World Cup 2022 Preview: Group G

Before I get into my preview of Group G of the FIFA World Cup, I just want to inform of something. There has been a lot of talk over the issue of human rights in Qatar. This is especially in concern of foreign visitors coming to Qatar with tickets. FIFA has not ignored this. In fact FIFA makes public on its website that it has developed a Human Rights Grievance Mechanism. If a visitor notices a concern, the information of what to do is on this link: https://www.fifa.com/social-impact/human-rights/grievance-mechanism

And now, my review of Group G of the 2022 FIFA World Cup:

-Brazil (1): It’s easy to believe that Brazil is the best. No other team has played in all 21 previous World Cups. No other nation has won the World Cup five times. They’ve also won the Copa America an impressive nine times. Despite all their victories, it can be a mistake. Ever since their last World Cup win back in 2002, they’ve gone out sooner than expected thanks to bad mistakes on plays, blown chances and sometimes a lack of top talent or team unity. Their best World Cup finish since has been fourth in 2014 as host nation, and it was quite humiliating.

Since the 2018 World Cup where they were out in the quarterfinals.,the Seleção have showed improvements. They won the 2019 Copa America and were runners-up to Argentina last year. The national squad is coached by Tite, manager since 2016. Neymar is back, as well as Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Casemiro and goalkeeper Allisson. Since Copa America 2021, they have not lost a game since. Wins include Ghana, Tunisia, Japan and Uruguay. They’ve had a win and a draw against Colombia, and they’ve drawn against Argentina and Ecuador. The whole world is looking forward to how Brazil will performi in Qatar 2022. No doubt they will be ready.

-Serbia (21): Serbia is a team that’s full of surprises. Ever since they’ve been competing and playing on their own, they’ve never qualified for a Euro, but they’ve qualified for their third World Cup out of four tries! Even now, they rank 19th in the UEFA Nations League. As for World Cup play, The Eagles are hoping to relive the glory days when the Yugoslavian team would go far in world football.

The current squad is coached by Dragan Stojkovic who played for the last two Yugoslavia teams that played in the World Cup: 1990 and 1998. The team’s players play in clubs in various European leagues with the most common being Italy’s Serie A. Team captain Dusan Tadic plays for Ajax Amsterdam. In recent play, they’ve had wins over Sweden, Hungary and Portugal. They’ve had a win and a draw against Slovenia. They’ve also had a win and a loss to Norway and endured an additional loss to Denmark. Qatar is the stage for Serbia to show the world what they’re made of.

-Switzerland (15): Switzerland is a team that should be admired for its consistency. This will be their twelfth World Cup and fifth consecutive. But the problem is the Nati always have a problem with getting ahead. They’ve never progressed passed the second stage and they’ve never won a knockout game. That would include Round-of-16 exits in the last two World Cups. Recently they achieved a breakthrough at Euro 2020 when they won their first-ever knockout match, albeit on penalty kicks. Right now in UEFA Nations League play, they rank 9th in the A-league.

Since Euro 2020, the Swiss team is coached by Murat Yakin who played for Switzerland in Euro 2004. Most of the team plays for teams in the European leagues with the Premier League and the Bundesliga being the most common. Captain Granit Xhaka plays for Arsenal. Interestingly enough, vice-captain Xherdan Shaqiri plays for the Chicago Fire in the MLS. Four of Switzerland’s players at the World Cup rank among Switzerland’s Top 10 most capped. Recent play has been a mixed bag. They’ve had a recent win against Bulgaria. draws against Italy and Kosovo, and a recent loss to England. In Nations Cup play, they’ve had a win and a loss against Portugal, Spain and Czechia. The stage is set in Qatar and a chance for the Swiss team to prove themselves.

-Cameroon (43): Cameroon used to be seen as the leaders in African football. It seems like the glory days of the Indomitable Lions were so long ago. Their quarterfinal finish was back in 1990. They failed to qualify for 2018, and they lost all three matches in the two previous World Cups. Lately things have been making improvements for Cameroon. They finished third at the most recent African Cup of Nations. They also finished fourth in the 2020 African Nations Championship.

Cameroon is coached by Rigoberto Song who played for Cameroon in four World Cups. Song was named Cameroon’s head coach in February of this year replacing Toni Conceicao of Portugal. The players mostly play for leagues in European or Arabian nations. Captain Vincent Aboubakar plays for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Pro League. Recent play has them with wins against Burundi, Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast. They’ve had draws against Jamaica and Egypt. They’ve had a win and a draw against Burkina Faso and a win and a loss against Algeria. 2022 is a chance for Cameroon to regain their old glory and pave the way for a new generation.

