Author Archive: Jon The Blogcentric

VIFF 2018 Review: United Skates

United Skates

United Skates is a unique documentary that shows how vital roller skating is for those that do it, and why roller rink closures hurt.

It’s usually good to take a break and watch a documentary that doesn’t have a political agenda heavily shown. I was able to see that in United Skates.

The film begins by showing various African-Americans going out and having a good time on skates. Very soon we see some of the more sensational moves that are frequently seen at the rinks. They’re stylish or they’re acrobatic. Whatever it is, they’re all out to have a good time. Young or old, single or with family, they’re all out to have fun. This is a phenomenon that has been going on for decades nationwide. A place where various African-American skaters have their own moves and their own fanfare.

Soon into the movie we learn how roller rinks are considered a top getaway for African Americans. Roller rinks may have had their biggest heyday in the late-70’s and early-80’s for most Americans, but African-Americans kept it lasting long after that. It was a getaway from the harsh realities of daily life. It was one place they could take their kids away from the harsh realities of urban living. It was also a place where the first hip-hop and rap artists found a stage to perform on. Yes, roller rinks were an integral part of the early years of hip-hop culture. When night clubs and radio stations, even the soul and urban stations, wouldn’t give those artists their time, roller rinks gave them their stage. Coolio and Salt ‘N Pepa can vouch for that. There are even scenes in Straight Outta Compton that show NWA perform at roller rinks during their early days. In fact there was even a case in the 90’s where two roller rinks in Los Angeles would be the different domains of two rival gangs: the Bloods and the Crips. When one rink closed, the other rink became neutral territory for the two.

The documentary shows how roller rinks have gone from commonplace nationwide starting in 1982 to disappearing gradually starting in the 90’s to today being probably one tenth of what it was. Modern times have proved to be a very trying time for roller rinks. Gentrification has been a pressure with turning a lot of top recreational areas into land for condos. Roller rinks, commonly seen as something of the past, have fallen prey and have seen closures. If an African-American family wanted to take their family to a roller rink, they would have to travel a longer distance.

We even meet a family from Los Angeles before the closure of the World On Wheels rink. The mother has a huge love for roller skating as she has been doing it since her child hood. She was able to share that same love with her children. When they go to World On Wheels, it is family time. It is time for the kids to show their decorated skates, time for all to show off their moves, and a time for the son who has behavioral disorders a place to avoid getting in trouble. Then World On Wheels closes in 2013. They show closing day. The rink tries to make a party of it. Young and old come to have fun one last time. We see people in their late-50’s early-60’s — people that were a part of the ‘roller boogie’ heyday– skate around with the same love. The closing day is as much a day of heartbreak as it is of fun.

Then the rink closes. We see how the owner tries to take everything out of the rink from the lockers to the concessions. We also see how the family tries to cope. They drive hours to a different rink, but face heat because the wheels their skating with are too small.World On Wheels welcomed their skating wheels with open arms. Also the rink has an urban night or soul night. African-Americans undergo security checks. There’s no security checks for white families. It’s obvious the family doesn’t feel welcome here. It gives a sense that these rinks are out to exclude African-Americans. The pressure hits the family hard too as the son committed a crime and has to spend time in prison. The film shows other rink closures too and how much it hurts those that love it.

However like one former rink owner says, patience is the true test for anyone. Over time, there would be skate clubs abounding over social media where people can go out an skate, whether it be in parks or outdoor rinks. Also World On Wheels reopens after popular demand. The re-opening is welcomed with open arms. And the family that was the centrepoint of the story can now skate as a family wearing whatever wheels they want to. We also see the son, just out of prison, having fun again.

It’s obvious the film has a point. The film obviously is showing how roller rinks are important for the vitality of African-American families. It was roller skating where there were a lot of segregation protests. Even roller rinks in the 60’s were a focal point as African-Americans simply wanted to skate on the same rinks as whites. They didn’t want to be confined to blacks-only church halls. It also shows how important roller rinks were towards hip-hop musicians. However the documentarians Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler allow the people to tell their stories. There’s no narration here. Some graphics that tell a lot but it’s the people from the owners to the families to the hip-hop musicians who tell their story about roller rinks and why they don’t just simply love it, but consider it a key part of themselves. You can bet the audience will feel the energy. There were many times people were cheering on the moves and they gave the film a big applause at the end.

United Skates has a point to say, but it doesn’t just simply say it. It shows it. It also makes you open your eyes and notice that roller rinks aren’t simply a relic from the ‘roller boogie’ phenom. They’re now and they vital.

NOTE: The website of United Skates has a page where you can donate to keep roller rinks open. Their goal isn’t just to show how important they are, but also to get the viewers to help keep them open. If you want to donate, go to: https://www.unitedskatesfilm.com/donate

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VIFF 2018 Review: Studio 54

studio 54

The documentary Studio 54 is where co-founder Ian Schrager (right) finally tells the story of how he and Steve Rubell (left) did illegal dealings in the night club iconic with the disco era.

There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.

The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.

It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”

Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.

Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.

However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.

However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.

After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.

The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.

However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.

One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.

Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.

Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.

VIFF 2018 Review: Patrimony (Tátova volha)

Patrimony

A mother and daughter, played by Tatiana Vilhelmova (left) and Eliska Balzerova, share mother-daughter time during a trip to solve a family secret in Patrimony.

For my first feature of the VIFF, I saw a Czech film entitled Patrimony. The film makes for an entertaining comedy about a subject one would not find comedy material.

The film begins with a funeral for a musician: a trumpeter. The wife, a fashion designer herself named Eva, finds herself lonely and she feels she will be left completely alone. The daughter Tereza is also hurting. She calls his phone just to hear the answering machine to hear his voice. Meanwhile she’s also struggling with her battle with cancer. Despite being helped by her husband, she feels she needs time to be with her mother.

As the daughter visits, the first thing they do is lay his ashes to rest; at least the urn as the mother wants them on his cactuses. However the daughter stumbles across a possible secret in her father’s coat. She sees a drawing of her father and a child. It’s not hers. She notices it’s from a boy names Tomas. Tereza has always been raised to think she was an only child. Could her father have fathered a child with another woman? Even her mother confesses that both she and Ludwik had extramarital affairs. It is from that revelation they decide to go on a trip to find Tomas, using Ludvik’s Volga Gaz 21.

The first visit is with family members in a nearby town. They learn more about Ludvik and his past. They also encounter a lot of crazy happenings inside the house as she has three daughters of various ages to look after. As they go on to their next place of visit, both women discover a sense of freedom when they go from place to place from country farms to town carnivals. Eva herself finds herself interested in other men. However Tereza is not immune from realities as she still has her cancer battles and the status of her marriage in question. Also revealed from Eva is that she was just as adulterous as Ludvik during the marriage.

The next place they visit is an elderly person’s home. One of Ludvik’s ex-lovers is there. She herself has a lot to say about Ludvik and even gives away another big secret they never knew. No doubt that gives Tereza a lot of concern on her mind. At the same time, it appears Eva doesn’t want the ‘love son’ of Eva to be a reality.

It’s then a visit to a family member out in the countryside. They’re a couple who farm apple trees. The husband used to lead, but he now has a mental condition where he’s despondent most of the time, but suddenly becomes the farm boss in an instant. During the visit, her husband comes to assist. It’s there where he confronts her on the status of the marriage. She gives him the hard truth. Just as he’s stating his case, the farm head goes back into his phase as the ‘farm boss’ and orders those around to get to work and pick apples. All including Eva, Tereza and her husband help out.

It’s there where the husband confesses his truths about the marriage and gives Tereza a day to think it over. It’s also through that visit that they learn the Eva knew about Tomas all along and even played step-mother at times. She kept it a secret from Tereza the whole time. The film ends as the two are in pursuit of Tomas and Tereza has made her decision about the marriage.

