12/17/22  WC Final Argentina vs France Sun 10 am Fox, Pregame 9 am

So its defending Champs France vs sentimental Favorite and Copa America Champion Argentina with the legendary Lionel Messi needing just this win to cement his legacy at the GOAT in the minds of many around the world.  The matchup of powers combined with Messi’s quest for immortality leads most to predict this will be the most watched ever World Cup game in History.  Over 1 billion worldwide are expected to tune with close to 20 million expected in the US.  Honestly this is much watch TV  !!  In case you had any questions about the GOAT – Lionel Messi and Argentina – put those concerns aside as Messi once again showed why he is the greatest – as he carried his Argentina to victory.  His PK goal and Assist moved him into a tie with his PSG teammate Mbappe for the Golden Boot with 5 goals and 4 assist.  This play where he challenges the Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol that many are calling the best defender in the World Cup – turns him and completely embarrasses him as he drives past him and tucks the assist for an easy goal for his teammate – just personified the game he had against the outmanned Croatians.  Play in the proper Spanish. Sad to see the warrior Luca Modric  lose his final World Cup game but the GOAT’s quest to win his first ever World Cup is still in reach.  Again I picked Argentina partial because I want so much for Messi to win it – but also because I think they are the BEST team in the World.  Messi finally has the type of players around him that can carry some of the load.  Of course Messi and Mmbape are neck and neck for the Golden Boot with the final likely to decide.  The Vote here is for Messi and Argentina to win it all 2-1 though I would love to see a 3-2 Argentina Win instead. 

World Cup News  The Bracket

The World Cup commercials are out – which ones do you like best?  Nike  Addidas  check them all out hereIts Called Soccer – Classic Commercial    Here are some of the Best World Cup Commericals of all time..

Still Devestated by Soccer Writer Grant Wahl’s passing at the World Cup but relieved to hear he died of natural causes.  This World Cup did not need more controversy.  If you get a chance and you want to cry a little ESPN’s E60 Remember the Blue & Yellow is out now – about the Urkraine National Soccer team and their quest to make the World Cup in the middle of the Invasion by the Evil Russians.  Its definitely worth the watch. 

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. 

WORLD CUP GAMES ON TV

Sun, Dec 18                       FINALS                

10 am  Fox                         Argentina vs France

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!

World Cup Final Sun 10 AM FOX


Argentina v France – Keys to the World Cup final

Three keys for Argentina and France to win 2022 World Cup final

Messi vs Mbappe final gives under-fire Qatar its dream World Cup showpiece

World Cup final predictions: Argentina vs France – who our experts think will win

France’s foot soldier Griezmann pivotal on run to World Cup final

Scaloni answers critics with Argentina’s World Cup final run

Lionel Messi’s Final World Cup: By the Numbers

The Maradona vs Messi Debate
Key points to how France can win another World Cup title

Deschamps, France feeling ‘alone’ ahead of World Cup final

France camp in chaos with Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate latest to be hit by virus

‘It’s already Messi’s World Cup’: How the world reacted to Argentina’s thumping victory over Croatia

Gritty Croatia edges underdog Morocco to win World Cup third-place match
Hakim Ziyech Donates 2022 World Cup Earnings to Poor in Morocco

Jose Mourinho considers taking Portugal job as he weighs up whether to quit Roma

FIFA may reverse World Cup change for 2026 tournament

===================RackZ BAR BQ ====Save 20% ====================== 

AFTER YOUR PRACTICE AT BADGER FIELDHOUSE

Try out the Best BarBQ in Town right across the street (131st) from Northview Church & Badger Field on the corner of Hazelldell & 131st. RackZ BBQ

Save 20% on your order 

(mention the ole ballcoach) 

Check out the BarBQ Ribs, pulled Pork and Chicken, Brisket and more.  Sweet, Tangy or Spicy sauce. Mention you heard about it from the Ole Ballcoach — and Ryan will give you 20% off your next mealhttps://www.rackzbbqindy.com/ Call ahead at 317-688-7290  M-Th 11-8 pm, 11-9 Fri/Sat, 12-8 pm on Sunday.  Pick some up after practice – Its good eatin! You won’t be disappointed and tell ’em the Ole Ballcoach Sent You!  

Save 20% on these Succulent Ribs at Rackz BarBQ when you mention the Ole Ballcoach – Corner of 131 & Hazelldell. – Call 317-688-7290.

=====================RackZ BAR BBQ ======Save 20% ======================

FIFA convinced soccer will become No 1 sport in North America — Gianni Infantino

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 16: FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks to media during the Press Conference ahead of the Third Place and Final matches of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at the Main Media Center on December 16, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

By Jacob Whitehead


FIFA president Gianni Infantino has said the organisation “is convinced” that soccer will become the most popular sport in North America. The 2026 World Cup will be jointly-hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico.The president was speaking at a press conference in Qatar ahead of Sunday’s final between Argentina and France, but also looked towards the next edition. Projecting revenue of $11billion from the 2026 World Cup, Infantino said: “We are more than bullish (about the tournament’s potential success), we are convinced that the impact of the game will be massive. “We are bullish about the power of football (soccer). It will become the number one sport in North America.”

Infantino also discussed the format for the upcoming tournament, which is set to feature 48 sides for the first time, saying the plan to stage three-team groups may need to be “revisited”. As part of the move to 48 teams at the next tournament, the plan had been to have 16 groups, each containing three teams. The final round of group stage games at the 2022 World Cup — featuring simultaneous matches between the four teams — was praised for its excitement. Concurrent games would not be possible under a three-team group format. Discussing this, Infantino said: “Here the groups of four have been absolutely incredible; we have to at least revisit, or re-discuss”. He later confirmed this would be on the agenda at the next FIFA council meeting.

Three keys for Argentina and France to win 2022 World Cup final

USA TODAY

Fri, December 16, 2022 at 7:41 AM EST

This wasn’t the final many expected when the World Cup began almost a month ago, what with France hollowed by injuries and Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia in its opener. Yet here we are, the defending champions and Lionel Messi and Co. emerging as the class of a tournament as both chase history.

If Argentina wins, it fills the one blank space on Messi’s long list of accomplishments. If France wins, it becomes the first defending champion to repeat since Brazil in 1962 and makes Kylian Mbappé, at 23, the youngest player to win two World Cups since a 21-year-old Pelé.

WORLD CUP 2022: Schedule, scores and latest news

So how does each team win? Here are three keys for both:

ARGENTINA

Be ruthless 

The Netherlands scored two goals after the 83rd minute, including one in the final minute of stoppage time, to force extra time and then a penalty shootout. Argentina didn’t make the same mistake against Croatia, capitalizing on its early chances – a Messi penalty in the 34th minute followed five minutes later by the first goal of Julian Alvarez’s brace – and refusing to extend Croatia any lifelines.

France has shown a tendency to disappear for large chunks of time during games, and if it does in the final, the Albiceleste must pounce. Pour it on so a late comeback, if there is one, doesn’t matter.

Forget what’s at stake

Lionel Messi will play in his second World Cup final after Argentina was defeated in extra time in the 2014 final by Germany.
Lionel Messi will play in his second World Cup final after Argentina was defeated in extra time in the 2014 final by Germany.

Messi desperately wants to win a World Cup title, and his teammates and coach are equally desperate to help him do it. They have to put that out of their minds, however, or they won’t be able to play with the ease and flow that they have since that loss to Saudi Arabia.

Messi has been tremendous at this tournament – go back and watch him spin Josko Gvardiol around to set up Alvarez’s second goal against Croatia – and his teammates, the young ones in particular, have fed off that.

“Argentina has grown in confidence thanks to Messi’s brilliant performances,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after losing to France in the semifinals.

Play free, without a thought of what a victory will mean, and Messi’s legacy will take care of itself.

Corral Kylian Mbappé

I know, I know. Easier said than done.

Like Messi, France’s young star has an otherworldly ability to create space where there is none, cut through defenses and do things with the ball even cats can’t imagine. Somewhere, Morocco’s players are still muttering about his run that led to France’s insurance goal.

Argentina’s defense must shut down the flanks and funnel Mbappé through the midfield. He can still do plenty of damage, but not nearly as much as when he has free range outside, and this will allow Argentina at put more numbers on him.

FRANCE

Stay present

As already mentioned, France has had a habit of disappearing, especially when it gets an early lead. It hasn’t cost Les Bleus yet, but Argentina is a different caliber of team. Lose intensity for an extended period of time, or lose track of Messi, and he and his teammates will take full advantage.

“We weren’t perfect against England, we weren’t perfect against Morocco,” France coach Didier Deschamps acknowledged.

“But in a final, against Argentina, both teams are playing a better team than they’ve played so far in the tournament,” Deschamps said. “We have two sides with a great deal of quality. It will be up to key players to make a difference, maybe a team who makes fewer mistakes is going to win the game.”

Let that be a word of warning to his players, not a prediction.

Don’t overlook Argentina’s youngsters

Sublime as Messi has been in this World Cup, Argentina isn’t playing for the title without its young stars. Of Argentina’s 12 goals, seven have come from players who are 24 or younger and are in their first World Cup.

Julián Álvarez, 22, leads the group with four, second only to Messi and Mbappe. Enzo Fernandez, who turns 22 next month; Nahuel Molina, 24; and Alexis Mac Allister, who turns 24 next week, each have one, and Fernandez and Molina both have an assist, as well.