My Prediction: Here we go. Now it’s time to make the prediction of the two most likely to advance. For this group, I will have to go with Brazil and Serbia. I pick Switzerland as the team most likely to surprise.

And there you go. My review of World Cup Group G. Hard to believe there’s only one group left to do! The excitement doesn’t end, does it?

World Cup 2022 Preview: Group A

For those wondering with the World Cup happening, will I be doing reviews of the groups as I normally do? Yes, I will. Will I be doing reviews of the stadiums and issues involving Qatar as the host? No I won’t. I mostly want to stick to reviewing the groups. Escpe4cially since that’s what mostly gets attention to my group blogs.

I will only talk a limited amount about Qatar hosting. I know it’s a surprise selection and that a lot of people have opinions about it. Many people are crying foul about it. The most I will say is it is a surprise to see a nation of just over 4,000 square miles (just slightly bigger than the island of Jamaica) and not even 3,000,000 people hosting. I would have figured is there would be one country in the Arabic world that would host the World Cup, it would be either Morocco or Algeria. Plus a nation that small having eight stadiums. I hope most of those stadiums have temporary seating because Qatar can’t afford to have the stadiums as white elephants. Only the future will tell of the after-use.

In the meantime, I will begin my World Cup focus on Group A. Group A is always the group with the host nation and it’s in the hopes that the host nation qualifies to the knockout stage. So far only once — South Africa back in 2010 — has the host nation not advanced past the opening stage of a World Cup. So let’s get to it! Also a reminder that FIFA ranking for October 2022 is in brackets:

GROUP A

-Qatar (50): Isn’t it something that there’s only a single nation making its World Cup debut and it’s the host nation? Qatar is considered to be an underdog by many. However the team called ‘The Maroon’ know with them hosting the World Cup this year, they will want to put on a good show and have the home country proud of them. They hired a Spanish coach named Felix Sanchez to coach the national team starting with the under-20 team in 2013, then the under-23 team in 2017 and then the main national team in 2020. They have delivered surprise results in the last four years like winning the 2019 Asian Cup and finishing third as a guest nation at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Interesting to note that all members of Qatar’s team play for clubs inside Qatar. Qatar has attempted to prove its mettle in the last year and a half against both national teams and renowned clubs. They’ve had victories over Ghana, United Arab Emirates and Italian team Udinese. They’ve had recent draws against Jamaica, Morocco and Chile. They’ve also had notable defeats to Serbia, Canada and Algeria. For their Group A opponents, the only team they ever played against was Ecuador and their record against them is a win, a loss and a draw. This World Cup is the scene for Qatar to prove itself to the world and they might just pull a surprise or two.

-Ecuador(44): This will be Ecuador’s fourth World Cup. Ecuador is a team looking for it’s first major break. At the World Cup, the best they ever did was the Round of 16. At the Copa America, the most they ever got was fourth. Le Tricolor is coach by a full team of Argentinean coaches in hopes of making their dent on the world football field. The Ecuadorean under-20 team finished third in the 2019 U20 World Cup.

The team has players that play in a wide variety of clubs in Europe, the US’s MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX. The goalkeepers all play for teams with Ecuador’s Serie A. They’ve had recent noteworthy wins against Mexico, Chile and Nigeria. They’ve had notable draws against Argentina, Japan and Brazil. They’ve also had losses to Venezuela and Paraguay. 2022 is another chance for Ecuador to prove itself on the World Cup stage and anything can happen.

-Senegal (18): The 2018 World Cup was the first World Cup since 1982 that an African team didn’t qualify for the knockout phase. Of the five teams, Senegal appeared to be the team most likely to. However at the end of their group, they had a win, a loss and a draw, just like Japan. They had the same goal differential as Japan, but what made the difference was Japan had less yellow cards than Senegal. That made all the difference between qualifying or not. The Lions of Teranga are back this year with the highest rank of all the African teams.

The national team has players that play in various European clubs; most play for either English or French teams. Coach Allou Cisse is the same coach they had since 2015. The team has had recent notable wins against Bolivia and Egypt, notable draws against Iran and Togo, and only two losses in the last year and a half. Senegal looks to improve as a team in 2022 and the stadiums of Qatar are another chance for them to move forward.