There are two unique things about this film. The first is that it makes a comedy of what would consider to be a dark situation in people’s lives. One would think the grieving process of a death, a bout with cancer, and learning of a family secret would not combine into a comedy, but it does. It does it very well with a mix of humor and drama. The film however doesn’t stray away from the emotional aspect of the situation and what has happened. Nevertheless the blend of the humorous and the serious works here.

The second thing about the film is that you think the story is about one thing, but it turns out to be about something else in the end. You think that the film would end with the daughter and the mother seeing the son Tomas. However it doesn’t end that way. Instead it’s about hidden truths unraveled. At first it’s made to look like a truth Eva doesn’t want to know, but instead it’s a truth Eva tried to hide from Tereza. Who knew that Eva made a better closer mother to Tomas than Ludwig did? At the same time, it’s about a mother/daughter relationship as the two are slowly healing together as they’re going on this pursuit. The rockiness of Tereza’s marriage is brought to light, but that too is helped by the trip, in a surprising way.

One of the common themes of the film is the topic of death and the nearing of the end of one’s life. It begins after the death of Ludvik. It starts with a focus of how Eva will live without Ludvik. It also focuses on Tereza and her bout with cancer. She thinks it’s fatal while the mother reminds her that her chances of survival are still very good. It deals with family and ex-lovers who have either felt the strains of aging or are themselves in the closing chapter of their lives. It’s a theme which is dealt with in good sensitivity in this film but also blends in humorous elements. It’s a tricky job to do where the fine line can easily be crossed, but Jiri succeeds in doing it.

Jiri Vejdelek directs and co-writes with Iva Jestrabova an excellent story that’s full of real feelings and emotions, but also made comical at the same time. Eliska Balzerova does a very good job of balancing the dramatic with the comedic in her acting. Tatiana Vilhelmova is also very good as the daughter coping with everything around her. However the two show an excellent mother/daughter chemistry that makes this story work. The supporting characters also did their jobs well as their characters came across as believable and very three-dimensional.

Patrimony is a very smart Czech comedy that’s very entertaining. It follows a smooth story line, but it doesn’t end the way most would anticipate it to. Maybe the plot you thought it would be about wasn’t the main plot after all.

VIFF 2018 Shorts Segment: Escape Routes

Cinema

With every VIFF, it’s a goal of mine to see at least one shorts segment. I had the good fortune of seeing a segment as my first VIFF show. The segment titled Escape Routes consisted of six shorts by Canadian directors. Three of them were filmed in BC. All six were intriguing to watch.

The Subject (dir. Patrick Bouchard): We see a body on the table. We see a spike coming out of a foot at first. Then we see it start to be dissected. What’s happening is a whole lot of imagery happens around his body and coming from out of his body. Then when he’s dissected in his upper chest, we see a steel inside.

What’s happening in this film is the animator dissecting his own body. This film is the animator using self-dissection to show what his works are all about. His emotions, his memories, his fears, all go into his work. A couple of religious entendres may be telling how it plays into his fears. Even the artistic patterns that form around his skin give a picture about what the animator is saying about himself and how it plays into his works.

Girl On A Bus (dir. Matthew B. Schmidt): The film begins with people questioning about a girl who disappeared. Then the film shoots to a scene on a bus. A teenage/young adult female is one of the passengers and she’s just relaxing and looking at Instagram photos. The bus takes a break at a gas station along the highway. She uses the outside bathroom and changes her hair, makeup and clothes to something very different and takes social media pictures. The driver can’t recognize her and thinks a passenger is missing. As police are questioning the ‘missing girl,’ she gets interrogated and gives misleading questions. She mentions she’s running away but doesn’t say why. She leaves the interrogation booth. A picture from a child identifies her as the missing, but she walks away when asked.

At first, it seems like a nonsense film. A girl changes her look but is labeled missing? Then you get the sense of what’s happening. She says she’s running away but gives a vague answer why. When told to stay at the booth as the police leave temporarily, she leaves. When asked if the photo of her on a child’s pad is her, she doesn’t answer and walks away. It makes more sense later on. She comes across as a girl who wants to escape from it all. It’s not apparent exactly the reason or reasons why, but it’s obvious she wants to escape from everything. Only on social media would she want to be around people. I can identify because I had those same feelings when I was her age. A very good short story of a film.

Best Friends Read The Same Books (dir. Matthew Taylor Blais): The film consists of no sound at all, but of images of plants, colors, bushes, parks, coasts, and the director reading a book in various places and various seating positions on a bench. The film ends with a set of colors.

I’ll take it for what it is. This is the director trying to film in an abstract sort of way. The images, around various areas of Greater Vancouver, are meant to tell about his surroundings and reading the same book.

Train Hopper (dir. Amelie Hardy): The film begins with a passage of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America. Then cuts into a video of a young man who’s a customer service agent working at his desk with his headset. Later we catch the young man around trains on the train tracks. Then we see him hopping on the trains between the cars and going along for the ride. We even see his self-recorded videos of him during the trips. Within the second-half of the film and video footage, we hear the man talk about his dreams and his imagination and why he takes these trips, which include trips crossing into the United States. The film ends with audio of Ginsberg’s America.

The film begins with a statement that the Beat Generation is not dead. The whole film is a picturesque reminder that even in this day and age, there are still young people who still dare to dream, who dare to still want to live their dream out. This film shows it with this young man who’s a customer service agent by profession, but dreamer by passion. An excellent cinematic portrait.

Acres (dir. Rebeccah Love): The story begins with a young man working on a farm. Later on, his sister, her husband and a former girlfriend of his join for dinner. They talk about him managing his father’s farm after his death, as well as a dispute over use of the land that will require legal attention. The sister and brother-in-law leave for home but the ex-girlfriend decides to stay overnight. Possibly to help him with his situation. She is a photographer by passion. The two were in love while they were in college. This is happening while they’re talking of a way to properly mark the burial site of his father’s ashes. He had ambitions of becoming a businessman, but passions in his life that involved travelling caused him to leave everyone behind, including the family and even her. She tries to get to the bottom of this. Especially since this caused their break-up. Eventually they do rekindle.

The film is a picturesque way of showing a real-life situation. It’s a quiet situation, but one that needs to be discussed and resolved. The filmmaker does it with good storytelling and honest dialogue.

Biidaaban (dir. Amanda Strong): This is the one short that’s fully animated. There’s one young person of Indigenous decent, Biidaaban, and an older Sasquatch shapeshifter Sabe. They live in the same dwelling. They communicate with what you first think is a smartphone, but is actually a mystic rock that creates images and dialogue. Biidaaban seeks to collect sap from maple trees in a neighborhood. Sabe will assist Biidaaban. As they collect the sap, they are suddenly taken over by spirits and enter into a mystical world.

Upon the film’s Q&A, we learn the film is not just about Indigenous legends and myths. It’s also about gender-fluidity as Biidaaban is a gender-fluid youth. From what I remember about the Q & A, the gender-fluidity does tie in with Indigenous culture. The whole film was very dramatic and very mystical. The genre of animation allows the viewer to feel the imagination of the film and capture the mysticism.

All six shorts were very intriguing to watch. Even with one more thrilling than the other, and one not trying to be thrilling at all, all had something to say. Sometimes you wondered if all six fit the term Escape Routes. Some of the subjects or plots in a film or two didn’t look like physical escapes at all. However many of them turned out to be escapes of the mind. Escaping isn’t just about a road to somewhere.

Escape Routes was an excellent selection of six Canadian shorts. Each were different in their own way. All of them had something to say. And all would come off as an escape from something. You had to see it to know it.

VIFF Is Back!

Cinema

Yes, the Vancouver International Film Festival is back for 2018. Yesterday began the 37th installment of the Film Festival. This year promises more excitement, more films and more events.