That’s why Deschamps cautioned against reading too much into France and Argentina’s last meeting, a 4-3 win by Les Bleus in the round of 16 in 2018.

“This Argentina side is different to the side we faced four years ago,” he said.

Don’t mess with what’s working

Karim Benzema has recovered from the thigh injury that knocked him out of the World Cup, and Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo said Real Madrid has given the Ballon d’Or winner permission to rejoin France.

Tempting as it might be to bring back a player of Benzema’s quality for the World Cup final, France has been doing fine without him. More than fine, in fact. Benzema’s replacement, Olivier Giroud, had four goals in his first four games to become France’s all-time leading scorer, while Mbappé continues to do Mbappé things and Antoine Griezmann has turned back the clock.

Trying to work in a new player at this late stage, even Benzema, risks disrupting France’s chemistry and flow.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Argentina, France in World Cup 2022 final: Three keys for each to win

France, the imperfect back-to-back World Cup finalists

AL WAKRAH, QATAR - NOVEMBER 22: Olivier Giroud of France celebrates with teammates after scoring their team's fourth goal   during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between France and Australia at Al Janoub Stadium on November 22, 2022 in Al Wakrah, Qatar. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

By Oliver Kay Dec 15, 2022


L’Equipe called it un exploit venu des trefonds, a feat from the depths, and when you look at it that way, as a triumph over adversity as well as a valiant opponent, France’s progression to a second consecutive World Cup final looks that bit more impressive.The performance? Not so much, in truth. France coach Didier Deschamps admitted his team “weren’t perfect” in beating Morocco in Wednesday’s semi-final and that they “weren’t perfect” when they overcame England in the quarter-final either. Over the course of those two matches they rarely looked like reigning world champions, but, ultimately, with a squad ravaged by illness and injury, only the result mattered.France’s 2-0 win over Morocco means that this strangest of World Cups will end with the showpiece final its organisers would have desired beforehand. Argentina vs France means Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe, which means the greatest player of his generation against his heir apparent, both of them under the employment of Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain.If the “dream final” was in doubt for a time in Al Khor on Wednesday evening it was because Morocco, the surprise package of this World Cup, made France sweat for it.For periods of the game, with Sofyan Amrabat outstanding again in midfield, Morocco pushed Deschamps’ team harder than England did on Saturday. After conceding the first goal to Theo Hernandez within five minutes, Morocco went on the offensive, taking risks, committing players forward and threatening an equaliser until Randal Kolo Muani came off the bench to tap home France’s second goal on 78 minutes.

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

With that, Deschamps and his players could finally begin to focus on Sunday’s final. “We could have played better,” the coach said. “But we’re in the final and both finalists will be playing a better team than they’ve played so far in the tournament. Maybe the team who makes fewer mistakes will win the game.”hinking back to France’s last World Cup final four years ago, that 4-2 victory over Croatia in Moscow was a strange game, strewn with errors at both ends of the pitch. So was Wednesday’s semi-final as both teams played at a frantic pace and left large gaps for the opposition to exploit. If Morocco were left to pay the price, eventually, for allowing Mbappe too much space in the build-up to the second goal, similar could be said of France’s defending; they can’t afford to give Messi as much time, space and encouragement as they gave Azzedine OunahiHakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri.For France, there were mitigating circumstances. It is well-documented that they went into this tournament without Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema due to injury. Since then they have lost Lucas Hernandez to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and, on the day of the semi-final, Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot to what Deschamps called “an illness going round in Doha”. “We’re all trying to be careful so it doesn’t spread,” the coach said, adding that he expects both players to be fit for Sunday.


Where to go next on The Athletic


The France squad is much-changed from that in Russia four years ago, but by the time the team sheets dropped for the semi-final it barely felt recognisable. Only five of the starting XI against Morocco (Hugo LlorisRaphael VaraneAntoine GriezmannOlivier Giroud and Mbappe) had started in the 2018 final. Jules Kounde (24), Ibrahima Konate (23), Theo Hernandez (25), Youssouf Fofana (23) and Aurelien Tchouameni (22) represent a new wave, as do Marcus Thuram (25) and Randal Kolo Muani (24), who came off the bench to kill off Morocco’s resistance.Tchouameni has started all six of France’s games in Qatar. Kounde and Konate, who performed well in a makeshift defence against Morocco, are now up to four and three starts respectively. Griezmann is looking better and better in a roaming midfield role. Mbappe, without being at his best against Morocco, still provided moments of real quality.The concern was that Mbappe was too focused on going forward and offered Theo Hernandez insufficient defensive support. Achraf Hakimi was linking well with Ziyech and eventually Deschamps decided intervention was needed, replacing Giroud with Thuram, who came on at left wing under orders to track Hakimi when he goes forward and, where possible, to push him back. That worked well, as did the decision to replace Ousmane Dembele with Kolo Muani, who scored within 44 seconds of coming on.When you consider how many players are already missing, the strength in depth is particularly creditable. But how good is this France team? Good enough to beat Australia 4-1, Denmark 2-1, Poland 3-1, England 2-1 and Morocco 2-0, but their impressive progression through the knockout stages in Russia four years ago has not been matched. Maybe Mbappe and his team-mates are saving themselves for Argentina, whom they memorably beat 4-3 in Kazan in 2018.

Mbappe, France, ArgentinaMbappe in the win against Argentina in 2018 (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

How well do you have to play to win the World Cup, though? The accepted wisdom is that you have to reach the form of your life, but international football is not always like that. Sometimes it requires the squad with the best players simply to hold their nerve, work together and avoid doing anything stupid. A sensible squad with talented players and the right mindset will always have a chance. Under Deschamps, France are certainly sensible.France have reached this year’s final having hit top gear only briefly, against Australia. Against England and Morocco, they rode their luck slightly but had just enough quality, know-how and ruthlessness to see off an opponent without the same winning tradition.They will be expected to have to raise their game to defeat Argentina in the final, but Deschamps would happily accept any kind of performance just as long as they get their victory — especially in the circumstances of this tournament, when they have had to draw on deeper reserves in more ways than one.Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who was born and raised in the suburbs south of Paris, declared in the post-match press conference that “over the past 20 years you can say France is the top footballing country in the world. They have the best players and the best coaches and they are the best team in the world.”SpainGermany or Italy might have something to say about the past two decades if we are talking purely about international football, but France have become the first team to reach consecutive men’s World Cup finals since Brazil in 1994, 1998 and 2002. They will hope to become only the third team (after Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962) to win back-to-back titles. All of this — plus runners-up in the European Championship final in 2016 and winners of the Nations League in 2021 — would have been unimaginable when they were failing to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994.As for Deschamps, who was a France international in those dark days, he led Les Bleus to World Cup glory as captain in 1998 and as coach in 2018. A third winner’s medal would do him nicely, but when this was put to him on Wednesday evening, he said little beyond suggesting that “the team is more important than me”.Increasingly, he finds himself meaning the squad rather than the team he originally had in mind when France qualified for this World Cup. Barely a day seems to go by without France enduring some setback or another, but, from the depths of their squad and their depleted energy reserves, they have found enough to get the job done. If they are to overcome Messi and Argentina, they might have to dig deeper still.

Lionel Messi winning World Cup would define him but he’s already among the greatest of all

Lionel Messi winning World Cup would define him but he’s already among the greatest of all

Oliver KayDec 15, 2022

There have been times when the weight of a nation’s febrile hopes and dreams appeared too great a burden for Lionel Messi.

It made him anxious, sick with nerves. It made the fear of failure unbearable and the pain of defeat even worse.Fernando Signorini, Argentina’s former fitness coach, recalls seeing Messi stagger into their dressing room, zombie-like, after a crushing 4-0 defeat by Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, and collapse to the floor. There he sat, slumped in a gap between two benches, inconsolable, shouting, wailing, howling, “almost convulsing”.

Messi never asked to be his country’s saviour. If Diego Maradona had the ebullient, rebellious personality to back up his extraordinary talent as a footballer, making him an Argentine cultural icon in the tradition of Che Guevara or Eva Peron, then Messi has always been a different type. His gifts earned him a status that was at odds with a quiet, shy, introverted nature.

Some mistook it for indifference to the national cause. Messi had left his homeland for Barcelona at the age of 13 and he mumbled his way through the national anthem before games whereas Maradona — in the stands, on the touchline, on grainy old VHS footage of his 1980s pomp — belted it out proudly and passionately. But Messi did care. Every failure on the international stage cut deep. If anything he cared too much.By 2016, the burden felt too great. He had been to three World Cups: twice a beaten quarter-finalist, once a beaten finalist. Now came a fourth consecutive failure at the Copa America: a beaten finalist for a third time when, after a stalemate with Chile,  he missed the target in the penalty shootout. Sergio Aguero said he had never seen his team-mate and close friend so “broken” as in the dressing room afterwards.Messi on his way to a soul-crushing collapse (Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

Messi couldn’t take it anymore.“For me, the national team is over,” he said after that Copa America final, holding back the tears. “I’ve done all I can. It’s been four finals; I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it. It’s very hard, but the decision is taken. There will be no going back.”Barely five days later, Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported that Messi had had a change of heart. Rather than listen to those who insisted he could never do what Maradona had done, he was desperate to defy them and lead Argentina to glory.He had felt he could no longer live with the burden of his nation’s hopes and dreams. But on reflection, he couldn’t live without it.