-Netherlands (8): The excitement of the Oranje almost always seems to be a given during a World Cup or a Euro. But after the 2014 World Cup where they finished third, they ran into trouble. They failed to qualify for the 2016 Euro and the 2018 World Cup. Turns out after they dropped Louis van Gaal as head coach just after World Cup 2014, they dealt with seven head coaches since. Van Gaal has returned as head coach after their Round of 16 elimination at Euro 2020.

For the national team for this World Cup, most of the players either play for German leagues or Netherlands’ Eridivisie. The team features a wide variety of veterans and young players. Since Euro 2020, the Netherlands team has not had a single loss. They’ve scored big wins against Belgium, Wales and Denmark. They’ve also had noteworthy draws against Germany and Poland. 2022 looks to be a big year of redemption for the Netherlands and I’m sure they’ll prove a lot here in Qatar.

MY PREDICTION: And now for my thoughts on Group A. It’s hard to predict as some teams have proved a lot while others have more to prove. I predict the two teams to qualify to the knockout phase will be the Netherlands and Senegal.

And there you have it! The first of my reviews of the groups for the 2022 World Cup. As we get closer and closer to the start, you will be seeing more reviews and more predictions.

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 Preview: Group H

Hard to believe it’s finally about to start. The very first World Cup game starts at 8:00 on Thursday June 14th in Luzhniki Stadium and it ends there too on Sunday July 15th. And at the end of it all, only one country is left smiling! Anyways on with my last group review: Group H. How do they stack up?

Poland fixed-Poland (10)- Poland has a football success that usually is strong one quadrennial, weak another. This time around, it looks like Poland has its strongest team in decades. They topped their World Cup qualification en route to Russia. They’ve even produced a superstar in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.

Poland is not just Lewandowski. There’s also midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek. The team features a good mix of young and older talent. They were very impressive in World Cup qualifying. The team has had some notable wins in the past year against Lithuania and South Korea, but they’ve also had 1-0 losses to Nigeria and Mexico. Russia 2018 is yet another chance for Poland to seize the moment.

Senegal flag-Senegal (28)- 2002 seems like a memory. It was Senegal’s first World Cup and they surprised defending champions France in the opening game of that World Cup and en route to going to the quarterfinals. They’ve failed to return to the World Cup scene until now. They hope to show the world they still have what it takes.

After 16 long years, The Lions Of Teranga come back via coach Aliou Cisse who played for that Senegalese team in the World Cup. Most of the players play for teams with the Premier League or France’s Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. Senegal have had some noteworthy wins in the last year such as to South Africa and South Korea. However they’ve also lost recently to Croatia 2-1 and also had a scoreless draw against Bosnia. Senegal returns to the World Cup stage here in Russia with lots to prove.

Colombia-Colombia (16)- This appears to be a new era in Colombian football. They first had a chance in the 90’s to make a name for themselves at the World Cup, but poor performances marred by political strife in their country prevented that from happening. Then they made a return to the World Cup scene in 2014. There they made it to the quarterfinals for the first time ever. On top of that, striker James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot for scoring six goals.

Rodriguez is back, along with midfielder Carlos Sanchez, striker Radamel Falcao and Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Colombia has had some recent noteworthy wins such as 3-2 against France and 4-0 against China. However they’ve also lost 2-1 against Paraguay and 2-1 against South Korea. Chances are Colombia can go further than they ever have here in Russia 2018.

Japan-Japan (60)- Japan is one Asian country that has been struggling to show how talented their team is. The Samurai Blue have made it to the Round of 16 in 2002 (which they co-hosted) and 2010, but that’s as far as they’ve ever gotten. Japan has produced a boom in football back with the boost of the J-League in the 90’s but they’re still waiting for their big moment. Sure, they’ve won many AFC Asian Cups in the past, but they feel they have more to prove internationally.

This past year has had its ups and downs for Japan. They recently won against Paraguay 4-2 and won against Australia 2-0. However they’ve had some notable losses to Brazil 3-1, Switzerland 2-0 and Belgium 1-0. Remember anything can happen in World Cup play and Japan could just surprise everybody during Russia 2018.