The biggest thing VIFF will have for this year is Creator Talks and Master Classes. Slated lecturers include The Good Place writer Michael Schur, Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema, production designed Paul Austerberry, director Paris Barclay, rapper RZA and a Showrunners event where they feature nine writers all on one stage. There will be other events too like giving director Jean-Marc Vallee a Tribute Award and a fundraiser event featuring Jane Goodall.

As for volunteering, this year there were 1200 volunteers signing up. Bigger than last year. One thing that’s changed is now volunteers are all owed to do a minimum of four shifts. That’s different from the old minimum of 32 hours. Volunteers and free films are the same situation as last year. As for my volunteering, I will do a wide variety of things like assist with the virtual reality exhibit over at the Centre for Digital Media, do ushering duties at the International Village, or do office work for the Exhibitions team.

This year’s roster of films promises a lot of attractions This year’s VIFF claims to show over 300 shorts and feature films from 84 countries or regions. As of press time, 14 films are official submissions for the category of Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscars. One thing is that while most films are shown twice or three times during the fest, there will be more films that will get only one showing during the fest. There will even be a fourteen-hour three-film trilogy at the VanCity Theatre. La Flor by director Mariano Llinas will be shown as the three films will be aired consecutive nights. Canadian films will remain the focus as has been in past Festivals.

This year’s top sponsors include Telus, Telefilm Canada, Christie screens, CinePlex, Delta Airlines, Lexus and Creative BC. SuperChannel will take over the People’s Choice awards again.

As for highlights, here’s a list of some of the films headlining the VIFF:

  • OPENING GALA: The Hummingbird Project. Canadian director Kim Nguyen highlights competitive stock trading in this film starring Salma Hayek and Jesse Eisenberg.
  • CLOSING GALA:  The Front Runner – Jason Reitman delivers a film chronicling the rise and fall of Democratic candidate Gary Hart. Hugh Jackman plays Hart while Sarah Paxton plays ‘other woman’ Donna Rice.
  • Boy Erased – Rising star Lucas Hedges stars in this film about a young gay male forced into conversion therapy by his heavily-religious family.
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Melissa McCarthy stars in this biographical film of Lee Israel: one of the biggest literary fraudsters of modern time.
  • Cold War – A Polish film about a showbiz couple who try to love and perform just shortly after the end of World War II. Director Pawel Pawlikowski won Best Director at this year’s Cannes festival.
  • Collette – Keira Knightley stars in this film of revolutionary French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette. Her relationship with her husband comes into play.
  • Everybody Knows – Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who’s won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar twice, directs Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in a story about mistrust and deceit.
  • The Favorite– Yorgos Lanthimos, whose most famous work is The Lobster, returns with Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz starring in this comedy on who can win the most praise from the queen.
  • The Grizzlies – The story of a teacher who tries to start pride in a Nunavut town by building up a local lacrosse team.
  • The Happy Prince– British actor Rupert Everett writes, directs and acts in this film of the last years of Oscar Wilde.
  • Non-Fiction – Olivier Assayas tells a humorous story of the marriage of an actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her publisher husband who’s fearing the ‘death of print.’
  • The Old Man And The Gun – David Lowery directs what is believed to be Robert Redford’s last film as an actor as bank-robber Forrest Tucker.
  • A Private War –  Rosamund Pike stars in this biographical film of war correspondent Marie Colvin.
  • Shadow – Chinese film from Zhang Yimou directs a kung fu romance that promises to be an unforgettable story.
  • Sharkwater Extinction – Rob Stewart directed 2006 documentary Sharkwater highlighting how important sharks are to the ecosystem. This sequel shows the threats sharks face in today’s world.

So this is what this year’s VIFF has in store. It all starts September 27th and it all ends October 12th. Definitely lots to enjoy

World Cup 2018: My Prediction For The Final, And Third-Place Playoff Too

Final

I know most of my picks for the Group Stage panned out while some didn’t. I know I was very good at predicting the Round Of 16 and QuarterFinals but was off a bit. Also I know I got both SemiFinals wrong. Nevertheless I’m not worried. If the BBC’s Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson can have a 52% success rate and still keep his job, I’m pretty comfortable right now.

Anyways the last two big matches will be contested this weekend. Here are my reviews of the two big matches:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. The Final for the Cup will take place at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

THIRD-PLACE PLAYOFF REVIEW:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Often you wonder who normally wins the 3rd-Place Match? The team who most feels they have one last thing to prove? Or the team that’s the least disheartened? Whatever the situation, it should make for an interesting match. Especially since both teams met in the Group Stage in Group G. Here’s my review of both teams.

Past Head-To-Head Results: England and Belgium have squared off 22 times before. England won 15 times and Belgium won only three times including here in Russia 1-0 in group play. They drew four times in the past. As for World Cup play, their other two games were a 1990 Round-of-16 win for England and a 4-4 draw in 1954.

BelgiumBelgium: The Red Devils should be admired. They are a collection of marvelously talented players in their own right coming together to give Belgium one of their best World Cup performances ever, if not the best. They proved to be a top challenger for the final, but the goal from France’s Unmiti in the 51st minute ended their World Cup dreams. Nevertheless the Belgian team here have the chance to give Belgium it’s best-ever World Cup finish. Belgium’s best finish ever was 4th in 1986. Here’s the chance for them to win a 3rd-place match. An excellent chance to revive the #RedTogether spirit.

They have the advantage since they met England in group play and won 1-0. They can do it again. However they did show vulnerability in their game against Japan when they trailed 2-0 with 25 minutes to go. They did do an excellent job of coming back to win. However their luck ran out when they faced France. Their top players are still in excellent form in this ‘marathon’ of a competition, but they have to function together if they want to win this.

England fixedEngland: They came in 2018 with a new team and a new determination based on past humiliations. They came with a fairly young coach with experience playing in a World Cup. They came from the various teams of the Premier League with a lot of established talents and a lot of young rising talents. They came with the hope of winning England’s first World Cup since 1966. They delivered one of their best group stage showings in years. They delivered England’s first-ever win of a World Cup game on penalties after losing the previous three. They came with their fans chanting It’s Coming Home (in reference to the Euro 1996 theme song). Then it ended in the semifinal against Croatia. They began strong with a goal from Kieran Trippier in the 5th minute. However they were losing it after Ivan Perisic equalized in the 68th minute. It was Mandzukic in the 108th minute that took the match for Croatia and brought an end to the #ItsComingHome phenomenon.

However the 3rd-Place Match can give England one last thing to prove. This is only England’s third time to the Top 4 of the World Cup. The team has done an excellent job of putting their Premier League differences aside and play as one unified team. Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job of coaching and has successfully help Team England overcome many past adversaries and many weaknesses the team had for a long time. That gives England an advantage leading into the match. However England hasn’t fully overcome their habit of choking at big events. Sure their finish here will be their biggest since 1990, but they can blow it if the team don’t come together and deliver the same play they delivered over this past month. This was no ordinary Three Lions here in Russia 2018. This was a new Team England that had a lot to prove and did prove a lot.

My Final Verdict: I know Belgium beat England in the group stage, but this is a new match. The game will go to the team that has the best team tactics and functions as one. I’ll say it will be Belgium winning 2-0.

THE FINAL

Whos Next

Which team will be next?

I know for my review, you will see me repeating a lot of what I wrote for my SemiFinal review. There’s a purpose. Because all they went through will be coming to this moment. Making it to the final is no easy journey. It’s also not just about having a great team of assembled talent. It’s about having your team together, it’s about them delivering each and every time, it’s the ability to protect from racked up injuries to players, it’s the ability to endure mentally… basically it’s a month-long marathon. A game of survivor.

The World Cup has all these games to basically narrow it down to the very two to play in the Final to decide the Cup.  Of the two teams that made it, one made it to the Final twice before and won 20 years ago, while the other is playing in the Final for the first time ever. So without further ado, my review of the World Cup Final:

Past Head-To-Head Results: Croatia and France have played each other five times in the past. Both teams drew twice. France has won the other three games, including the 1998 World Cup semifinal 2-1.