Spool forward to December 2022, a Tuesday night in Qatar, and Messi, aged 35, looked like a man free of the burden that had weighed so heavy on his shoulders for so long.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://8e4b4dfe273f58cc345c11c3b77c9031.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

He had just produced another masterclass as Argentina swept past Croatia to reach his second World Cup final. At the end, standing on the halfway line, he doubled over, hands on his knees, looking down at the turf.

Was he crying? No, he was smiling — and his grin got wider and wider as Leandro Paredes embraced him and lifted him off the ground and then other team-mates, fellow veterans including Nicolas Otamendi and Angel Di Maria, flocked towards him to do likewise.

Watching Messi in those minutes after the final whistle was heart-warming. He looked so incredibly happy, linking arms with his team-mates in a celebratory throng as they bounced up and down and sang along with the supporters:

Muchachos

Ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar

Quiero ganar la tercera

Quiero ser campeón mundial

Y al Diego

Desde el cielo lo podemos ver

Con Don Diego y La Tota

Alentándolo a Lionel

Translation: “Guys, now we’re getting excited again. I want to win the third. I want to win to be world champion. And Diego, in the sky we can see him, with Don Diego and La Tota (Maradona’s parents), encouraging Lionel.”

The soundtrack to their campaign sounds better in Spanish, with an Argentinian accent. But then again, what doesn’t? There is another line about how “you will not understand the finals we lost, how many years I cried for them” but how victory over Brazil in the final of last year’s Copa America changed everything … and, yes, now they’re getting excited again.

Lionel Messi, ArgentinaMessi, triumphant, is heading for a World Cup final (Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

So much of that excitement stems from Messi.

Enzo FernandezJulian Alvarez and others have impressed more and more as the tournament has gone on, but really Qatar 2022 feels almost as much like the Messi show as the 1986 World Cup felt like it was all about Maradona. Not quite the same — Maradona was 25, at the peak of his powers — but you don’t have to be obsessed with narrative and sporting history to recognise certain parallels.One significant difference is that we know Sunday’s final against holders France will be his last shot at glory in the World Cup. He suggested as much before the tournament and reiterated that when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday night.“It’s my last World Cup,” he said. “There’s a long way to go until the next one (in the summer of 2026), many years, and surely because of age I won’t get to it.”But in many ways, he defies age. He cannot dart between defenders as quickly or as frequently as he used to, but the run that set up the third goal on Tuesday was a thing of beauty. Up against Josko Gvardiol, the most coveted young central defender in world football, Messi bamboozled the 20-year-old once on the right-hand touchline, then again, then again, along the byline, before teeing up Alvarez to make it 3-0. It really was glorious.And now he stands on the threshold of… what exactly? Greatness? As subjective as the word might be, by any standard Messi achieved sporting greatness years ago. Greatest of his generation? To some of us, that also ceased to be a serious debate long ago, despite the brilliance, longevity and prolific strike rate of his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.Greatest of all time? Now that is a debate, albeit impossible to answer definitively when comparing players from eras as different as Pele, Maradona and Messi.The lack of a World Cup winner’s medal has always been the one argument that can be held against Messi — for now at least. And here we come back to his struggle, in the past, to handle that suffocating pressure as confidently as, say, Maradona did. But is that a fair portrayal?


Remember Nike’s Write The Future advert before that 2010 World Cup? It proposed the tournament in South Africa as something that would define the lives of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Franck Ribery, Fabio Cannavaro and others for better or for worse.

In Rooney’s case, the ad proposed that a misplaced pass might mean an angry boy tearing down his Rooney poster, England fans rioting in the street and the stock market crashing, leaving him to work as a groundsman while living in a caravan (a bit far-fetched, but the bearded version of this future self was, it turns out, spot-on), whereas racing back to retrieve the situation and tackle Ribery would see him knighted and his face carved into the White Cliffs of Dover.

We were never given a picture of what Ronaldo’s nightmare scenario might be, perhaps because anything less than a glorious future seemed inconceivable.

Instead we saw a glimpse of a future in which he cuts the ribbon on the Estadio Cristiano Ronaldo, makes a cameo in The Simpsons, is adored everywhere he goes and gets feted as he arrives at the premiere of Ronaldo: The Movie.

The ad concluded with Ronaldo standing over a free kick, a moment of truth, and imagining that a giant statue of him would be unveiled back home if he scores it. And as he struck the ball with that famous right foot — clad in a Nike boot, of course — the screen faded to black and we were left to contemplate how that World Cup might define the legacy of some of the game’s biggest stars.

It didn’t really, which is just as well. Rooney had a terrible tournament, lacking sharpness after injury, and got a lot of stick on his return home. Drogba scored one goal, against Brazil, but didn’t make the impact he had hoped as Ivory Coast failed to make the last 16. Cannavaro and Ribery also suffered elimination at the group stage with Italy and France respectively.

As for Ronaldo, he scored just once for Portugal — the sixth goal in a 7-0 victory over North Korea. After his team were eliminated in the round of 16, he looked down a TV camera’s lens and spat angrily. Afterwards he said, “I feel a broken man, completely disconsolate, frustrated, and an unimaginable sadness. I am a human being and I have the right to suffer alone.”

Messi, as mentioned at the start of this article, fared no better in South Africa. And the memory endures, having been beguiled by his performances for Barcelona that season, of him looking pale, almost ghost-like, as he walked through the mixed zone past the waiting journalists after that 4-0 thrashing by the Germans in Cape Town.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://8e4b4dfe273f58cc345c11c3b77c9031.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Reading Guillem Balague’s Messi biography, in which Signorini describes the harrowing scenes in the dressing room before that, it all adds up.


The World Cup is brutal.

Is the standard of the football as rarefied as it is in the later stages of the Champions League? Almost certainly not. But that is a double-edged sword. At Barcelona, particularly under Pep Guardiola, Messi played in one of the most fluent, cohesive teams ever to have played the game. Then he went to South Africa and played for an Argentina side which, under Maradona’s management, was predictably chaotic — just as it was, more surprisingly, under Jorge Sampaoli at the 2018 World Cup.

Unlike Olympic athletes, who work in four-year cycles, trying to build towards a peak of performance at that precise point, footballers typically tend to turn up at World Cups mentally and physically drained at the end of a long season at club level. And in teams that are often makeshift by nature, star players such as Messi and Ronaldo — and Rooney back in the day, when he always seemed to arrive at tournaments carrying an injury — are expected to work their magic under extreme pressure, knowing that every game is do-or-die.

That didn’t stop Maradona producing a series of superhuman performances as he dragged Argentina to victory in 1986.

Contrary to some of the revisionism, it was hardly a team of no-hopers; many of them, including Jorge Burruchaga, had previously won or would go on to win the Copa Libertadores, while Jorge Valdano had just won La Liga with Real Madrid. But, whatever you have heard or read about Maradona in Mexico, his performances in the first three knockout ties against Uruguay, England and Belgium in particular were every bit as jaw-dropping at the time as legend suggests.

But that is the exception. To expect or demand that Messi and Ronaldo perform like Maradona in 1986 is simply not realistic. Maradona’s own experiences tell you that.

Maradona’s first World Cup, in 1982, ended in disgrace; having spent a fortnight in Spain being kicked from pillar to post, he planted his boot into the groin of Brazil midfielder Batista and was sent off. The second, four years later, everyone knows about. At risk of labouring the point, it was magnificent.

Maradona’s World Cup triumph in 1986 defined him but other tournaments were far less glorious (Photo: Getty Images)

His third, in 1990, was perhaps a notch or two down from Messi’s 2014 one — excellent by anyone else’s standards, but a little disappointing by his own. And his last, in 1994 at age 33, ended in disgrace like the first, this time for testing positive for the banned drug ephedrine after a group-stage victory over Nigeria. The World Cup experience brought out the worst in Maradona, as well as the best.

You could say similar of Zinedine Zidane.

He, more than anyone, is synonymous with hosts France’s World Cup triumph in 1998, scoring twice in the final against Brazil, but he was sent off against Saudi Arabia in the group stage for stamping on an opponent and didn’t return until the quarter-final. Four years later, he missed France’s first two games through injury and was unable to spare them from defeat by Denmark and an early exit. His swansong in 2006 is much romanticised, but his red card in the final, for headbutting Marco Materazzi, seemed a classic example of a star player cracking under intense pressure as well as provocation.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Zidane’s best moment vs Brazil was in the first minute. Was he really that good in 2006 quarter-final?

The great Brazilian striker Ronaldo returned from career-threatening injury to score eight goals at the 2002 finals, ending up with the Golden Boot as well as a winner’s medal, but he too would identify with the pressure Messi and others have experienced on the biggest stake.

Four years before that, he was mysteriously withdrawn from Brazil’s team for the final against France, only to be restored to the starting line-up at the last moment. The situation was shrouded in secrecy at the time, but rumours persisted that he had suffered a seizure and been sent to hospital for tests on the morning of the final — a story he verified in the recent documentary about his career and in an interview with The Athletic.

“A phenomenon cannot fail, cannot feel pain, cannot stop scoring,” the Brazilian said, referring to the pressure to avoid showing weakness as a 21-year-old superstar. “What happened in France in 1998 was what happens at the World Cup. Everyone’s attention is focused on it. The whole world stops to watch it.”

And in those moments, even the greatest players — Messi, both Ronaldos, Zidane and, yes, even Maradona — have been known to find the pressure overwhelming.


