Tag Archives: Russia

VIFF 2021 Review: Flee

Flee is an animated documentary of Amin: an Afghani refugee living in Denmark who always felt he had to hide his true past from everyone. Including the man he loves.

Flee was the first time I was able to see an animated film at the VIFF this year. It isn’t just an animated film. It’s part-story, part-documentary that tells a lot about a remarkable story.

The story begins with a man named Amin. He tells the story of his life and his ordeal. He tells it in fluent Danish. He first tells of his story of how he had to flee as his whole family had been killed off. This is a story he also tells his boyfriend Kasper. This is on the verge of Kasper about to buy a house for him and Amin. Meanwhile Amin is undecided whether to accept living with Kasper or accept a teaching job at a university.

The interviewer then takes Amin to a private place. There, Amin can tell the true story. It starts when he reflects of his childhood in Kabul. His biggest memories are of being four in the mid-1980’s and running down the streets with a Walkman with pink earphones in his hand and wearing a dress! However the harsh realities hit Amin and his family in 1989 when Amin turns eight. The Mujahideen have taken over Afghanistan, just two years after the Soviets withdrew from the nation. Their father has been captured and they don’t know what happened to them. Fearing they’ll be next, Amin, his mother, two sisters and brother seek refuge on a plane. The plane takes them in Moscow as the USSR is one of few countries willing to take the family in because of their status.

Life is not very good for the family in Moscow. Even after the fall of communism, they can only do limited work, live in a cramped flat and constantly be harassed by corrupt policeman who heckle them for being different. They know they will have to flee to another country if they are ever able to be free for once. However their only hope depends on human traffickers. They all want to flee to Sweden. The eldest brother is the only one who can work. It is he who will have to provide the money for these trips.

The first trip, which involved being in a car failed and they found themselves back in Moscow. The second trip involved the whole family travelling at once. This involved a long walk through the woods with others right in the coldness of winter. It then led them all to a fishing vessel where they had to hide themselves in the fish trap. The feel of the boat trip was nerve-wracking with the water splashing. Then water started coming in, which involved the passengers coming out of the trap to get the water out. Fortunately a cruise ship discovers the boat. Unfortunately, the cruise ship calls Estonian police to rescue the passengers. That meant back to Moscow.

The long wait is frustrating. The mother is getting older, the siblings including Amin himself are growing and missing out a lot on their future, and the oldest brother is having the frustration of his future being squandered to saving up for these illegal immigration stings. It’s frustrating, but they can’t go on watching Mexican soap operas and being harassed by Moscow police forever. Finally the brother finds a new illegal immigration operation. It’s way more expensive than the ones in the past, but this has excellent chances of working. However this involves each of the family members to go alone.

Amin is to go with one other teen male. The agent gives both boys strict instructions to obey. The trip starts with both of them being inside a van and lying down. During the trip, Amin senses a feeling he has toward the other male. The male gives him his gold chain. Before they board the plane, the agent gives the two plane tickets and passports: Amin for Denmark and the other boy for Switzerland. They all go on a flight to Istanbul. As the flight lands, the agent advises the two to do everything he instructs them to do and once they arrive in their country of destination to tear up the passport and tell officials their story. After the agent leaves, the two depart but not without one final goodbye.

Hours later, Amin arrives in Copenhagen, tears up the passport, and tells his story of being a completely orphaned Afghani refugee. As he’s transported to safety, he looks out the window of the car and sees freedom, but can’t feel it or sense it. He spent years living in a shelter living with various families and pursuing excellent grades in school. Then one day, he receives a phone call. It’s his brother in Sweden. Amin learns his brother found refuge in Sweden from his own trip from the trafficker.

Time would improve for Amin. Soon he’d learn all of his family including his mother had found refuge in various places in Europe with his two sisters also living in Sweden. His life has improved as he has been able to become a strong academic and even had lecturing jobs at American colleges. However he’s still had to keep his true life a secret from his boyfriend and his homosexuality a secret from his family as Afghani culture considers homosexuality to bring shame to the family. One day, when the brother and sisters get into conversation about Amin not being married, he then outs himself to the shock of all. The brother then tells Amin to get into the car. Amin is uncertain and fearful about what will happen next during the car ride. The brother takes him to a gay bar and hands him some money. They knew all along! Inside the gay bar, Amin discovers a freedom he never thought possible. The film then flashes forward two years later showing how Amin’s life has improved.