FranceFrance: France is a nation whose football greatness really only started to take off in the early 1980’s. It was in Mexico 1986 that France got its first-ever Top 3 finish. They would fail to qualify for the next two World Cups, but would host in 1998 and would go on to win. Some say France’s team of 1998 was the best World Cup team since Brazil in 1970.

They’ve had a lot of ups and downs since. In 2002, they suffered the ‘curse of the defending champion‘ and not only failed to advance past the group stage, but failed to even score a single goal. They would come back in 2006 and appeared to be on their way to a second World Cup, but Zidane’s head-butt to an Italian player and subsequent red card in extra time in the Final marked the end of their chances right there. Then the disastrous 2010 which I talked about in my Semifinal write-up.

However it was the 2014 World Cup that showed a ray of hope for the French team. They were out in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Germany, but the team showed a big improvement and promise for the future with young players like Pogba and Griezmann. France played host to Euro 2016. There they delivered the best showing of all teams en route to the Final for the Cup. Unfortunately they lost to Portugal 1-0 in added extra time.

Here in Russia, Les Bleus has delivered the best showing of all teams.  They may have had the only 0-0 game of the World Cup so far, but all their other games were wins including all their knockout games, and all in regulation time. The #FiersDetreBleus phenomenon has taken them this far. France appears to have the best chances with players like Pogba, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, young gun Mbappe and their goaltender Hugo Lloris who claims the loss at Euro 2016 really changed him. They look like the team that best has what it takes to win. However they could easily just let it go the same way they did in Euro 2016. If you remember their Round-Of-16 game against Argentina, they conceded three goals. They’re lucky they scored four to win. They all have to be together as a unified unit ready to play hard if they want to win the biggest match of their lives.

CROATIA footballCroatia:

“Everybody cheers for David. Nobody cheers for Goliath.”

-Wilt Chamberlain

Croatia comes to the World Cup final as the underdogs. They also come as the first country with a population of under 5 million to qualify for a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950. They come as the biggest underdog story in decades. Already the hashtages of #Vatreni , #FlamingPride and #BudiPonosan have been big hits. However it was very hard and with a lot of heartache. It started with a 3rd-place finish in their first World Cup back in 1998. It was finally a chance for Croatian football to define their identity now that they were free from Yugoslavia. However it was a struggle since. The next four World Cups were cases of a failure to qualify in 2010 and out in the Group Stage the other three times. After the 2010 World Cup failure, Croatian football was about to make a comeback. They may have been out in the Group Stage in 2014, but there was promise shown by players like Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic.

Croatian football unfortunately was also given a big black eye in the last few years thanks to the irreverence of certain fans. Certain Croatian fans were known to shout racist slurs, wear Nazi symbols, and cause violent incidents during matches. The most noticeable was during the Euro 2016 match against the Czech Republic where flares were thrown onto the field. The Federation HNS and the National Team paid the biggest price by facing sanctions and fines from both FIFA and UEFA including having to play ‘closed’ matches. However after Euro 2016, Croatia has made strides to get tougher with fan behavior.

Here in Russia, The Blazers, or Vatreni, were brilliant in group play as they won all three of their games. Their biggest luck came in the Round of 16 against Denmark and the QuarterFinals against hosts Russia as they drew 1-1 and 2-2 respectively, only to win both in the penalty shoot outs. Then came their semifinal against England. The game went into 1-1 in regulation only for Mandzukic to deliver the game-winner in added extra time. There have been calls from many for Croatia to be disqualified since that match, but the alleged controversies have been proven false.

And to think Yugoslavia never qualified for a World Cup final ever in its existence! Croatia comes with the least star-studded team here in this stage of the World Cup. The key to Croatia’s success is for players like Modric, Perisic, Rakitic, Lovren, Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic to play as one functioning team. Many can easily dismiss Croatia’s success because of luck in the knockout rounds, but truly it is the team unity of the players that have got them this far. Croatia however has shown weakness of their own. The fact that they won two of their knockout matches in penalty shootouts shows they can come short on delivery. Whatever they’ve been holding back or just not delivering on in past games, it won’t work against a team like France. Croatia has a strong midfiled, but France’s midfield has proven more this Cup. Croatia’s team will have to play a lot harder if they want to win the Cup. If they do win the Cup, they will do it through their first-ever victory over France, at the very least.

My Final Verdict: Both teams have been performing well and with a great sense of team unity, but I have to pick France to win 3-1. It’s not just in terms of past performance, but also because of the brilliance of the players individually as well. Plus the fact the referee for the match will be an Argentinean won’t help Croatia too much.

And there you go. My look at the teams playing for both the match for the bronze medal and the Final to win the World Cup. Let’s sit back and watch history be crowned.

World Cup 2018: Semifinals Predictions

WC2018 Final Four

Hard to believe a little more than three weeks ago, the action was just starting. Now it’s winding down with the biggest action of all getting closer and closer. But before we can have the final on Sunday the 15th, we need the semifinals to decide the two that qualify. In both of the semifinals we’ll have won team that won a World Cup in the past and another team whose best result ever was making it to a past semifinal. All four teams are from European countries and and four never made it past the quarterfinals at the last World Cup. This will be the first World Cup since 1966 that will have a completely different Top 4 from the last.

Here I will do my review of the teams and also make my predictions. I hope I do better here than when I predicted in 2014. And to think I thought Brazil would win over Germany in 2014! After Germany delivered their ‘7-up,’ I sure felt dumb!

Without further ado, here’s a look at the four teams that will be in the semifinals and my prediction for each one:

SEMIFINAL #1 – FRANCE vs. BELGIUM

Head-To-Head Stuff:

France and Belgium have played each other 73 times. France won 24 times, Belgium won 30 times, and 19 were draws. At the World Cup, France faced Belgium only twice in a 1938  match and 1986 in the match for 3rd place, and France won both times.

Team By Team Analysis:

FranceFrance: The current French team is an example of a team that arose from the ‘ruins’ of football. Some of you may remember the 2010 World Cup. If it was not France’s worst-ever performance, it was France’s hardest World Cup trip ever. The trip started on controversy as they had qualified thanks to a fist-aided goal from Thierry Henry in their qualifying playoff match against Ireland. Then at the World Cup 2010, striker Nicolas Anelka was fired from the team after an obscenity-laden dispute with manager Raymond Domenech. A boycott of training from players in response and a lecture from the French sports minister paved the way for France’s eventual loss in their last game. The team returned home in disgrace and the president of the FFF resigned, as did coach Domenech. It would be another six years for Domenech to accept another coaching job.

What happened after would be quite the rebound. They would continue to have difficulty at Euro 2012 by going out in the quarterfinals to Spain 2-0. Then Dider Deschamps, who was part of France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, assumed the position of head coach and would give France quite the turn-around. The turnaround however was not an overnight success, but more of steady progression. It started at the 2014 world Cup where France bowed out at the quarterfinals after losing 1-0 to Germany, but promise was noticed. The team gave an improved showing of play and Paul Pogba was named Top Young Player of the Cup. Then came Euro 2016 which France was host nation. Until France lost in the final to Portugal 1-0 in extra time, France had delivered the best show of teamwork during the tournament and had the top scorer with Antoine Griezman scoring 6 goals. Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet also scored 3 goals of their own.

Excellence has continued for Les Bleus here at the World Cup and they look as one of the teams that can best win the Cup. Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann have three goals each. On top of that, they only conceded four goals. They’ve reached the Last 4 for only their sixth time. France has shown a lot of strength and a lot of team unity. There’s even talk Mbappe may win the Young Player award. It’s hard to pinpoint a mistake this last while. However they were rather conservative in the group stage. They did come alive in a big way in the knockout round but they did concede three goals against Argentina. They were lucky they delivered four. They will be facing a Belgian team that has become one of the more exciting teams of the Cup and will need to deliver.