So that’s my summary of the Group H teams. As for the two I feel will advance, I will have to go with Poland and Colombia.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

ST. PETERSBURG: Krestovsky Stadium (Saint-Petersburg Stadium)Krestovsky

Year Opened: 2017

Capacity: 67,000

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, E,

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, bronze-medal match

Situated on Krestovsky Island in St. Petersburg, this stadium is not just known for its design, but its enormous cost to construct: an estimated $1.1 billion! It is considered one of the most expensive stadiums ever built. The high cost had a lot to do with a delayed civic loan, wind damage and flooding to materials and a withdrawal of a major corporate funder. Its opening in 2017 is nine years later than expected. The design of the stadium is based on Japanese designer Kisho Kurokawa’s ‘ Spaceship’ design. The stadium is situated where the old Kirov Stadium used to be. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for FC Zenit St. Petersburg.

MOSCOW: Luzhniki Stadium Luzhniki

Year Opened: 1956

Capacity: 80,000

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, C, F

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, Final match

This stadium has an immense amount of history with it. Actually during the days of the USSR, it used to be known as Central Lenin Stadium. After the collapse of the USSR and the doing away of Communism, the stadium has been named after the Luzhniki district it’s situated in. During the days of the USSR, the stadium was the centrepoint of the national Spartakiad sports celebrations. It was also the host venue for the 1980 Summer Olympics, 1973 Summer Universiade and 1986 Goodwill Games. Since the fall of Communism and the emergence of the Russian Federation, the stadium has hosted the 1999 UEFA Cup Final, 2008 UEFA Champions League Final and the 2013 World Championships In Athletics.

RUSSIA-LANDSCAPE-ARCHITECTUREThe stadium has had three renovations in the past. The most recent being before the Confederations Cup in preparation for the World Cup. World Cup renovations include a demolishing of the old stadium to have a new stadium with enclosure. The self-supported wall and facade of Lenin Stadium was maintained. New construction allowed the stadium to be connected to a main building. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for the Russian national team.

And that does it! This is the last of my group previews for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Hard to believe the opening ceremonies are 24 hours away, give or take. One thing for sure is that it will deliver a full month of excitement and surprises.

Grey Cup 2011

On Sunday November 27th, fans of Canadian Football will have all their attention fixed on the newly renovated BC Place Stadium for the 99th Annual Grey Cup. For those unfamiliar with Canadian Football or even the Canadian Football League (CFL), the Grey Cup is to Canadian Football what the Super Bowl is to American Football. This year, the rivalry between East and West over the Cup will be the BC Lions against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

For those non-Canadians unfamiliar with the CFL, the CFL is as much a part of Canadiana as the NFL is to Americana. The Grey Cup has been part of league football in Canada since 1909 but it wasn’t until the CFL formed in1958 that the Grey Cup was a permanent fixture in Canadiana. For the most part, the CFL consists of nine teams except when something goes wrong with one of them. Usually there is at least one city that has problems with their CFL team. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was Montreal. Now it’s Ottawa. But don’t worry. Ottawa will be returning in 2013. Plus there’s talk of possible franchises in the future from Quebec City or Halifax.

For the most part, the CFL has been happy to be Canada’s own football league. For many decades, it didn’t worry about competing with the NFL because it knew it had a very solid dedicated base in Canada. Things became uncomfortable in the late 80’s when the CFL tried attracting new players to the league but couldn’t compete with the big salaries of the NFL teams. In the 90’s, the CFL tried things like offer a $5 million annual salary to Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismael to join the Toronto Argonauts in 1991. It turned out to a success for that one year. Sure the Rocket and the Argos won the Grey Cup that year but the Rocket’s career went downhill after that. The success of the Rocket led to the CFL to form franchises in cities like Sacramento, Baltimore, Las Vegas and Shreveport. In 1995 Birmingham and Memphis entered the league. The 1995 Grey Cup came as a shocker as the Baltimore Stallions won; the only time an American team won the Grey Cup. After a lot of business issues and bad management from some American teams, the CFL returned to being based completely in Canada since 1996 and we’re happy to keep it that way.

Nowadays, the CFL does not need to seek out ways to try to reach the popularity level or moneymaking level of the NFL. Ever since the CFL stopped its expansion into the US, they were reminded again that they can hold their own with loyal Canadian fans. The CFL has the seventh-highest per-game attendance average of 27,000. Its average may be less than that of Major League Baseball and not even half that of the NFL but it has a higher average than the top soccer leagues of Mexico, Italy, Argentina, France and even Brazil. Yeah, that well-attended.

BC Place and its new roof on its opening night.