This is definitely a story about a current hot topic: refugees and illegal immigrants. It’s constantly an issue. As long as there’s political oppression and corruption, there are going to be people fleeing. Refugees and illegal immigrants probably feel they have something to hide about themselves. Even if they become legit citizens of their country, they feel they still have something to hide and they have to lie for their freedom. Roughly they’re still mentally ‘on the run.’ Even the fact that the subject has to tell his whole truth under the pseudonym Amin Nawabi adds to this factor. It becomes evident when Amin first tells the interviewer of his story of his family deceased. Then when he’s in a private room, he tells the truth. It’s also evident how he’s unsure whether to commit to marrying his boyfriend Kasper and instead accept an offer at an American university.

Amin’s story is definitely a story of intrigue. This is a story of a man who pretty much feels he has his ‘life on the run.’ He had to flee his home of Afghanistan with his family and first settle in Russia, only for all to find another nation to live in. This is a case of three attempts and the frustration of wondering if you’ll ever be free. This is about feeling that you have to hide the truth of yourself even though you’re now living in a free country. This is about even hiding a truth about yourself that is forbidden and seen as shame in your home country. I think that’s the point of the story. About hiding things. It starts off as a case that Amin has a lot to hide. However over time, he opens up. Hidden truths about himself no longer become a taboo. It’s a case as we see the story unravel over time just as we get to the part where he outs himself to his siblings.

This is a story of from a life of refuge to a newly discovered freedom. When you look at it, Amin’s freedom in Denmark is the best thing to happen to him. We all see he had to deal with life in Russia along with his siblings. Even without attempts to immigrate, Russia was no place for them. Not as they were constantly being harassed. Afghanistan was no place for them either as their father may had been killed and they would be in pursuit. It’s especially no place for Amin as his sexuality was obvious at a young age. If he had not fled from Afghanistan in his lifetime, he could have been executed for his homosexuality. That really gets you thinking. Especially when we recently heard about the return of the Taliban to power. It’s something how Amin is born in a country with the harshest attitude towards homosexuality and finds himself in one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage!

I give top accolades to writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. He’s done films about people’s struggle with homosexuality before. The story does a very good job as it goes from the interview to the re-enactments of Amin’s past. From running down the streets listening to Take On Me to the family forgetting their problems as they watch Mexican soap operas, it does a good job of telling the story while mixing other elements in the background. The images do a great job in capturing the drama of the time. The voice acting was also very good. The animation from Sun Creature Studio did an excellent job of depicting the story in both the present and the past. The addition of the music of the times and of the Mexican soap operas also add to the story.

Flee is a great animated film about a man who feels like he has always had to be on the run. On the run from danger, on the run from authorities, on the run to achieve freedom, and on the run from how he was meant to live and who to love. It’s an eye-opener and a delight to see at the same time.

VIFF 2021 Shorts Segment: MODES 2

With the Vancouver Film Fest comes segments of short films. That’s my second VIFF goal to see one of those segments. I achieved it when I saw the segment series MODES 2. Six films from six directors from six different nations. They all gave lots to see and hear.

-The Coast (India – dir. Sohrab Hura): The film shows people on the coast of a beach in south India as they swim around and throw themselves to the waves. The film also shows images of a religious ritual, which includes inflicting pain on one’s self. The film also shows images of a nearby carnival. Then ends again with people throwing themselves to the waves.

A video interview from the director says the images are of a religious festival where one begins by facing their personal demons and then ends as they wash their demons away. The images are seen in slow motion with disjointed music added into the score. It’s a very picturesque short film that gives us a fascinating look at people from a world away. It can even give you appreciation for such a festival as the waves form the Indian Ocean are as much of a storyteller as people.

-Happiness Is A Journey (USA/Estonia – dirs. Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan): It’s very early morning of Christmas Eve 2019 at a newspaper deport in Austin, Texas. People gather at 1:30am to pick up newspapers to people’s homes. People gather them in big numbers and know they’ll need a good amount of gas. One of the delivery people is Eddie ‘Bear’ Lopez, a 62-year resident of Austin, who’s been doing this since 1997 without ever taking a day off. The film then follows Bear on his trip. Bear even brings his little dog with him. As he delivers, his trip is long. Ever since people made the move to the online news site of the paper, actual newspaper customers are less and less which means deliveries are further an wider. The film goes along Bear’s long route, which he has completed by 6am.