BelgiumBelgium: Belgium is another example of a team that took a long time to develop. This is only Belgium’s 13th World Cup but many are already calling this team the best Red Devils ever.

In the past, Belgium would only go as far as the group Stage or 1st round at the World Cup. Success for Belgium would come starting in the 1980’s when they made it past the opening stage for the first time in 1982 and then to the semifinals for the first time ever in 1986. Their 4th place finish in 1986 ranks currently as Belgium’s best World Cup finish ever. However they would struggle to repeat as they would find themselves out in the Round of 16 or the Group Stage during the next four World Cups. Then would come failure to qualify for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, even after they recruited famed Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. They would even face a rock-bottom 66th ranking on FIFA list in 2009. They would miss qualifying for Euro 2012.

Red Devils 2002

In 2002, a Belgian magazine published an article about young rising footballers. Count the number of Red Devils here in Russia!

Then came coach Marc Wilmots who himself played for team Belgium at four World Cups. He brought a new sense to the team. He found talent in players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to name a few and was able to get them to perform well as a team function. They’d go through straight wins in World Cup qualifying and would find themselves ranked 11th on FIFA’s list and a heavy favorite to go well at the World Cup. At the 2014 World Cup, they finished in the quarterfinals which was their second-best result ever. 2015 was their breakthrough year as they hit #1 for the first time ever on FIFA’s rankings. However they would face difficulties as they’d only make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 losing to Wales 3-1. That’s when they then hired Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. The Belgian team has not lost a game since September 2016 and have come to Russia delivering straight wins to the semifinal.

No doubt they have a lot to win their semifinal against France. Their straight wins have shown for it. However they did show weakness during this World Cup. If you remember their Round-Of-16 match against Japan, they were trailing 2-0 into the 2nd half. It wasn’t until the 69th minute Belgium scored and then go on to win 3-2. That was quite a comeback. And a close call. However Belgium can’t afford to pull stunts like those any longer as they’re getting closer and closer to the Cup. They’re en route to becoming the best Belgian team ever and they need to stay en garde.

My Final Verdict:

Okay, you will now want me to make a prediction for this match. I think it will be a case of the match drawing 2-2 with Belgium taking it in a penalty shoot out.

SEMIFINAL #2 – ENGLAND vs. CROATIA

Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Croatia have squared off seven times before. England won four times, Croatia won twice and one was a draw. This will be the first time England and Croatia will play each other in a World Cup game.

Team By Team Analysis:

EnglandEngland: England has always been a subject of frustration. The Three Lions have only won a single World Cup: back in 1966 when they hosted. They have had difficulties whenever they’ve made it to the knockout rounds as they’d frequently expire in the quarterfinals or face elimination when the game ends up in penalty kicks. In fact England has been 0 for 3 at the World Cup for penalty kick matches. Then there are the embarrassments at the two most recent World Cups by expiring to Germany in a highly controversial 4-1 in the Round Of 16 and then failing to advance past the group stage in 2014. It always seemed like the case where the team is full of talent but they just couldn’t play well as a united team. Possibly they didn’t leave their Premier League rivalry at the door?

Southgate

England coach Gareth Southgate consoles Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after he missed his penalty shot (right). Southgate knows what it’s like to miss a crucial penalty (left; during Euro 1996).

In 2016, right after they lost to Iceland 2-1 in the Round Of 16, they hired a new coach in Gareth Southgate who played for team England at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. They put in a lot of investment into young rising talent like John Stones and Harry Kane and goaltender Jordan Pickford. The work paid off as England qualified for the World Cup top of their group. Here in Russia, the Three Lions gave their fans a lot of relief as they won two games in group play and qualified for the knockout round. This marked the first time since 2010 they qualified for the knockout round and the first World Cup since 2010 that they won a game. Then came the big test against Columbia. They drew 1-1 against a team that was missing their star James Rodriguez and had to go to penalty kicks. Gulp! Instead they won the shootout 4-3 and their penalty kick curse was finally lifted. This marked their first win of a World Cup knockout match since 2006. The irony being Southgate missed a critical penalty against Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, when England was host! Then their quarterfinal against Sweden turned up a win of 2-0. This would mark only the third time England would reach the Top 4 of a World Cup and the first since 1990.

England bring to the semifinals a lot of top players and a better sense of team unity. Some say they may actually have what it takes to win the Cup. However they could also have what it takes to give it away too. Before their 1-1 draw to Colombia, they lost to Belgium 1-0. They will have to play right and not try to give anything away. Especially since they have a lot of rising talent to work with. A second World Cup has never been so close in a long time.

CROATIA footballCroatia: Croatia is another case of a team whose struggle is also paying off here in Russia. Croatia came to be in the early 1990’s after the nation of Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal civil war. Soon after Croatia declared independence in 1991, they fielded their own national team. However they would have to wait until after the 1994 World Cup for them to play internationally. They played their first World Cup in 1998 and surprised everybody by finishing third, beating out big names like The Netherlands and Germany in the process.

One thing about Croatia’s success in 1998 was that much of it was due to players who used to play for Yugoslavia. After 1998, Croatia worked to develop their own football identity and struggled along the way. They found themselves out in the group stages of 2002 and 2006. Then they’d fail to qualify for 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, they’d undergo two coaching changes. However 2014 showed signs of improvement for Croatian football with the development of talents like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. The talent was there and they were back on the World Cup scene, but they still had to struggle as they again failed to advance past the group stage in 2014. Further difficulty came when Croatia lost in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.

Croatia’s struggles were not just on the football field, but in the stands as well. In the past ten years, Croatian fans developed a reputation of being some of the most obnoxious in Europe with incidents like shouting racist taunts, showing off swastikas and throwing flares. The most notable being the game against the Czech Republic during Euro 2016 when flares were thrown onto the field. Sanctions against the Croatian team have come from UEFA and FIFA in the result of the team being fined money, the team losing game points in qualification play, and even the team having to play ‘closed-door’ games for a period of time.

Things have improved greatly for the Croatian team. There has not been a major incident of ‘hooliganism’ since Euro 2016. The team has also played like a strong team unit here in Russia by winning all their group stage games and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time since their golden year of 1998. In knockout play, the Croatian team have won all their matches in penalty shootouts. This makes it the second time Croatia has made the Top 4 at the World Cup. Croatia has played very well. Especially with a surprise win over Argentina. However they have shown some weak spots in their knockout games. Unique how they’re a team with the least ‘stars’ but have beaten out teams with big names. Their team unity has taken them this far, but they will need it more than ever here in the semis and they have to be on guard if they want to win.

My Final Verdict:

Sure, Croatia has changed a lot since their last game against England in 2009. But England has changed a lot too. The careless mistakes we commonly see from England in major international play are not as present here. I don’t want to rely on sabermetrics completely, but I think England will win 3-1.

And there you have it. My look at the upcoming semifinals and my predictions. We’ll see who the real winners are on Tuesday and Wednesday.

World Cup 2018: The Struggle Of The Defending Champion Continues

germany-out-of-world-cup-afp_625x300_1530117776053

A dejected Team Germany looks on in disappointment after their 2-0 loss to South Korea.

“Congratulations to Korea for the win, for Sweden and Mexico for the qualification. It’s difficult to explain. The way we played we didn’t deserve to go through.”

-Germany coach Joachim Loew

Many of you may remember during the last World Cup, I posted a blog about the challenges the defending World Cup champion faces. Sometimes it seems like bad luck. After Germany’s game against South Korea, my look at the defending Champion deserves an update.

In the 20th Century, only Italy in 1950 and Brazil in 1966 were among the defending champions that failed to make it past the Group Stage. In the 21st Century, there was France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.