It would seem a little too convenient to suggest this is the first time Messi has appeared free from the burden of carrying Argentina’s hopes and dreams. He certainly showed no sign of feeling the pressure as a teenager in 2006, making a series of eye-catching cameos before surprisingly being left on the bench as his team were beaten on penalties by Germany in the quarter-finals.

Without question the pressure got the better of him in 2010 — there was too much noise around him, and Maradona the manager was not exactly a calming presence — but in Brazil four years later he looked far more like his Barcelona self.

He scored four times in the group, including characteristically superb strikes to defeat Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iran, and then laid on the decisive goal for Di Maria against Switzerland in the last 16. Messi dominated the quarter-final against Belgium too, albeit without scoring, but he was quieter in the semi-final, as Argentina edged past the Netherlands on penalties, and in the final against Germany, when Mario Gotze broke the deadlock in the second half of extra time. Germany took their best chance and Argentina, specifically Gonzalo Higuain, missed theirs.

On such moments does history turn.

At Russia 2018, Messi clearly struggled. That was an old Argentina squad, mediocre in some areas, that had only narrowly scraped through the qualifying campaign thanks to his hat-trick in the final game away to Ecuador. In the group stage, he missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Iceland and then looked defeated and demoralised during a 3-0 loss to Croatia.

Back home, newspaper La Nacion quoted one squad insider as saying, “The Leo I know did not come to Russia. He is absent even when he is standing in front of you.”

Messi struck back decisively in the final group game against Nigeria, a sublime piece of control and equally adroit finish helping to take Argentina through to the knockout phase. Next they faced France, where Kylian Mbappe, more than a decade his junior, stole the show in a 4-3 win and Messi was left to wonder whether his last shot at World Cup glory had passed him by.

Messi was said to be present but absent in Russia as another World Cup slipped by (Photo: Getty Images)

Prior to his death in 2020, Maradona often spoke sympathetically about Messi, pointing out the challenges and pressures he faced. On other occasions, he was withering.

“We shouldn’t deify Messi any longer,” Maradona said in late 2018. “He’s Messi when he plays or Barcelona (…) and he’s another Messi with Argentina. He’s a great player, but he’s not a leader. It’s useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.”

This seemed a cheap shot, but it has been a recurring theme throughout Messi’s international career: his lack of leadership, his lack of personality, his inability to do as Maradona did. And yet he has produced world-class performances year after year after for Barcelona and now Paris Saint-Germain at club level and, at times, for Argentina.

Maradona was a phenomenal, generational talent whose temperament drove him to glory at one World Cup, undermined him at two others and sadly curtailed his career at the highest level. There is no perfect personality type for team sport, but is hard to embrace the notion that Messi, still irresistible in his mid-30s, is the one of the two men with a fatal flaw.

But maybe Messi’s less obvious faults have held him back on occasions when the stakes have been highest and the pressure at its most intense.

As Balague writes in Messi: The Definitive Autobiography, “Leo has to co-exist with anxiety, nerves, mistrust, mood, security, motivation, distress — and his handling of them can increase or decrease his performance levels. Well managed, they bring with them wisdom. Out of control, they ensure chaos.”

And never is the threat of chaos greater than when playing for Argentina at the World Cup.


Easy to forget now, but it is less than three weeks since Argentina were facing up to the threat of humiliation.

Beaten by Saudi Arabia in their opening game, they were deadlocked for over an hour against Mexico four days later and, as the pressure increased, Messi seemed to be having one of those games where, like against Croatia in 2018, he was getting quieter and quieter, as if retreating to his shell.

And then … one touch to control and BANG, a fierce left-foot driven past Guillermo Ochoa from 25 yards and Argentina were on a roll at last.

As he ran off in celebration, before being mobbed by his mostly younger team-mates, you could see the sense of wonder on his face, eyes and mouth wide open. It looked more like relief than joy. The joy only set in when he set up Fernandez to make it 2-0 with three minutes of normal time to play.

Messi and Argentina haven’t looked back. He didn’t score against Poland in the final group match — in fact, he had a penalty saved by Wojciech Szczesny — but his all-round performance was mesmerising. Likewise in the last 16 against Australia, when he scored one of those goals which he alone is capable of making look so easy.

He converted a penalty against both the Netherlands in the quarter-final (as well as one in the shootout) and Croatia in the semi-final, but in both of those matches his assists were what really took the breath away: a no-look pass threaded between Nathan Ake’s legs to set up Nahuel Molina against the Dutch and then that beguiling, bamboozling run past Gvardiol to set up Alvarez for the third on Tuesday.

Argentina have followed Messi’s character at this World Cup (Photo: Getty Images)

If you were watching Messi for the first time, those moments would bring you to your feet. When you have been watching him for years, you know they are second nature to him, even at this stage of his career, but they don’t happen quite as often as they used to.

The difference is that this time he is doing it in the knockout phase of a World Cup — somewhere, remarkably, he and indeed his great rival Ronaldo had never scored a goal before.

Messi puts his new-found sense of tranquillity with Argentina down to various things: maturity, fatherhood, even diet, but he also cites the spirit of his team-mates — a far less star-studded squad than in 2006, 2010 and 2014 — and the influence of the coach, Lionel Scaloni, who has brought a greater sense of calm and unity than Sampaoli in 2018 and in particular Maradona in 2010.

That victory over Brazil in the Copa America last year brought Argentina’s first trophy since 1993, a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.

“This brings us more calmness,” Messi said after that nervy win against Mexico. It wasn’t easy to detect much of that in the closing stages against Australia or the Netherlands, but it has been fascinating to see the way Messi has shaped his team’s mood in Qatar.

Against Poland he was frantic, setting the tone for a hyper-energetic display. Against the Netherlands, he was on a war footing, stung by perceived slights from Louis van Gaal and some of his players. Against Croatia, he appeared calmer and more sure-footed than ever before in a game of such magnitude for his country.


All of which brings us to Sunday, a World Cup final and an opportunity for… greatness? Immortality? In sporting terms, Messi is already there, at or very near the top of the pantheon, along with Pele, Maradona and, at a stretch, one or two others.

Imagine watching someone perform as Messi has done for the best part of two decades — not just a total of 791 goals for club and country but the range of his finishes, the beguiling dribbles, the slide-rule passes and the game intelligence to appreciate space and geometry in a way he couldn’t begin to explain — and trying to argue that his claims to greatness will hinge on one match he plays when he is 35 years old. He marked himself for greatness at a young age and has constantly underscored that status ever since.

Yes, it is tempting to look at it through the prism of that Nike ad from 12 years ago — this way greatness, that way oblivion — but there are a handful of players who are so exceptional that they have elevated themselves far beyond such conversations.

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of them.

He made history by becoming the first player to score at five World Cups, but his only real “Write The Future” moment across those five tournaments was a spectacular free kick to complete a hat-trick in a group match against Spain in 2018.

A disappointing total of eight goals across those five tournaments does not begin to reflect Ronaldo’s talent, but nor does it begin to define him. He is defined by being the record goalscorer in the history of Real Madrid, the Champions League and men’s international football and indeed by being one of the most famous people on the planet. That is all without ever coming close to winning a World Cup.

Messi could feasibly produce a vintage performance on Sunday but be unable to prevent a French victory. Or he could stay on the margins of the game and Argentina still win. In a team sport, conversations about greatness can never be reduced to a single match at the very back end of a player’s career — particularly when the player in question has proven his greatness over and over and over again.

But winning the World Cup final at this stage of his career really would be the crowning glory.

It would define an incredible career the way 1970 defined Pele and 1986 defined Maradona. It would mean achieving all he ever wanted — not just holding the World Cup in his hands at last but bringing joy to a nation which, perhaps more than any other, longs for success on the football pitch.

Messi has carried that burden for so long. As he nears the end of his odyssey, he finally looks comfortable with it.

Pochettino: This Argentina know that when you have Messi, you need to run for him

Pochettino: This Argentina know that when you have Messi, you need to run for him

Mauricio Pochettino Dec 16, 2022

I will always remember where I was the last time Argentina won the World Cup. It was June 1986 and they were playing West Germany in the final at the Azteca in Mexico City.I was 14 years old and just starting my career. I had been at Newell’s Old Boys for six months but I was back home in Murphy for the final. At my first club, Centro Recreativo Union y Cultura, they set up a big screen to show the game. There must have been 500 people, including me, my family and my friends.It was amazing to watch this game together, to watch my hero Diego Maradona and all the other players out there fighting for us, and winning 3-2. I will always remember that sight of Maradona lifting the trophy. It was really my first memory of a World Cup that I can still recall now in detail, coming at an age when I was just starting to feel football in different ways.Afterwards, we all went into the town to celebrate together. It was amazing: there was a queue of cars heading into town, and then in the main square — there is only one square in Murphy — we were celebrating, shouting, sharing the happiness. Just like you saw in Argentina on Tuesday night after the semi-final win.Our feeling was that this was our victory. Our own World Cup. And looking at the scenes in Argentina now, I think that is how the people will feel on Sunday if Argentina win our third World Cup. And there are a lot of similarities between this campaign and 1986.