This is a film, shown with two different simultaneous camera images and consists strictly of the sounds around. No musical score at all. It shows about people who we either take for granted or have shunned their skills away because of our use of technology. It gives respect for a person with a low-paying job who never takes a day off, but somehow finds fulfillment in it. One of the desks in the depot has a sign that says “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” Maybe that’s the point the two directors wanted to show. That with a job that is low-pay, facing near-extinction, and something most of us would label a ‘loser job,’ Bear finds some kind of fulfilment. Even if he has to work on a holiday.

-Show Me Other Places (Sri Lanka – dir. Rajee Samarsinghe): This film shows all sort of images: what we see on our computer, the images of suburbia, a birds-eye view of a construction site, friends, common people, and luxurious items. The film shows the many ways we see them: on a computer screen, through a VR viewing mask, and on our iWatches. Many images are seen as is, while some are meshed with colors and even other images.

I believe the point the filmmaker was trying to make was to do about imagery. It was about how we see things and also how she sees them. She allows her creativity to take place and show new and creative ways to look at things we commonly look at. In a lot of way, we’re given a new enlightenment when we see her creative imagery. Really gets you thinking.

-Adversarial Infrastructure (Russia – dir. Anna Engelhardt): The film is about a bridge that is the subject of political controversy. The bridge is the Crimean Bridge which connects a southwest tip of Russia with the Crimean town of Kerch with the bridge’s main part located on Tuzla Island. This is a bridge of great controversy as Crimea has been a subject of huge political debate as Ukraine insists is theirs while Putin proclaims Crimea to be part of Russia. This has been like that since 2014 since the Russo-Ukrainian War started. There was even a phony news story concocted by Putin that the bridge was bombed by the Ukrainian army.

The director showcases news stories with a coarsely-drawn computer map of the area in question and a rough computer graphic of the bridge as it would looked bombed out. The director even showcases how bridges are to be the opposite of walls and connect peoples, while this bridge appears to do the opposite. Or at least the media and the Russian government try to make it do the opposite. Myself being Ukrainian-Canadian, this is something of interest to me. The director is very good at using the various images in presenting a story and getting her message across. A message I personally agree with.

-The Canyon (USA – dir. Zachary Epcar): The film begins showing mostly people living in a new residential development. They’re of people relaxing, doing housework, renovating, exercising, playing tennis, a vide variety of activities. The film then shows images of luxuries and then images of peoples and what they have to say. Then the film focuses on a whirlpool-like area of Lake Berryessa in the Napa Valley of California. They talk of how the areas will no longer appear.

I believe the point of this student film and its various images is trying to make is their believe that new residential areas that are cropping up and attracting people will be empty canyons in the future. The buildings and luxuries they’re enjoying now will be swallowed up into nothingness in the future. The man-made whirlpool in Lake Berryessa conjures up images of how that area will be swallowed up over time. I believe that’s the point where they let the images they show do the storytelling as the students prove their point.

-Corps Samples (France – dir. Astrid de la Chapelle): The film begins with the focus on the year 1924. It’s the year Vladimir Lenin, the founder and first leader of the USSR dies, and the year a British mountaineer fell to his death just off Mount Everest. The only thing in common they have in common: both their bodies are perfectly preserved. The film begins with fossils found on Mount Everest during that time. Then it goes on to various images of fossils, stones, metals, minerals and crystals. It shows natural racks and crystals, and it showcases the minerals and chemicals we use for our everyday needs. It showcases on the images of the body of the mountaineer found perfectly intact after all these years. It also showcases the body of Lenin, perfectly intact in his tomb and a tourist attraction.

The filmmaker is either getting us to focus on either the association of minerals and preservation, and how it mixes into our daily lives and the everyday world, or it could be on the focus on something else. Right at the end of the film, she shows an image of a stone and asks us “Are you looking at the stone or is the stone looking at you?” Hearing that, I think it’s a case where a lot of the film is trying to get you to ask yourself that. Are you looking at the stones, crystals, fossils, and minerals? Or are they looking at you? That question of the end really gets you to change what you think the focus of the film is about. Even see it through a different light.