Then came Germany here in 2018. Germany was the most impressive team at the 2014 World Cup and deserving of their victory. The team appeared to have many a great retire from the national team over time like Miro Klose, Per Mertesacker and Phillipp Lahm just after their World Cup win, Bastian Schweinsteiger right after Euro 2016, and Lukas Podolski in 2017. Nevertheless their reputation of consistency would continue to be as they would continue to do very well in tournaments, if not win. There was the semifinal finish at Euro 2016. There was winning their first ever Confederations Cup in 2017. They even won FIFA team of the year in 2014 and 2017 as well as the Laureus award for Team Of The Year in 2015. It appeared that the years were kind to team Germany as well as with the new talent that was coming along. Including Joshua Kimmich who won German Player Of The Year in 2017. Germany’s Olympic team in Rio which consisted mostly of men under 23 won the silver medal. It also appeared Head Coach Joachim Loew was continuing to make the right decisions and Germany’s football system which went through an overhaul in the early 21st Century was continuing to pay off big time.

Even in friendly play, Germany did very well, but they also had notable defeats like 4-2 against Argentina seven weeks after the World Cup, 2-1 against the US in June 2015, 3-2 against England in March 2016, and 3-1 against Slovakia in May 2016. 2017 looked like a good year for Germany as they topped their World Cup qualifying group easily and they didn’t even lose a dingle friendly. Their draw for the World Cup didn’t appear to threaten their World Cup status as their mix with Sweden, South Korea and Mexico appeared to be a group they could advance with after playing.

Then the 2018 year began. They drew against Spain 1-1 in their first friendly in March. Their next friendly, against Brazil four days later, they lost 1-0. They would lose to Austria in a friendly 2-1 on June 2nd and then win 2-1 in a friendly against the Saudis on June 8th. It was apparent the team chemistry that gave Germany the winning edge in 2014 wasn’t there.

The World Cup squad of 23 for the German national team was announced on June 4th 2018: two days after their loss to Austria. Manuel Neuer, goalkeeper for the 2014 team, was back and was captain of the team, as were eight other members of Germany’s 2014 team. There was also Mario Gomez who was part of Germany’s 3rd-place World Cup team of 2010. Marco Reus, who had to be replaced just before the 2014 World Cup because of an ankle injury, finally got his World Cup moment in 2018. There were some notable differences about the make-up. Four members of the 2014 team had 100 caps or more. None of the 2018 team had that. Three of the members were part of Germany’s silver medal-winning performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016. There were the ‘reliable’ veterans like Ozil, Muler, Neuer, Khedira and Boateng. As for the new players, there were talents like 26 year-old Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 22 year-old Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Julian Brandt, and defenders like 25 year-old Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and 23 year-old Joshua Kimmich from Bayern Munich as well as 22 year-old striker Timo Werner who scored three goals during the 2017 Confederations Cup.

There were also some notable members of the German national team who were left off the World Cup squad like Shkodran Mustafi who was part of the 2014 team and Mario Gotze who scored the goal that won Germany the World Cup. Gotze had been going through a metabolic disorder since March of last year and it may have caused his dismissal from the national team.

Then the World Cup started. Their first opponent was Mexico right in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. There were talks of struggles with the team chemistry since the Cup started, including with their team-based training in Moscow, but it appeared to be nothing to worry about. Mexico was a team where their last defeat to them was in 1985. They even beat them in the semis at the Confederations Cup last year. However sport is not about the past; it’s about now. Vet Neuer was chosen to be goaltender, Kimmich and the relatively inexperienced Marvin Plattenhardt were the only two ‘new’ players chosen as defenders, the two midfielders were vets Kroos and Khedira, and Werner was the only ‘new’ defender of the four. Substitutions also caught people’s eyes as ‘new players’ Plattenhardt and Werner were among those substituted and two vets along with ‘new player’ Julian Brandt were the substitutes. Germany had 60% of the ball possession, 25 of 37 attempts, nine attempts on-target and nine off-target, eight of the nine corner kicks, 88% pass accuracy, but the one goal was scored by Hirving Lozano of Mexico in the 35th minute.

Germany’s 1-0 loss soon got people talking. This was Germany’s first loss of a Group Stage opening match in yay so long. There was even talk about how the German team lacked organization, lacked chemistry. Some claimed Loew was ‘separating’ the team between the tried-and-true vets and the newer players. More scattering of players than setting a build of play. Germany still however had two more games. Their next match was Sweden in another Olympic Stadium: Fisht in Sochi. Neuer was back as goaltender, but this time there was more presence of newer players, especially among defenders. Even two of the three substitutes were new players like Brandt and Ilkay Gundogan. However it appeared to be another struggle for Germany, especially after Ola Toivonen scored after the 32nd minute. It did, however, appear that Germany was beginning to find their groove again as Marco Reus evened the game up at the 48th minute. However it was starting to look like Germany was going to choke again. Then came the miracle of stoppage time. It was Toni Kroos delivering a successful free kick in the 5th minute of stoppage time to give Germany their winning goal. Despite their 2-1 victory, there were still naysayers, pointing out how Germany did so little with so much. Germany had ball possession for 71% of the game and 16 goal attempts, but only five attempts on-target. They also had five of the seven offsides. Also Jerome Boateng received two yellow cards– in the 71st and 82nd minutes– en route to a red-card dismissal and Germany to play one man down for the remainder of that game and against the following game against South Korea.

Then came Game 3 against South Korea at Kazan Arena. Germany had to win if they wanted to qualify as Mexico already had two wins. No doubt Germany appeared to be there. They had 70% ball possession, had nine corner kicks, and delivered 17 shots, but only six were on-target. Germany appeared to deliver a lot of good attempts at goals, but young goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo was on that night. It was definitely frustrating for Germany as they knew they had to win to stay alive. Sweden was beating Mexico 3-0 so a win was needed to qualify. It did not happen. This time, it was South Korea that took full advantage of stoppage time with a goal by Kim Younggwon in the 93rd minute giving Korea the lead and a goal by Son Heungmin in an empty net in the 96th minute that meant it was the end for Germany. That was only Germany’s second loss to South Korea after their fourth time playing each other.

It’s tough to decide what lead to Germany’s demise. It may be the coaching staff’s overtrusting of its senior players and not giving the newer players a fair chance. Especially after vets like Neuer, Ozil and Thomas Muller all performed below expectation. Some say there was lack of unity or lack of a game plan. There was enough on the field to notice that. Some say the coaching tactics of Joachim Loew that was successful in the past finally ran out here. Loew himself was shocked at the loss and Germany’s early dismissal, however he did not deny any of his misdoings or the team’s misdoings.

Quotes from Loew after the game:

“I think we prepared well for the tournament. We were ready and we knew that all teams will be desperate to beat us, but we haven’t showed for it.”

“It wasn’t only Ozil, a number of other players didn’t perform as they normally would. I take responsibility for that and stand up for that, but I thought it was a good team.”

Interesting to note that Loew signed a contract to stay on as coach of the national team until 2022. Loew has been coach of the German national team since 2006. However he has made it evident that he will voluntarily step down. He made his disappointment obvious, but he said it will take hours to digest.

One thing about the loss is that it gave Germany some embarrassing statistics like the second World Cup ever and first time since 1938 that Germany failed to move past the 1st round, first time for Germany to fail to qualify after opening Group Stage play, and the third defending champion in a row to be eliminated after the Group Stage.

That last statistic continues to be biting. This is the fourth time in five World Cups this 21st century and the third consecutive time the defending champion is out after the Group Stage. I’ve never considered it bad luck to be defending World Cup champion, but the statistics are strongly pointing the way to it. It was never this way in the 20th century. They may have had some bad statistics at the following World Cup, but it was very rare to be out in the Group Stage. Now it’s more common than ever with Germany being the sixth ever and third-consecutive. It’s tempting to think bad lack, but one has to study teams to know why they perform poorly time after time. This is something new and shouldn’t be, but this is tempting.

The defending World Cup champion. The definition continues.