A mobbed Maradona cradles the trophy in 1986 (Photo: David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

I was talking with Mario Kempes (who played in 1978) and Jorge Valdano (who played in 1986) about exactly this. It feels like a similar history. In 1986, the team understood that if they built the team around the best player in the world — Maradona then, Messi now — then everything would be possible.For me, this is the most important thing about this Argentina team, and why they are in the final on Sunday. It is because the players fully understand their jobs: when you have Messi in your team, you need to run for him. And when you have the ball, you need to give it to him as soon as possible so that he can create something. So the players know what they need to do in every single moment, to give Messi everything he needs to be decisive, like he was on Tuesday night against Croatia.Of course, Argentina need Messi, but Messi needs the other 10 players to fight for him in every single moment. It has been one of the keys of this side, how they all believe that by playing for Messi, they can win the World Cup. And you can see the players are giving 120 per cent to do this. Different players: Rodrigo De PaulAlexis Mac AllisterEnzo Fernandez, Julian Alvarez, they are giving all they have and more, and they are doing it for Messi. They are giving everything because this is their dream, they are so close, and when they have Messi, they know everything is possible.And then there is Messi. I am Argentino, I played for Argentina, and always the dream when I was a kid was to win the World Cup. Messi is no different. I know very well that his dream is to lift that trophy. Everyone in Argentina and, I think, every single person who loves football wants Messi to do it on Sunday. Because Messi is football. And as he has said, this will be his last World Cup game.Watching Messi this World Cup, I feel he has arrived here in his best condition, both physically and mentally, to help win it for Argentina, even at the age of 35. Maybe this is because he knows this will be his final World Cup, but he is so mature now. He knows exactly how he needs to behave, not only on the pitch but off it as well. And I think that leadership he is showing is why people finally believe this could be the time when the World Cup comes back to Argentina.You can see it in how he manages the game, how he talks with the referees, with Lionel Scaloni, even with the opponents. After the quarter-final against the Netherlands, when Argentina won on penalties, I heard some people comparing Messi’s leadership with the leadership that Maradona used to show.Messi is now the leader that Argentina need, and for me, that is a massive step for him. It’s not just the performances, which are what we expect. People think he is quiet, but sometimes what you perceive from the outside is wrong. He has a very strong character. He doesn’t talk too much, but he talks when he needs to. Maybe we see him talking more now because of the cameras and the technology. We are seeing the real Messi. He was always like this. People like to talk in myths and we all know there are a lot of those in football.Right now, Messi is performing at his best in every single area, and when you have that on your side, only good things can happen.

Messi is excelling at this World Cup (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Argentina deserve special credit because they arrived as one of the favourites and then started with that defeat against Saudi Arabia. There were plenty of doubts about the team then but they were very calm, very mature, and showed that game was an accident. And then they came back against Mexico and Poland, showing great unity and belief in their approach. And now after Australia, the Netherlands and Croatia, people believe they can win. Credit should also go to Scaloni and his coaching staff. They have built a really balanced team that respects Messi and respects the shirt.And respecting Messi is so important. He knows what he needs to do because he is the best player in the world and very mature. All the decisions he makes on the pitch are for him and for Argentina.

Is Messi the greatest? It’s OK to debate it – don’t let people ruin your fun

I know what it is like to manage Messi, I had him last season at Paris Saint-Germain. He represented the same things Maradona represented for me. You admire him from a distance and think he is the best player in the world. He is the type of player who, when he plays football, makes you smile and makes you feel proud. You can call him special, a superhuman or a super-player. And when you meet players like that — like Maradona — you can only admire them.So Messi is a player that knows everything. He has the ability to read exactly what is going on on the pitch and what the team needs him to do. And if you have him, just like with Maradona, you have to enjoy it. To have him there training for 90 minutes or two hours with you, it’s unbelievable. So for me, it was an amazing experience, to be able to share the training ground with him.Messi’s own motivation is amazing. You cannot find a more competitive player than him or Maradona. They hate to lose, even more than normal players. They have a capacity to be ready to compete in every single game, every single area of their life. Messi is competitive to arrive first at the training ground to be ready to be on the pitch. Even in a small-sided game in training sessions, there is another level of motivation.

‘To have Messi there training for 90 minutes or two hours with you, it’s unbelievable’ (Photo: Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

People talk about defensive work and pressing, but the point with Messi is that he does not need to press. When you have Messi, you need the other players to understand that they need to recover the ball and give it to him so that he can conserve his energy and then be decisive, just as Argentina are showing now. Honestly, I think the debate about Messi’s defensive work is so stale, almost silly. You cannot pretend that Maradona or Pele — along with Messi, the most important players in football — were focused on trying to win the ball back. He cannot be involved in that. He just needs to keep his position and for the others to run for him.So it is difficult to compare this Argentina team to PSG. There, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar needed their space, too, needed to feel like they were big guys at the club. And sometimes the other players had a difficult time to understand if they needed to play for Messi, or play for Mbappe, or play for Neymar. Mbappe needs to have a team behind him to play for him, but so do Neymar and Messi. That’s why they are all leaders in their national teams. Everyone knows that when those three are together, amazing, unbelievable things can happen on the pitch. But of course, it’s not easy to find the right balance.


I remember talking with Messi about Newell’s Old Boys, the club where we both started our careers. He told me he remembered his father Jorge taking him to Parque Independencia to watch Newell’s when he was really, really young. We talked about whether he would have come to watch Newell’s when I was still playing for them.Messi is a great ambassador for Argentina, but also for his hometown of Rosario, a city that smells of football. Rosario is a special place, the home of Che Guevara, the home of truly special and creative people (like Messi), and plenty of footballers.

Fans unveil a Messi banner at Newell’s Old Boys (Photo: Marcos Brindicci/Getty Images)

Football is the most important thing in Rosario. It is divided between two clubs, Newell’s Old Boys (my old team) and Rosario Central. I know Rosario Central fans will hate me for saying this, but I think now there are more Newell’s Old Boys fans there. Over the past 20 or 30 years, they have attracted more fans because of Messi, Maradona, the people who played there and the trophies we won.

I know it’s unbelievable, but I think in Rosario even more than in Buenos Aires, you feel that people are crazy about football, more than you could even imagine. First, it’s football, second it’s football, third it’s football. But it’s an amazing city, it grew up around the Parana river and it has the monumento a la bandera, the monument of the flag, because that is where the flag of Argentina was created. It’s an important place in the history of football and the history of Argentina. And if anyone from England has never been to Argentina, I recommend you go there. You will feel very welcome, it’s an amazing city, and you can go to the Parque Independencia to watch Newell’s Old Boys, just like Messi used to do as a boy.

Pochettino watched the 1986 final in his hometown of Murphy and played for Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario, where Messi is from

If I have one sadness about Sunday’s final it is that my hero Maradona is not here to see it. I think we all miss seeing Diego up in the stands celebrating the Argentina goals, whether from Messi or Julian or any of the other players. It is really sad because he was such a presence in Argentinian football, even after he retired playing. Remember that he was the Argentina coach for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He is also part of the history of football, and the history of Argentina, too. I don’t know what Maradona would say to Messi now if he had the opportunity, a genius is a genius, they are different from the rest of us people. I only know that Diego would want to give Messi a big hug and a kiss, and to bless him with his hands. It is amazing to think about that, but sad to remember Diego will not be there on Sunday to support Argentina. But I feel he is supporting Argentina from the other side and is present in our thoughts. He will help us all, and the national team, to play their best and to win.

Is Messi the greatest? It’s OK to debate it – don’t let people ruin your fun

Is Messi the greatest? It’s OK to debate it – don’t let people ruin your fun

Nick Miller Dec 13, 2022

And so, Lionel Messi has reached his second World Cup final with a dazzling performance people will be talking about for years. So have the rest of the Argentina team, but most of the discussion in the next few days is likely to ignore Angel Di Maria and Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez, and centre on the man many believe to be the greatest footballer of all time. Many people also dispute that he is the greatest footballer of all time. There will be lots of talk, echoes from debates down the years, about whether Messi needs to win a World Cup to be considered the greatest. People will compare him to Pele, to Zinedine Zidane, and most pertinently to his Argentine countryman Diego Maradona. There will also be comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo, the spicy old to-and-fro argument that will still be going aboard some spaceship somewhere long after our sun explodes and the Earth is consumed by the fires of the apocalypse. And as a counter to this line of debate, there will also be lots of sensible, centrist types who will say things along the lines of ‘Why can’t we just enjoy them both?’ or, ‘Does it matter who the best is?’, or ‘We shouldn’t compare players like this’, or ‘Let’s just all be friends and have a big hug’.Granted, that last one might actually be quite nice and we should all take note. But the others are best ignored. Essentially, that sentiment is telling you not to have an opinion. Walk the middle ground, don’t feel strongly about anything, drift on through life without committing to anything. It is, in a roundabout way, a method of shutting down debate. Is that a bit of a dramatic thing to say about what is a fairly frivolous football opinion? Maybe, but surely the frivolous things are the things everyone can have opinions about. Who are they going to harm?If you speak your mind about, say, Palestine, you’d better be sure you know what you’re talking about because otherwise, you could cause some damage. But an opinion on the best footballer of all time? Who’s that going to negatively impact in any material way?