This year’s Grey Cup will prove to be an exciting match. Firstly because it is held in BC Place with the new roof. Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, there was a demand for a new roof for the stadium as the air-supported ETFE roof had a tear in 2007. The construction of the new roof began after the 2010 Paralympics and was completed on September 30 of this year. During that time, the Lions returned to the dismantled Empire Field and played in a stadium consisting completely of 25,000 temporary seats. This was quite an experience for me as I saw the Lions’ fourth game of theis season in that temporary stadium. A lot of banging, that’s for sure. As for BC Place’s new roof, it’s more high-tech and doesn’t require so much air pressure to keep it up. The scoreboard is supported by 36 cables connected to its own mast. The top of the Stadium consists of lighted glass. Looks great from the outside, but now that people couldn’t call BC Place ‘The Marshmallow’ anymore, what could they call it? My pick for the name would be ‘The Crown’. Anyways in the very first year of BC Place being ‘The Crown’, it appropriately hosts the Grey Cup this year. This year the race for the Grey Cup has narrowed the field down to its East and West contenders: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the home team BC Lions. Here’s a wrap-up on how the two stack up:

BC LIONS

Another pic of the newly renovated BC Place at night.

If one would say at the beginning of the CFL season that the Lions would be in the Grey Cup, most would be laughing. The start of the regular season for the Lions was depressing and even frustrating for fans. The first five games were straight losses. Even I attended the fourth game, against Hamilton, and witnessed the loss. Their sixth game was a win against Saskatchewan only to follow it us with a loss against Edmonton. After that, it was like a miracle turnaround. Eight straight wins propelling themselves to the top of the CFL. There was only one loss after the sixth game, and that was against Hamilton in their 16th game in the regular season. By finishing atop the West Division, they only had to wait until the Division Finals to play their first and only playoff game against Edmonton, in which they won 40-23.

Overall, the 2011 Lions have had an excellent season with 11 wins and 7 losses. They became the first team in CFL history to lose their first five games only to end regular season on top of the CFL. Many teams they lost to at the start of the season they were able to beat in matches later in the season. The only two teams the Lions did not win against this season were the Hamilton TiCats and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. This may come as an Achilles heel for the Lions as they will face Winnipeg for the Cup, and Winnipeg beat Hamilton en route to their East division berth for the Cup. However it may not be a glitch as we should remember that the two losses to Winnipeg came in its first seven games of the season. The Lions have sure changes since then and they could be ready for Winnipeg this time.

Also a bit of Grey Cup trivia. This year’s Grey Cup may come in the first year of BC Place’s new roof but BC Place hosted the Grey Cup in its opening year: 1983. Like this year, the Lions played in the Cup. Unfortunately they lost. Actually of the three times BC both played in and hosted the Grey Cup, only once were they the Cup winners. Something to think about for Sunday.

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

The Bombers finished atop the East Division with 10 wins and eight losses. Sounds impressive at first but while the Lions started their regular season weak and ended strong, the Bombers started strong and ended weak. They started off impressively winning all but one of their first eight games of regular season. However there was a surprise turnabout as the Bombers would only win three of the last ten games of regular season. They were known for their strong defence but many of their top defencemen were injured later on in the season. By finishing atop the East division, their only playoff game was the division Final against Hamilton which they won 19-3. If their strength from the beginning of the season has returned to form, then they should be able to beat the Lions for the Cup. It may not be 100% as some of their top defencemen are too injured to play in the Grey Cup. If Winnipeg’s defence is still strong, it will be decided in the play for the Cup.

One additional note. While Winnipeg had its own challenges on the playing field, its biggest news this season was of the loss of their Assistant Coach Richard Harris. Harris collapsed at the CanadInns Stadium on Tuesday, July 26 and died that afternoon. He was 63. He was promoted to Assistant Coach this season after being their Defensive Line Coach since 2006. This also came as a loss for the Lions too as he was their Defensive Line Coach from 2011 to 2004. Surely Coach Harris will be on the minds of the Bombers when they play the Grey Cup on Sunday.

For me, it’s hard for me to pick who will win or who I should cheer for. I was born in Winnipeg and lived there most of my life. However I’ve made a home for myself in Vancouver these past ten years. BC has only won the Cup five times compared to ten for Winnipeg, but Winnipeg hasn’t won the Cup since 1990 while BC’s last won the Cup five years ago. Anyways I decided not to cheer for either team and let the game decide the better team. Anyways, Go Bombers! Go Lions! May the best team win!