The six films of MODES 2 are about images and sounds. Some make their points clear, while some aren’t as clear and require your imagination to assume what you think its about. The images may be relate to each or other, or not related at all. The music or sounds may be smooth music, disjointed sounds or raw music. I guess that was the whole point of the MODES 2 short films. It’s six short films on sights and sounds and they want to get your imagination involved, and possibly even share the filmmaker’s imaginations. The films also have a message to say, but they want to convey the message creatively, and they want you to embrace the creativity as much as the message.

Even though I was hoping to see a short segment of live-action stories being played out, I’m glad I saw MODES 2. The films were loaded with images and sounds and done in their very own way. Nevertheless they were very good in sending the messages they were trying to send in their own creative way.

UEFA EURO 2020: Group Stage With One Game To Go

To be among the 16 to qualify, it takes two wins to guarantee. The only way it could ever be possible for a team with two wins not qualifying is if all six groups had three teams with two wins and a loss. And that’s extremely unlikely. Whatever the situation, all four teams of each of the six groups have played two games and there are a lot of telling stats. Three have qualified already while twenty others still have the last game as one last chance, and only one is officially out. Here’s how the groups look so far. Those who have already qualified are bolded:

GROUP A:

Italy came to Euro 2020 with the hope of redeeming their reputation in the football world. They delivered 3-0 wins against Turkey and Switzerland to guarantee themselves qualification for the Round of 16. Wales’ 2-0 win over Turkey and 1-1 draw against Switzerland put them in very good chances of qualifying.

For the next game, Italy could lose to Wales and they’d still qualify, but I’m sure they’d want to win or at least draw so that they can keep their #1 status. Wales’ chances of qualifying are healthy, but they would have to win to take the lead in Group A, draw to guarantee 2nd place, or rely on their game stats and goal differentials if they were to lose to Italy. Switzerland will have to win over Turkey if they want to qualify. A draw won’t cut it as game stats and goal differentials decide the four third-placers that qualify. And Turkey will need nothing less than a win for them to have a chance. They’ve lost to Italy and Wales. Only a win against Switzerland will do if they are to have any chance of qualifying.

GROUP B

Many touted Belgium as the team most likely to win Group B based on their third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup. With two wins, they’ve already guaranteed a qualification no matter how bad their game against Finland goes. They haven’t completely guaranteed the #1 spot. If Finland beats Belgium they will be the #1 team as a result of head-to-head play.

With Russia and Finland having a win under their belts, drawing can guarantee a 2nd place for Russia and a 3rd-place for Finland which would have to rely on their wildcard stats to qualify. However I’m sure Neither of the teams simply want to draw in their last matches on Monday. Denmark is in the uncomfortable position that they will need to win against Russia if they are to have any chance to qualify. It would not surprise me if the Danish team has been shaken since the collapse of Christian Eriksen. That’s a shocker he was dead for five minutes. It’s very good fortune that the first aid on the field did all the right stuff to resuscitate him and have him taken to a hospital. Actually since Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, it’s a reminder to us all that living is more important than winning.

GROUP C

Most groups would normally have a simple qualifier if they have two wins by now. Group C has an official first-place with the Netherlands! It was their two wins and big goal differential that did it! And I doubt if they will want to lose to North Macedonia in their last game!

The game of Ukraine vs. Austria will be the game for second-place in the group. If there’s a draw, Ukraine will have the advantage because of bigger scoring. Austria could qualify due to the combination of game results and goal differentials. If both qualify for the Round of 16, or either one, it will be their first time ever at the Euro that they do. As for North Macedonia, they have the misfortune of being the first team eliminated. Even if they win against the Netherlands and by a big margin, it won’t matter because of their head-to-head losses to Ukraine and Austria.

GROUP D

Interesting that Groups A to C already have a qualifier guaranteed while Groups D to F don’t have anything decided and it will take Matchday 3 to not just decide it all but decide anything. If if any team in those groups is guaranteed a Top 3 finish, that still doesn’t completely guarantee them qualification. Focusing on Group D, Both first-matches for the group’s teams resulted in wins, but both second-matches on Friday resulted in draws. That means with two teams having a win and a draw and two teams with a loss and a draw, none of the four have secured qualification and all four still have a chance in their third-matches on Tuesday.