Maradona and Messi worked together for Argentina (Photo: Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

Half the point of being a football fan is to have opinions about things. Whether that’s in conversations with friends, conversations with strangers, conversations with taxi drivers, builders, cafe owners, bar staff, people in the street. Radio phone-ins, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, TikTok or whatever your social media of choice is. Before games, at games, during games, after games, outside games. At home, at work, at the pub, over dinner, in the street. To fill uncomfortable silences with your in-laws, to form bonds with your parents or siblings, to break the ice with a stranger at a wedding. To bore a partner, to fall out with a friend, to maybe even make new friends.Opinions about relatively frivolous football things are great. They’re also terrible. They’re often really entertaining. They’re also frequently tedious. But nobody should be able to tell you not to have an opinion, about things that matter and about things that don’t.The British radio hosts Danny Kelly (now of this parish) and Danny Baker used to say in terms of football opinion that they were “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain”. There’s plenty of value in that. We in the media are constrained by the often boring need for those opinions to be informed, relatively sensible and backed up with some sort of logic, facts and a foot in reality. But the rest of you aren’t bound by those shackles. Say what you think about football, make it outrageous, be polemical; forget moderation, facts are optional, leave logic behind.You’re allowed to be unreasonable, to have opinions without anything to back them up, to like someone because they share a name with your friend or to take against someone because you don’t like their face. 

Messi and Ronaldo at the Ballon D’Or ceremony in 2014 (Photo: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)

It’s absolutely fine to not have an opinion about whether Messi is the greatest. It’s absolutely fine not to care. It’s absolutely fine to watch the final few days of this World Cup without putting the action on the pitch into any sort of historical or contemporary context. It’s also absolutely fine to turn off the TV as soon as the final whistle goes, to not pay any attention to what happens next or about what people are saying. But if you have an opinion, express it. Don’t be made to think that your preference is invalid, or that everyone is just going to shout “BOOOOOOOOOORING!” at your face and insist that you sit on the fence. Does it ultimately matter who people think is the best player in the world? Not really. Is the constant comparison between players of the same or different eras boring? For a lot of people, yes.But settling on one side is far more interesting than the alternative. 

USMNT’s Tim Ream calls controversy surrounding Gio Reyna at the World Cup a ‘non-story’

Nov 29, 2022; Doha, Qatar; United States of America defender Tim Ream (13) celebrates after winning a group stage match against Iran to advance to the round of sixteen during the 2022 World Cup at Al Thumama Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

By Paul TenorioDec 16, 2022


U.S. national team center back Tim Ream said on his podcast, Indirect, that the controversy surrounding teammate Gio Reyna at the World Cup is a “non-story,” and that the situation was handled at the tournament by the team.

“I mean for us, it’s a non-story,” Ream said. “We dealt with it in camp, things moved on, we moved past it and that’s where we are. The players, there was no vote. So we can put that to bed. And like I said, we addressed it in camp and (Reyna) did what he had to do, and obviously came on against the Netherlands and played a pretty solid 45 minutes for us and helped to kind of drag us back into the game. So yeah for us, that’s it. That’s the end of it.”

ADVERTISEMENT

https://19dacdc60f902eaf6637475163aad456.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ream’s star U.S. teammate Christian Pulisic was a guest on the episode.
  • Pulisic did not address the situation.
  • Ream also shot down reports that the players voted on whether Reyna would stay in camp at the tournament.

Backstory

At a leadership conference, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter spoke about the situation without naming the player under the off-record Chatham House Rule, but the full comments were published by the newsletter Charter. The newsletter later added an editor’s note that said the leadership forum erroneously greenlit their publishing of the comments.

The Athletic reported Sunday that Reyna apologized to the team for a lack of effort during training at the World Cup. Reyna confirmed in an Instagram post that he “let my emotions get the best of me and affect my training and behavior for a few days after learning about my limited role. I apologized to my teammates and coach for this, and I was told I was forgiven. Thereafter, I shook off my disappointment and gave everything I had on and off the field.”

Reyna also addressed Berhalter’s comments on the Instagram post, saying he was “disappointed” that the story was being covered and that he was “surprised that anyone on the U.S. men’s team staff would contribute to it.”

The podcast comments from Ream were the first from any member of the U.S. World Cup team about the Reyna situation.

What they’re saying

Pulisic and Ream both picked Argentina to win the World Cup on Sunday, backing Lionel Messi to secure his legacy against a very strong France team. They touched on the Ronaldo versus Messi debate and Pulisic spoke about how he sees Kylian Mbappe as the best player in the world, at the moment.

Pulisic and Ream spoke about the pressures of going through deadline day and rumors swirling about going to new clubs or new players coming in, managers they’ve played under — Pulisic praised his time under Frank Lampard — life in London, the season so far at their respective clubs and rule changes they’d like to see in soccer.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://19dacdc60f902eaf6637475163aad456.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Pulisic on what he took away from his first World Cup experience and what it could mean for the USMNT going forward:

“I think my most significant takeaway would just be the experience that a lot of this team now has under their belt. Coming back here with my Chelsea teammates, for example, they’re all talking about like, ‘You guys actually have a good team. We didn’t know. You guys looked good, you guys looked good against England, you guys have a strong team.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I mean, I knew we had a strong team, and once everyone kind of came together, you could see that. And also now with the World Cup in the States next time around, I think these experiences are so important.

“People don’t understand, it’s just gaining that experience and having that bit of calmness next time around. And a lot of the core guys who will probably still be there (in 2026), is the best part about it. So I think that’s what I take away from it the most. Now that I feel like I have this experience, I feel even more comfortable out on the field. I’ve been in and played on the highest stage there is.”

Pulisic when asked where he sees himself playing in February:

“Right now, I’m absolutely back at Chelsea and focused and that’s where my mind is at. Ready to finish the season. But you know how things work in football, things change. Anything can happen. Things change quickly, for sure. We all know it. At the moment, I’m just pushing myself in training and working at Chelsea because that’s where I am right now.”

Ream on the best managers he’s played under:

“I think the best ones that I’ve had are really good at, and this goes along with what Christian was saying with Lampard, is that they’re really good at communicating with the players. The ones who, even if they didn’t play at that super high level, it’s the ones that will communicate with you good, bad or indifferent. Whether you’re not playing at the weekend or whether they’re asking about your family and how you’re doing off the pitch, or just having a random talk or random chat about life or football and everything in between. They’re the ones that are usually good at keeping the changing room happy. Because, listen, at the end of the day, players just want honesty. Whether they like it or not, at least they know where they stand. And so the managers who let you know where you stand, whether you’re in the team or out of the team, what their plans are, whether you’re in those plans or not in those plans, players may not be happy about it, but at least you know where you stand. And for me, those are the ones I’ve appreciated the most in my 14-year professional career.”

Prominent soccer journalist Grant Wahl died from aortic aneurysm, wife says

October 10, 2014: Grant Wahl. The Men's National Team of the United States and the Men's National Team of Ecuador played to a 1-1 draw in an international friendly at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

By The Athletic StaffDec 14, 202261


Prominent American soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who died last week while covering the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Qatar, suffered an aortic aneurysm, his wife said Wednesday.

In a post on her husband’s Substack site, Dr. Céline Gounder wrote that Wahl’s body was returned to the U.S. on Monday and an autopsy was performed by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://3e71fba4d234a60b43129aea55fd1e96.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

“Grant died from the rupture of a slowly growing, undetected ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium,” wrote Gounder, who is an infectious disease specialist. “The chest pressure he experienced shortly before his death may have represented the initial symptoms. No amount of CPR or shocks would have saved him. His death was unrelated to COVID. His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death.”An ascending aortic aneurysm is a weak spot at the top of the aorta, the main blood vessel in the body, which may cause it to bulge, tear or break open. While many patients with aortic aneurysms don’t experience symptoms, the condition can cause chest pain, coughing or wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Wahl, who had just turned 49, wrote on his Substack a few days before his death that he’d been feeling ill with cold symptoms that had worsened and included pressure in his upper chest. He sought treatment at a medical clinic where doctors suspected he had bronchitis, he wrote. He was covering the World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday when he collapsed. He received medical attention at the stadium before being taken to a local hospital by ambulance.

In an interview on “CBS Mornings,” Gounder said Wednesday the aneurysm had “been likely brewing for years.” The autopsy report puts an end to rampant speculation on social media about the cause of Wahl’s death.

https://3e71fba4d234a60b43129aea55fd1e96.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Throughout a career that spanned more than 25 years, with most of that time spent at Sports Illustrated, Wahl covered multiple World Cups and Olympic Games. In 2009, he wrote the bestseller “The Beckham Experiment.” On Monday, Wahl was among a group of 82 journalists who were honored for covering eight or more men’s World Cups.“For him, soccer was more than just a sport,” Gounder told CBS. “It was this thing that connected people around the world. There’s so much about the culture, the politics of soccer. To him, it was a way of really understanding people and where they were coming from.”Tributes to Wahl have poured in from around the globe.“It is some comfort to know that so many people Grant reached — countless colleagues, readers, athletes, coaches, friends, and fans —are grieving alongside us,” Gounder wrote.“While the world knew Grant as a great journalist, we knew him as a man who approached the world with openness and love,” Gounder wrote on Substack. “Grant was an incredibly empathetic, dedicated, and loving husband, brother, uncle, and son who was our greatest teammate and fan. We will forever cherish the gift of his life; to share his company was our greatest love and source of joy.”Gounder said details on a memorial service will come later.More on the life and career of Grant Wahl:

The World Cup trophy: Stolen by robbers, found by a dog, weighs the same as a cat

World Cup, trophy

By Nick Miller Dec 16, 2022


What do Franz Beckenbauer, Daniel Passarella, Dino Zoff, Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthaus, Dunga, Didier Deschamps, Cafu, Fabio Cannavaro, Iker Casillas, Philipp Lahm and Hugo Lloris have in common?

