which Milford would play in, was not yet formed. McCrum’s club were small but ambitious and were accepted into the league in its inaugural season, 1890-91. Centred on Belfast, the Irish League is the second-oldest national league in the world behind only England’s.

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To McCrum’s dismay, Milford struggled. They played 14 games, and they lost 14 games; in those games, they conceded 62 goals (over four per match on average). These statistics were one source of frustration for the 25-year-old, another was the general roughness and inadequate protection given to players, particularly he and his fellow goalkeepers.

Concerned about these sporting crimes, McCrum took his thoughts of how they might be punished via some sort of ‘penalty’ to the Irish Football Association (IFA). He had seen enough with his own eyes with Milford but will have also heard tales of brutality over in England — in Leicester, a player died following a deliberately violent challenge. The perpetrator was charged with manslaughter.

As he was involved in local amateur dramatics in Armagh, McCrum may also have recognized the theatre his invention could bring to the game.

In Jack Reid, general secretary of the IFA, McCrum found an ally.

Reid was a player as well as a key administrator — he was a centre-forward for Belfast club Cliftonville. Crucially, Reid’s position at the IFA gave him a seat on the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the administrative group which still oversees the Laws of the Game.

In 1890, Reid took McCrum’s idea to the IFAB annual meeting in London.

It was not well-received.

There were worries about the game’s flow and lines on the pitch. ‘Gridiron’ said one, others called it ‘the death penalty’, while CB Fry, perhaps the most prominent sportsman of the era being captain of England at cricket and of the famed Corinthians FC, lamented loudly the perception that players would foul one another intentionally. “A standing insult to sportsmen,” he called it.

Thus McCrum’s proposal was rejected, labelled sarcastically as ‘the Irishman’s Motion’.

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McCrum and Reid still believed in it, though, and some months later, Stoke City and Notts County met in an FA Cup quarter-final in Nottingham. County led 1-0 when Stoke had a shot cleared off the line by a player’s hand. The score should have been 1-1 but instead an indirect free kick was awarded, as was the ruling then. County massed their players on the line and the free kick was blocked. County went on to win 1-0 — they were jubilant, but the injustice was obvious to all.

Consequently, a year on from the previous IFAB annual meeting, the Irishman’s Motion was again placed on the table.

This meeting was in the Alexandra Hotel on Bath Street in the Scottish city of Glasgow. McCrum’s idea was given a more understanding hearing this time and his motion was passed.

‘The Penalty Kick’ became Law 14 of the sport.

So it remains.

There have been amendments — on its 1891 introduction, a line was drawn 12 yards from goal across the whole width of the pitch, the penalty taker could place the ball anywhere on this line and either dribble it or shoot. The goalkeeper was allowed to advance six yards off the goal line.

That lasted until 1902, when the ‘penalty spot’ was brought in. At the same time, the rectangular 18-yard line box we know today replaced the 12-yard line.

Three years later, goalkeepers were instructed not to move from their line.

In 1930, Manuel Rosas became the first to score a penalty kick at a World Cup — for Mexico against Argentina. McCrum had changed the geometry and language of sport.

The concept of a shootout — five penalties for each team and continuing ‘sudden death’ thereafter — came later. It was used in some minor tournaments and domestic cups in the 1950s and 1960s and gained credibility at senior level after the 1968 European Championship semi-final between Italy and the old Soviet Union.

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That game ended 0-0 after extra time and the two teams then tossed a coin. Italy guessed right, and went on to win the competition.

There was a lack of sporting justice.

IFAB subsequently adopted the shootout proposal, in 1970, after the World Cup in Brazil. In England that year, the pre-season tournament known as the Watney Cup introduced the new system. Manchester United won the first shootout and George Best, McCrum’s compatriot, scored the first shootout penalty.

In 1976, the first major tournament to be decided on penalties was the European Championship. West Germany faced Czechoslovakia in Belgrade and the Czechs won with Panenka scoring their fifth kick with that unforgettable and much-copied chip over Sepp Maier.

That type of penalty became known as a ‘Panenka’. Hakimi would probably agree it is arguably the greatest ever taken.

Six years later, West Germany were also involved in the first shootout at a World Cup — the semi-final against France in Seville — and 1994’s final was the first in World Cup history to be decided by penalties after extra time. Against Brazil, Roberto Baggio struck Italy’s fifth shootout kick over the bar in California’s Pasadena Rose Bowl and would later say: “It affected me for years. I still dream about it.”

In Baggio’s defence, there were nine penalties taken in that climax and four of them were either missed or saved.

As has been seen this week in Doha, it gets no easier.


As for William McCrum, he went into the family business only to squander its fortune gambling in Monte Carlo. He died back in Milford, penniless, in 1932, was buried in Saint Mark’s graveyard and as his invention grew in sporting significance, faded from memory.

In 1997, the green space at Milford where McCrum had first kicked a ball was threatened with a new housing development; locals fought against it and today a bust of McCrum sits there instead. The grave at Saint Mark’s has been restored and the literary editor of British Sunday newspaper The Observer, one Robert McCrum, has added to the increasing recognition.

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This McCrum discovered that William had been his great-grandfather and wrote:

“The penalty kick… is the kind of penalty that only a goalkeeper could have invented, a supreme moment of drama and self-sacrifice that places the goalkeeper, generally a bystander, at the centre of the stage. Yes, it stacks the odds against the goalie, but it does make him, heroically, even tragically, the star of the show.”

Morocco’s Yassine Bounou now knows the supreme moment, the noise. It contrasts with what Chris Waddle said after missing the final penalty in the World Cup semi-final shootout for England against the Germans in 1990: “I felt I was stepping off the edge of the world into silence.”

William McCrum came with a solution and delivered a drama. Noise and silence; elation and despair.

He left his mark. It’s there, 12 yards out, on every football pitch on the planet.

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