In the match of the Czech Republic vs. England, the winner will naturally claim the #1 spot of Group D. If there’s a draw, the Czech Republic has the advantage with better goal differentials. However I’m sure both teams want to win. Croatia and Scotland both have a win and a draw. Croatia leads because of goal differentials and a draw would solidify Croatia to finish in third place, but that most likely won’t be enough to qualify. The six third-place teams will be ranked by game stats and goal differentials. Only the top four will qualify for the Round of 16, and two draws and a loss will most likely make Croatia one of the two third-place packing sooner than they hoped. So either Croatia or Scotland will have to win and nothing less if they want to secure qualification.

GROUP E

Like Group D, Group E has the difficulty of two draws causing the statistics to remain completely undecided for who will qualify. One thing that is certain is that all four still have chances to qualify and it’s up to Matchday 3 to decide it. Sweden has the best luck so far with a 1-0 win over Slovakia despite their scoreless draw against Spain. Despite the loss, Slovakia is second in ranks thanks to their 2-1 win over Poland. Spain, normally a powerhouse, has just two draws while Poland looks like their still waiting to deliver. They’re lucky they saved themselves against Spain 1-1.

Sweden has the luxury that they can qualify simply by drawing, but I doubt if they want a simple draw. Especially since Poland will be hungry for the win. The winner of Slovakia vs Spain will definitely qualify, but Slovakia will have better qualifying chances if they lose because of their win over Poland. You can be sure Spain want to win this. Attempting to qualify on a wildcard with three draws is pushing it. Possible, but pushing it. Also Poland requires nothing less than a win if they want to qualify. Two draws and a loss has very low chances of cutting it. Plus they’d have the added bonus that is they win over Sweden, they’d overtake Sweden in standings because of the head-to-head result!

GROUP F

Group F looked to be the Group Of Death. However a lot of lopsided play has turned a lot of things around unexpectedly. France is one team that has underperformed. One would usually expect a lot of big play from the team that are the reigning World Cup holders. However their 1-0 win over Germany came thanks to an own-goal from Germany’s Hummels and they drew 1-1 to Hungary. Drawing against Portugal will guarantee them qualification, but they will have to win if they want to prove themselves a worthy winner. Isn’t that something? A rematch of the Euro 2016 final happening in group play?

Germany has had it most interesting. They got a loss to France because of an own-goal, but a 4-2 win over Portugal thanks to two own-goals from the Portuguese! A draw against Hungary will guarantee them qualification, but Hungary won’t make it easy as they will want to win. Despite the loss, Portugal are still in good contention after their 3-0 win over Hungary. They can still qualify if they lose to France, but they would have to rely on goal differentials to see if their stats are good enough for the wildcard berth. Finally Hungary proved themselves strong players by drawing 1-1 against France, but they need nothing less than a win against Germany if they want to qualify. That’s how it is for them with just a loss and a draw.

And there you go. This is how things look right now with the teams of Euro 2020 with only one game to go. Matchday Three will finalize everything to decide the thirteen others who will advance and the seven others who will be packing for home sooner than they hoped. Looking forward to it!

UEFA EURO 2020: Intro and Group A and Group B Focus

Euro 2020 which starts on Friday the 11th will be a multi-nation event contested in eleven stadiums in eleven countries.

The 2020 UEFA European Football Championships, or Euro 2020, were one of many big sporting events of 2020 that had to be cancelled out because of the pandemic. The Euro was relocated to 2021 in hopes that conditions would improve and that the tournament would be contested. The UEFA Euro will take place in 2021, with the first game to start on Friday, June 11th, but will still keep its original name Euro 2020.

For the 2020 tournament, Michel Platini intended back in 2012 not to have a single host-nation for the tournament’s 60th anniversary. Instead he decided to have multiple host stadiums in multiple nations as a ‘romantic’ one-off event to celebrate the tournament’s anniversary. The event was originally planned for 13 stadiums in 13 nations. It eventually was reduced to 11 stadiums in 11 nations.