 

 

World Cup 2018 Predictions For The Knockout Rounds

Russia 2018

I have to say it was a very good Group Stage. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of drama. There was a lot of great scoring and a lot of excitement on who’s going to win the Golden Boot. Right now, England’s Harry Kane leads with 5. There was a lot of good play. Only a single game that ended in a 0-0 draw. Also only three red cards: one instant. So it’s good to see the players behaving themselves and sticking to playing well. Argentina almost became the shocker as it almost didn’t qualify, but they made it in their last game. Instead, defending champs Germany were the biggest shocker. The non-qualifications of Poland and Nigeria were also shockers too. And to think of the methods FIFA uses to break ties and send one team with the exact same game stats as the other home while the other qualified. That’s what happened Thursday when Group H ended with Japan and Senegal in a tie with a win, a draw, a loss and even goal differentials. Japan got the edge, and the Round of 16 berth because of less yellow cards amassed. Talk about tight!

Anyways after all that, the field of 32 took 48 games to reduce the field to 16 remaining in contention. From this point on, every game leading to the World Cup will be a knockout round meaning a winner has to be decided. If no winner after regulation, that will mean added extra time of two 15-minute rounds. If no winner after that, then it will start with a 5-set of penalty kicks. If still no winner, then a single-round to get a hit and a miss to decide. That’s how it’s done.

ROUND OF 16

This is the first of it. The round to reduce the field of the 16 who qualified after Thursday to the eight to play in the quarterfinals. Interesting hoe many surprises there were in the tournament. Anyways onto my review of the Round of 16 matches:

URUGUAY vs PORTUGAL

This is a case of two teams going through one of their best eras on a long time. Uruguay has had their best era in decades and Portugal has had their best era… ever! Both even generated a superstar of their own with Uruguay shelling out Luis ‘Chewy Louie’ Suarez and Portugal shelling out Cristiano ‘CR7’ Ronaldo.

As for teams, Uruguay is one of three teams at this World Cup that won all three of their World Cup matches. Portugal may have had a win and two draws, but they did prove that they can deliver when it matters most. You put the pressure on Portugal, they will deliver. It’s hard to tell who will win since the last time the two countries faced off against each other was all the way back in 1972. I will have to predict Portugal, but on penalty kicks. I think they have what it takes to go the distance against Uruguay. They are a team of surprises.

FRANCE vs. ARGENTINA

France has been showing for years what a strong team unit they are. In fact they almost won the Euro in their backyard in 2016. France has been exhibiting the same team unity and same strength throughout the tournament. Argentina has been struggling. First was their draw against Iceland, then a 3-0 loss to Croatia, but then rallying back with a win against Nigeria.

The only way I can see Argentina winning against France is if the strength they had against Nigeria is carried over. In the meantime, I hate to piss off Messi fans but I think France will win.

SPAIN vs. RUSSIA

For Russia, their qualification to the Round of 16 is a triumph on home soil. This is the first time ever as the Russian Federation that they qualified. This is also the first time to the knockout round since the Soviet team last did it in 1986. Spain’s qualification is also a triumph. You know this year it’s all about Germany failing to qualify? Well if you remember Spain was the defending Cup champions in 2014 and they were the ones that fell apart in the Group Stage that time. So their return is a big relief.

As far as team performance, it looks like Spain is the most skilled and the most organized. They’ve been known to play brilliantly even in the games they draw in. So I will have to pick Spain to win this.

CROATIA vs. DENMARK

Great to see Croatia deliver awesome play in their three wins. Also great to see their fans behave themselves in the stands this time. Denmark’s play has not been the most spectacular, but it has been consistent enough for them to nab their first Round of 16 berth in 16 years.

For the win, I will have to pick Croatia. I cannot see Denmark outperforming them here.

BRAZIL vs. MEXICO

Two teams hungry for victory. Mexico want to win its first knockout round game since they hosted in 1986 and Brazil wants to return to the top after their Massacre At The Mineirao in 2014. Mexico performed brilliantly during their first two games just before falling to Sweden 3-0. Brazil started off weak with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland but came back to win both their other matches.

Both teams have met many times before with Brazil winning most of the games. Though Mexico has beat them at times. Brazil’s last loss to Mexico was in 2012. I will predict Brazil to win, but only in added extra time.

BELGIUM vs. JAPAN

Lots of talk of no African teams in the Round of 16, but what’s also noteworthy is that Asian teams did very well here in Russia. While all AFC qualifiers failed to win a match in Brazil 2014, AFC teams in Russia won a total of four matches and Japan qualified for the Round of 16. As for Belgium, they showed brilliance in world Cup qualification play and they took their brilliance here in Russia as they’ve won all their games here.

Because of that, I predict Belgium to win.

SWEDEN vs. SWITZERLAND

Sweden keeps on surpassing any expectations you place on them. They outpoint the Netherlands in World Cup qualifying to get a playoff round, they outperform Italy in the playoff round to qualify for the World Cup, and they top Group F en route to qualifying! Who needs Zlatan anyways? Switzerland will also show their power when you least expect it as they drew 1-1 against Brazil here in Russia and beat Serbia.

Sweden and Switzerland have even past results against each other and their last meeting together was all the way back in 2002. I’m anticipating this to draw into penalty kicks, upon which Switzerland will win.

COLOMBIA vs. ENGLAND

This makes it the first time Colombia has made it to the knockout round in two consecutive World Cups. They started on a weak note losing 2-1 to Japan, but have won both games since. England can take pride that this World Cup puts to rest the humiliation of 2014 where they not only failed to make it past the Group Stage, but failed to win a single game. This time they won their first two matches and even has Harry Kane in the hunt for the Golden Boot Award.

England has never lost to Colombia in the five previous times they met. So I will go with England, but in added extra time.

QUARTERFINAL PREDICTIONS

Let’s just assume that my predictions for the Round Of 16 wins turn out right. Here are my picks:

France vs. Portugal

Portugal may have beaten France at Euro 2016, but France has beaten Portugal more often. I will have to go with France here.

Spain vs. Croatia

Spain has won against Croatia more often, but Croatia has the edge as they beat Spain at the 2016 European Championships. I will say Croatia here.

Brazil vs. Belgium

The two have met only four times before, but Brazil’s last loss to Belgium was in 1963. I will predict Brazil to win this game.

Switzerland vs. England

If my prediction does hold true, then this will be Switzerland’s first trip to the Top 8 since they hosted in 1954. The last time Switzerland beat England was back in 1981. So I have to pick England here.

And there you have my predictions for the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinals. I will save my predictions for the semis and the finals until they are decided. Which means you will all have to wait until next Sunday, at the earliest, to read them!

 

 

 

 

World Cup 2018: Group Stage With One Game To Go

Russia 2018

Already in these past eleven days, all 32 teams played their first two games. Already some team’s fates are determined as six teams know they’ve qualified for the knockout round and eight teams know they’re going home after they play their last game. The fates of the remaining eighteen are still unclear and they will have to rely on their play in the last game in order to determine if they’re among the remaining ten to advance or among the other eight that will head home earlier than they hoped. With each group’s games both taking place simultaneously, you can bet each team will need to play like they mean it.

Here is a group-by-group breakdown of those who made it (with countries who are guaranteed to advance in bold), those who will be leaving soon and those who still have a chance. Hyperlinks with each group are to my original review:

Group A: This is as basic as game statistics go about right now. Two teams won both their games which of course means the other two teams lost. The two that won their two games already know they’re advancing. That’s as basic as it gets. This is the only group that has it that way. The two teams that won both their games are Russia and Uruguay. One of two groups that already has decided both of their qualifiers.

Monday’s game of Russia vs. Uruguay will be a case of the final standings. They know they’re qualifying. The game will be about who qualifies as first and second. Russia could finish first by simply drawing. Their goal differential is big enough. Uruguay will have to win if they want to finish first as both their wins were 1-0.