Granted, as quiz questions go, it’s not the most taxing. The captains to have lifted the World Cup from 1974 are a distinct and illustrious group — one of a small number of people that are actually permitted to touch FIFA’s most iconic prize.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://570eb2c07b87231b739b1298fcba03ad.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

The trophy itself is theoretically just a symbol, a physical representation of success and something for the winners to hold up and goon about with after their victory. The real prize is the ephemeral notion of being world champions, but ephemeral notions don’t come across quite as well in photographs or on TV, so something shiny is required.

The current World Cup trophy made its inaugural appearance in 1974, after Brazil had won the first cup for the third time in 1970. As decreed by Jules Rimet himself, the first team to win the trophy that bore his name thrice would be allowed to keep it in perpetuity.

Jules Rimet (left) presents the original World Cup trophy to Dr. Paul Jude, the president of the Uruguayan Football Association, after his country win the first tournament in 1930 (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

But that trophy was stolen from Brazil in 1983 and its fate uncertain. Or maybe it went missing some time in the 1960s. Perhaps it was stolen in the 1950s and the one that we all thought was the real thing was actually a replica.

Whatever its end, its beginnings came in 1928. When our old friend Rimet thought that a quadrennial global football tournament was a good idea, he needed something to award the victors. He employed a Parisian sculptor named Abel Lafleur, who came up with a design loosely based on the ancient Greek sculpture the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ (which is still available to view in the Louvre), with Nike the goddess of victory holding an octagonal cup with her wings.

To briefly defend the old boy against accusations of extreme egotism, the trophy was initially simply known as ‘Victory’, and was only named after Jules Rimet following his passing in 1956. The trophy was relatively modest in size, 35cm tall and made from silver, coated with gold: remember that latter piece of information, as it will be relevant in a few paragraphs.

The trophy was passed from the Uruguayans, after they won the first tournament in 1930, to the Italians before someone made a concerted attempt to steal it: those someones were the Nazis — up to no good again — who during the Second World War attempted to swipe it from Rome, where it was being held in a bank vault.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://570eb2c07b87231b739b1298fcba03ad.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Reasoning that would be the first place they would look, head of the Italian Football Federation Ottorino Barassi smuggled the trophy out of the bank for safe keeping. In his apartment. Those blundering Nazis did think of that, but in their search of his rooms they didn’t check the shoebox underneath his bed.

From the shoebox it went back to Uruguay after the 1950 World Cup, then to West Germany in 1954, but that’s where things get a bit complicated, and where some believe it went walkabout.

According to an Italian documentary called “The Rimet Trophy: The Incredible Story Of The World Cup”, it may have been stolen by thieves unknown around this time: a photojournalist called Joe Coyle reckons the trophy that made its way to Sweden for the 1958 tournament was 5cm taller and had a different base to the one the Germans won.

That does have the whiff of conspiracy theory, but an entirely unscientific survey conducted by The Athletic (we looked at some photos) suggests Coyle might have a point: the base does look quite different, but of course that doesn’t mean the whole trophy was spirited away somewhere. Perhaps the base was replaced for some reason. Perhaps another part was added. In short, nobody appears to know for sure, simply adding to the mystery of the trophy.

Then we get to 1966, the trophy stolen in London, Pickles the dog and all that. If you don’t know the story, the CliffsNotes version is that the Rimet trophy was on display at the Westminster Central Hall in London in March 1966 as part of a stamp exhibition, but on a Sunday lunchtime thieves forced open the back doors, undid the small lock on the display case and made off with it, leaving a pair of suitably red-faced security guards in their wake.

Pickles the dog and his owner David Corbett after finding the stolen Jules Rimet trophy in 1966 (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

There followed a slightly farcical hunt for the trophy, including a botched ransom exchange, before a week later a man named David Corbett took Pickles out for a walk in south London, and the hound sniffed it out from underneath a hedge. Corbett received a reward of around £6,000 (roughly $7,300), Pickles got a year’s supply of dog food and was officially recognised as a Very Good Boy, but he perished a year later, strangling himself on his lead as he tried to chase a cat.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://570eb2c07b87231b739b1298fcba03ad.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

This is where things get interesting. According to the book “The Theft Of The Jules Rimet Trophy”, by Martin Atherton, the FA secretly got a replica made, to avoid chaos like the Westminster theft. So secret in fact that they didn’t even tell FIFA about it until a silversmith called George Bird had completed his task. When England won the tournament they were presented with the real trophy, but that was quickly taken from them by a police officer tasked with keeping it safe, swapped with the replica.

Pickles poses for photographers near the spot where he found the stolen trophy (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

So which one made it to Mexico in 1970? The short answer is: almost certainly the real one. But even FIFA weren’t sure — when Bird died in 1995, his family auctioned the replica, hoping that it would fetch around £20,000-30,000 ($24,500-36,700).

But a mystery bidder ultimately paid an extraordinary £254,500 ($311,000), and that bidder turned out to be none other than FIFA. Why? Well, they suspected it was the real Jules Rimet Trophy, that somewhere in the journey to 1970 a mistake had been made and the replica took its place, or perhaps it was deliberately switched by persons unknown.

This isn’t idle speculation: FIFA confirmed as much to Simon Kuper, writing about the Rimet in the Financial Times. “Yes,” a FIFA spokesperson told Kuper in 2012. “FIFA took the decision to buy this trophy as it was thought to be the original one.” An examination of the trophy revealed that to be untrue, so not for the first time in football, a very wealthy organisation had bought an expensive dud. That replica is now on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

Bobby Moore receives the Jules Rimet trophy from Queen Elizabeth II after England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The real trophy — unless you believe that it was switched in Germany at some point during the 1950s, or in England a decade later, which it probably wasn’t — was thus presented to Carlos Alberto in Mexico City in 1970, and then given to Brazil to keep following their third success.

It stayed in Brazil until December 1983, when it was stolen by gang of armed robbers from the Brazilian Football Confederation’s offices in Rio de Janeiro. It was displayed in a bullet-proof glass case but — and spot the error here — the case had a wooden back, which wasn’t especially difficult for the thieves to prise off.

Several people were arrested, but nobody was charged and the trophy was never recovered. The prevailing theory is it was melted down for gold bars, but as you’ll remember from earlier, the trophy wasn’t made of solid gold, but gold-plated silver, so that seems unlikely. So where is it?

Who knows? We may never know. Either way, after Brazil’s triumph in 1970, FIFA needed a new trophy.

West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer holds the new World Cup trophy aloft in 1974 – the first tournament to feature the new design (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

And so, in 1971, they did what any large, enterprising organisation would do: rather than directly commission someone, they set up a competition. Designers, sculptors, trophy-makers and just about anyone who fancied having a go were invited to come up with a brand new World Cup trophy. 53 designs were submitted from seven different countries, but one stood out.

“While the others just sent sketches,” Giorgio Gazzaniga tells The Athletic, “which you have to interpret and imagine what the final result will be like, he sent a model made of chalk — it was fragile, but it was there on the table, so the judges could see what it was like to hold, to take a picture with.”

The “he” Giorgio references is Silvio Gazzaniga, his father and the man who designed the World Cup trophy we know today. Giorgio describes his dad as a ‘maniac of art’, who studied art in Milan, in particular art of the Bauhaus tradition — essentially the idea of incorporating art and aesthetics into everyday, functional items and buildings.

In the below video, part of The Athletic’s meeting with Giorgio starts at 3:50.

After the war Silvio went to work for Bertoni (now known as GDE Bertoni), a company that made medals and trophies, often for the military but also for religious items, for which he became very familiar with classical arts. He also worked for the 1960 Rome Olympic committee on the medals for those games. In short, by the time 1971 and the World Cup trophy contest came about, he had essentially been preparing and studying for the gig for a couple of decades. That experience is partly why the trophy looks nothing like most other football trophies.

Brazil captain Dunga receives the World Cup from U.S. Vice President Al Gore after his country’s triumph in 1994 (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“He had been working on sports trophies for 20 years,” says Giorgio, “so he was willing to try something different. The Jules Rimet trophy was an expression of art nouveau. He wanted to give a new version of the spirit of art in the 20th century.”

Silvio made the initial model out of plasticine, helped by the then 14-year-old Giorgio, before making the chalk prototype that was sent to the judges. That’s still around: it’s currently being displayed in a museum just outside Milan.

Every element of the trophy was carefully thought through. The first thing is the globe, which serves a couple of purposes, as Silvio explained in 2013: “As this is the World Cup, it’s only logical that the world should form part of the Trophy. Of course the world is spherical and, as such, very similar to a ball. The human figures that emerge from the base material extend upwards and support the world, which I also imagined as a ball.”

The globe is held up by two men — and it’s important that there are two. “It was to show that football is not something for a single person,” says Giorgio. “The two men represent the two teams that play in a game.”

The idea of the characters raising their arms to the sky is to depict the moment of joy in victory, literally lifting up the world after winning the tournament. And not just the players, either.

“It’s also a symbol of those people watching the match: even in the stands people lift their arms up into the sky. It’s a vision of victory, in a lively and tough way. He was trying to communicate that sport is an effort, even painful when you’re going for victory.