Since Egypt and Saudi Arabia lost both their games, it’s pretty clear in their match against each other on Monday, it will be a game for pride.

Group B: Group B is a group that’s hard to explain. The only definite thing is it’s over for Morocco. As for qualifiers, no definite ones with three teams still having a chance. Portugal and Spain both have the best chances after their 3-3 draw against each other and 1-0 victories in their following games. Both would not only have to win in their games (although they could still qualify even if they both draw), but if both win, goal differential would have to decide 1st and 2nd.

However don’t count out Iran. They may rank 3rd right now with a win and a loss– their win being their first since 1998– but beating Portugal will mean they would qualify. If Spain loses their game against Morocco in the process, Iran could just come out on top! Goad differential would have to decide between Spain and Portugal for the second berth.

What can I say? Game 3 will have to decide it all.

Group C: Right now one team, France, is guaranteed to qualify based on their two wins. Also one team, Peru, is guaranteed to go packing for home after Tuesday’s game, whether they win against Australia or not. Even if Denmark beats France on Tuesday, France still has enough game points to qualify, even if they would finish second and Denmark would win Group C.

The way things are right now, France and Denmark could draw and both teams would advance on game points, even if Australia beats Peru. Australia would still have a chance if they beat Peru and Denmark loses to France. However even as little as a draw against Peru would eliminate Australia’s chances from qualifying. Another case of Game 3 to decide the second qualifier, as well as the final standings of all teams.

Group D: That’s all it took. It just took Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria and 3-0 win over Argentina to have them qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time since their 3rd-place finish in 1998.

Croatia is in a healthy position to finish first in Group D as Iceland would have beat Croatia to have a chance at qualifying. And Croatia is as capable of losing to Iceland as they are to beating them. Both teams won a game against each other in World Cup qualifying. Actually the other three teams all have a chance to qualify, no matter how slim. Even Argentina, despite their big loss to Croatia. Argentina’s big loss does put them at the bottom with the harshest of chances to qualify. They would not only have to beat Nigeria, but Croatia will have to beat or draw against Iceland. Messi’s fourth and possibly final chance at winning a World Cup depends on all that. Nigeria could still qualify with a draw against Argentina, but a win will guarantee them qualifying should Iceland actually defeat Croatia. That’s Game 3 for you. Sometimes chances are not worth taking.

Group E: Group E is a lot like Group B where two teams have a win and a draw, one team has a win and a loss, and one team has two losses which guarantee elimination after Wednesday’s game. The team that’s definitely eliminated is Costa Rica. They may have been the Cinderella story of 2014, but the clock struck midnight here in Russia for them. Even if they beat Switzerland, it’s over.

Any of the other three teams–Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia– can qualify, depending on the results of their games on Wednesday. All three also have chances to get eliminated too. Brazil could draw against Serbia and it would guarantee qualification for them. However Serbia would have to win over Brazil to guarantee qualification on their side. They could still qualify if they draw against Brazil and Switzerland loses to Costa Rica 2-0 or 3-1, but why take a chance? The only way Switzerland could still qualify after losing to Costa Rica is if Brazil loses to Serbia 2-0 or 3-1 as Brazil has an edge with their goal differential. A draw against Costa Rica would guarantee qualification for Switzerland, whether either Brazil or Serbia wins.

Brazil could still qualify if they simply draw against Serbia, but the only way for Brazil to qualify if they lose to Serbia is if Coast Rica beats Switzerland, and as long as their loss to Serbia isn’t that huge of a margin. Whatever the situation, Game 3 will be a case where all three eligible teams will have to play it like they mean it.

Group F: This is the one group where there are no definite qualifiers, but no teams definitely eliminated either. All four teams still have a chance to qualify and it will completely rely on the outcome of the final game on Wednesday. Game 3 could have a case where there are two teams with two wins and a loss with the other two teams having a win and two losses. It could even be a case of one team having three straight wins and the other three teams having a win and two losses and goal differentials deciding the second qualifier. Of course draws could change all that, but right now none of the teams are eliminated and all still have a chance.

Starting with Mexico, they have the best chances of qualifying after their 1-0 win against Germany and 2-1 win over South Korea. However they could be eliminated if they lose to Sweden 2-0 or 3-1 and Germany wins 2-0 or 3-1 to South Korea in the process. That would be the case of three teams with two wins and a loss but one doesn’t qualify. And it has happened in past World Cups.

Germany and Sweden both have a win and a loss as well as two goals for and two against. However Germany leads Sweden for the second-place spot because of the head-to-head result. I have to say that goal by Tony Kroos in the 95th minute was definitely something Germany needed to stay alive and have healthy chances of qualifying to the knockout stage. Otherwise they would’ve risked being the fourth of five defending Cup champions this 21st century that failed to advance. Nevertheless they still risk missing out not just if they lose to South Korea, but even if they draw and Sweden ends up winning over Mexico. It’s still possible Germany will fail to advance past the opening round for the first time since 1938. Like Germany, Sweden would have to win over Mexico to have the healthiest of chances to qualify. Qualifying via a draw could only happen if Germany draws too and Sweden’s draw is bigger: such as Sweden-Mexico 2-2 while Germany-South Korea 1-1. Whatever. It’s too complicated to tell! But they know they need to play like they mean it.

Finally there’s South Korea. It’s easy to think they have the best chances of getting eliminated with losing both games, but they still have a chance, despite it being a slim one. They not only have to win over Germany, but Mexico has to beat Sweden in order for the Koreans to qualify. A slim chance is still a chance possible. And the Koreans could do it since they will have a one-man advantage on Wednesday. The fates of all will be decided that Wednesday. Sure, it was awfully long for me to describe, but the group is that tight right now.

Group G: Group G is like Group A where the two qualifiers are already decided thanks to both England and Belgium scoring two wins and both Panama and Tunisia losing to both teams in the process. This is especially happy for England as the first win was England’s first win of a World Cup match since 2010. Definitely a big upper after a dreadful 2014 showing. The big surprise is that both England and Belgium share the same goal differential with eight for and two against. Their game on Thursday will be just to decide who finishes first and who finishes second. A draw, god forbid, would require the team of the first goal to take first place, or some other FIFA law if the draw happens to be nil-nil. Glad to see no nil-nil draws yet this World Cup.

It may be all over for Panama and Tunisia but their game on Thursday will be for pride. Panama will try to win their first game ever while Tunisia will try to win their first game since their debut in 1978.

Group H: Another group with no definite qualifiers and three teams that still have a chance at qualifying. When I made my predictions, I looked back and wondered if there would be any African teams or Asian teams that would have a chance of making it past the group stage. My predictions didn’t make it look so. However Japan and Senegal are the two teams that have done the best play with a win and a draw each. Japan is especially noteworthy as they delivered the first victory by an Asian team since 2010. The That 2-2 draw where Japan played Senegal was tight. Their games on Thursday will have to decide their final fates. Colombia endured a 2-1 loss to Japan in their first game, but really picked themselves up tonight after their 3-0 win over Poland. That win helps keep Colombia in contention for qualifying. It all depends on their game against Senegal. They would have to win as Senegal has the advantage if they draw. And who knows what will happen in the game of Japan vs. Poland. Both Senegal and Japan have the luxury of qualifying even if they both draw in their final matches.

The only team that has their World Cup fate already decided is Poland. They lost 2-1 to Senegal and 3-0 to Colombia and that means it’s over for them. They could win against Japan for their national pride. If Japan does lose, the only way Japan could qualify is if Senegal beats Colombia. Game 3 is almost always make or break.

And there you have it. This is how qualifying stands for the knockout stage of the World Cup right now. These next four days will seal the fates of all teams not just for who qualifies, but how they finish in their group. Don’t forget it’s not just about getting a berth by finishing in the Top 2. It’s also about the two qualifiers’ group finish as it will decide which game they play in and determine who their opponent will be. Too complicated to explain it all. Still exciting to watch the action unfold.