“He wanted to show symbols that weren’t abstract. He wanted to give a symbol that everybody worldwide could read.”

He also didn’t want it to be static: while the Rimet depicts a still figure, there is movement in the more modern trophy,” Silvio said, “and it’s this ascension that gives it its harmony — or more precisely its powerful harmony, energy and dynamism.”

There’s more. The two distinct sections — the globe and the figures holding it — are supposed to depict the glory of victory but also the graft that goes into achieving that glory. Giorgio explains: “If you look at the cup, you can see that the continents on the globe are shiny, but the body is matte. The metal is expressing the effort of the athletes.”

Philipp Lahm and the Germany team celebrate with the trophy after winning in Brazil in 2014 (Photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images)

At the base of the trophy are two green bands, made from malachite. It was initially intended that the trophy would have a limited shelf life — until the 2030 tournament — so Silvio carefully included 20 rectangular spaces for the names of each winner to be engraved on it. The names of those winners are also now engraved on the bottom of the base.

Did you think it had some sort of secret, cool name? Sorry, no dice there: it’s officially called the FIFA World Cup Trophy. It’s made from 18-karat gold with those malachite bands at the base, it’s 36 centimetres tall and weighs 6.142kg. For reference, that’s about the same weight as a domestic cat, albeit one that probably needs to go on a short diet.

It cost about £7,690 ($9,390) to make, which is about £90,000 ($110,000) in today’s money. Not that Silvio saw much of that: as an employee of the company, he was given a small bonus, but the main reward was seen as the glory and the reputational enhancement of having made the World Cup trophy. That’s right — even the guy who designed the World Cup was paid in exposure.

And, in fairness, it did change Silvio’s life. He went on to become the go-to guy for anyone who wanted a football trophy. He designed the Europa League trophy, the European Super Cup, the European Under-21s Championship trophy and a host of others. His company, GDE Bertoni, still make the official replicas of the Champions League trophy, even though that wasn’t their design. He even designed the trophy for the baseball World Cup (not the World Series), plus for a range of other sports. “He became ‘The Lord of the Cup’,” says Giorgio.

Silvio passed away in 2016, but not before he was awarded the “Commendatore Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana” — a bit like a knighthood — and a clutch of other honours. Giorgio and the rest of the family now work to ensure his name is remembered, not least because he wasn’t much of a self-publicist. “Usually my father was extremely shy,” Giorgio says. “Millions — billions — of people know his work, but almost nobody knows his name. He was a sort of secret designer.”

Giorgio is still immensely proud of his father’s achievements, even though every four years, as new groups of men get familiar with the trophy, he has to endure some fraternal pain. “I am the brother of the World Cup. Unfortunately everyone kisses my sister — I am the brother and I have to suffer.”

West Germany were the first winners of the new trophy, and have lifted it twice subsequently, but unlike the Jules Rimet they don’t get to keep the original. The winners don’t even get to keep the trophy at all these days: until 2006 the winners held the real thing until the next edition, but now it’s swiftly taken off their hands and they’re given a gold-plated — rather than solid gold — replica to display. The actual trophy otherwise stays at FIFA HQ in Zurich, and only a select few are even allowed to touch the thing, which includes former winners and heads of state. So, for most of you, unless you’re reading Lothar/Fabio/Hugo: unlucky.

The new World Cup trophy is kept under tighter security than its predecessor. If you’re a would-be thief bent on getting your hands on it as those did before, good luck. But just because its fate isn’t quite as mysterious as the Jules Rimet, that doesn’t mean its history and design isn’t as fascinating.

Zack Steffen: ‘I was shocked, I was sad, I was mad, I was heartbroken’

Michael WalkerDec 11, 202280

The Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, Saturday: barely five minutes after the final whistle had blown on Middlesbrough’s 2-1 win over Luton Town in the Championship, Zack Steffen was walking down a corridor to a small office adjacent to the home dressing room.

Steffen had removed his jersey but was still in the rest of his kit. Middlesbrough’s winning goal had come in added time and the noise from the two sets of players was still in the air. It was matchday.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://f9712f4f8e60bf7cd9c7d828880bb7db.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

But Steffen was here to talk about something else – the World Cup. On November 9, Steffen had been big news, just not in the way the 27-year-old had envisaged. His name was the one missing from Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT squad; there were others, but Steffen was the shock omission.

Now, in this anonymous little room, he describes how he found out the day before, how it affected him and what it means for his today and his tomorrows. And Steffen concludes: “I was shocked, I was sad, I was mad, I was heartbroken.”

He also says: “Yeah, I would like to play again.”

If there is bitterness underlying his quietly delivered replies, it is well-hidden. There is, however, no disguising the anguish of a goalkeeper many expected not just to be in Berhalter’s squad, but in his starting XI in Qatar. “It hurt,” Steffen says.

On November 8, Middlesbrough were playing away to Blackpool in English football’s second tier, their fourth match in 12 days under newly-appointed head coach Michael Carrick. The squad were at the team’s hotel resting in the afternoon. After a short sleep, Steffen saw a text on his phone. It was from Berhalter.

Zack Steffen’s mental health meant he had to miss a camp (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Steffen called Berhalter, as requested. The two men go back a few years, to days together at Columbus Crew – when Steffen was MLS goalkeeper of the year in 2018, Berhalter was his head coach. Steffen had been in US camps under Jurgen Klinsmann, but he was viewed as Berhalter’s go-to ’keeper.

In March, Steffen played in the key World Cup fixtures that sealed qualification for Qatar, having also started in major games last November, such as the 2-0 victory over Mexico in Cincinnati. He seemed a certainty for the 26-strong finals squad; in March, it was Arsenal’s Matt Turner who seemed to be the US No.2. But Berhalter had news for everyone.

“It’s between him and I,” Steffen says of that phone call. “We had a 10, 15-minute conversation. I was shocked, I was mad. He said he wasn’t taking me on the roster.”

ADVERTISEMENT

https://f9712f4f8e60bf7cd9c7d828880bb7db.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Steffen’s answers are brief, sometimes halting. His tone is phlegmatic – “That’s just how it goes sometimes, that’s life, it has ups and downs and unexpected turns” – but November 2022 will clearly stick with him in a manner unanticipated earlier this year. As recently as late October, The Athletic had been to interview him at Middlesbrough’s training ground and he had been looking forward to the World Cup. He said it would be “cool” to meet up with England’s Manchester City players – Steffen is on loan from City.

“Obviously it was a big blow,” he adds, “I definitely was heartbroken and it takes time to get over.

“Now that it’s been some time and I’ve had some reflection, it’s in the past. I move on. I’m just using that as motivation.”

To another question, he responds: “Like I say, that’s how life goes, how football goes. There’s only 26 players who can go. It’s just how it is.”

And to another: “I was shocked, I was sad, I was mad, I was heartbroken. I had a lot of feelings, different feelings. At the same time, I believe God has a plan for me, for all of us. I trust him. I walk in faith with him.”

Things perhaps began to change when Steffen did not appear in the US games in June. He was then not included in September’s World Cup warm-up friendlies.

Here, he reveals why:

“That was through my choice.

“I was… I decided to call out of camp because I was having mental health issues back in May and June. That’s why I missed that. I’d missed it to be home with my family.

“He’s the coach and he makes decisions. So, yeah, I was there in March and April … he made his decision.”

Had mental health been an issue for him before?

“That was really the first time with that, and with them. They were understanding, they didn’t want me to be … they wanted me to be the healthy Zack Steffen.”

Steffen in action for Middlesbrough (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

That night in Blackpool, he put his conversation with Berhalter to one side, went out and kept a clean sheet. Carrick praised his professionalism and resilience. Steffen is at Middlesbrough for the rest of the season; he remains contracted to City until summer 2025. At club level, his career looks solid.

ADVERTISEMENT

https://f9712f4f8e60bf7cd9c7d828880bb7db.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html

Yet November 2022 will sting for a long time.

“It hurt,” he says, “I try to be understanding and see both sides of everything, but it was tough, the last month, to deal with this.”

Middlesbrough, supportive and considerate, gave him time to go home to Philadelphia to be with his family while the club season was paused for the playing of the World Cup. Did he get to see the USMNT matches at the tournament?

“Yeah, I was able to watch the games. It wasn’t easy. But I still wanted to support them, see them do the best they can, prove the world wrong – that we can play and we’re a force to be reckoned with.

“It was hard to do that, but we’re only in the World Cup every four years.”

Was he in contact with anyone?

“No, I was just going to let them do their thing.”

One person Steffen has spoken to is Luton counterpart Ethan Horvath. Horvath did go to Qatar as part of the US squad and the coincidence of the Championship fixture list brought the two men together in the middle of the pitch at the end of Saturday’s game, two American goalkeepers locked together in freezing fog in the north east of England.

It was quite a scene. Middlesbrough’s victory lifted them to 12th in the table, three points off the promotion play-offs after a surprisingly slow beginning to the season. Maybe this will signal the re-start of Steffen’s USMNT journey. He confirms that he wants it to continue.

“It was good to see him,” Steffen says of Horvath. “We have great camaraderie. The boys in that camp, in the squad, are just amazing. I hope it’s not the end. I would like to play on. We’ll see. All I can do is move on, eat it up and use it as motivation and work to be at the next camp.”

There is always 2026, the next World Cup, a tournament the US will co-host with Canada and Mexico.

“Yeah,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be 31 then. That’s the goal.”

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.