The 2020 Euro is the first major multi-nation sporting event to take place since the pandemic started. UEFA wants crowds for the tournament, but is well aware of the precautions they will need to take during this pandemic. This is what led to Aviva Stadium in Dublin to withdraw from the tournament as they couldn’t guarantee spectators could attend. Spain also relocated their site from Bilbao to Seville as there was a bigger guarantee there spectators could attend matches. Also worth noting is that this is the first Euro in which VAR (Video-Assisted Referee) technology will be included.

All stadiums except Puskas Arena will have limited crowd sizes to prevent the spread of the pandemic. However Puskas Arena organizers say it will maintain stadium entrance requirements. One note about the stadiums is that the host country of the stadium would not guarantee their national team’s qualification. Nine of the eleven nations hosting games were successful in qualifying their team for the tournament. Here’s a list of the stadiums for the tournament. Asterisk (*) denoted national team did not qualify:

Final, Semi-Finals, Round of 16 Matches and Group Matches
Wembley Stadium – London, England
Quarterfinal and Group Matches
Baku Olympic Stadium – Baku, Azerbaijan*
Stadio Olimpico – Rome, Italy
Allianz Arena – Munich, Germany
Krestovsky Stadium – St. Petersburg, Russia
Round of 16 Match and Group Matches
Parken Stadium – Copenhagen, Denmark
Puskas Arena – Budapest, Hungary
Johan Cruyff Arena – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Arena Nationala – Bucharest, Romania*
Hampden Park – Glasgow, Scotland
La Cartuja Stadium – Seville, Spain
Group Matches
Friends Arena – Stockholm, Sweden
Millennium Stadium – Cardiff, Wales

And now to get with my common tradition every World Cup or Euro, my group-by-group review of the teams competing at the Euro. For my blogging, I decided to review two groups in each post. Note that this might be harder than in most years: both blogging two groups and making predictions altogether. It’s quite possible the pandemic may have changed a lot of team statures. It’s quite possible teams that didn’t have such a high expectation the first time around could be better this time or teams with a high standing before the pandemic can end up being worse. Anyways here’s my review and prediction with the most recent FIFA ranking in brackets:

GROUP A

Overall Group A is a mixed bag. They have a traditional powerhouse in Italy and three teams that could pull a surprise. It can go any which way.

Turkey (29) – Turkey is a nation with a proud football legacy. They have a third-place finish at both a World Cup and a Euro as their best-ever results. Their current roster is full of good players. Four play for England’s Premier League, four for French teams, four for Italian and one each in Spanish and German leagues. However Turkey’s success has been known to have a yo-yo effect. They do very well in the years leading up to the Euro but struggle during the year before the World Cup. That may explain why they’ve only qualified for three World Cups.

These past two years, Turkey has played very well only losing to Hungary. They’ve drawn against top-ranked teams like Germany and Croatia and even won against the Netherlands in World Cup qualifying. Chances look good that the Crescent-Stars could defy all expectations this Euro and come out better than most expected.

Italy (7) – The Azzurri have normally been one of the most admired and most feared football teams in the world. Their reputation took a beating during the 2018 World Cup qualifying when they failed to qualify for the tournament. Russia 2018 was only the third World Cup ever where Italy was not present! The coach was subsequently fired and the President of the Italian Football Federation resigned in response.

Here in Euro 2020, the Azzurri come as a team with a lot to prove. All was not lost to Italy in 2017. The same year they failed to qualify for the World Cup, Italy’s under-20 men’s team finished third at the Under-20 World Cup. Their last loss came to Portugal in September 2018. Italy had an excellent 2019 in Euro qualifying winning all of their games. Their biggest win was 9-1 over Armenia. They’ve also proven themselves with wins over teams like the Netherland, Poland and the Czech Republic in recent years. Italy knows it has a lot to prove and Euro 2020 is the perfect domain for the new Italian team to prove itself.

Wales (17) – Many people the success of team Wales due to Gareth Bale. However the success is a team effort. In fact Bale isn’t the most capped member of the current Welsh team. Defender Chris Gunter is. Also goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey has more caps than Bale. Eighteen players play for the Premier League and one plays for Juventus. Back at the last Euro, The Dragons surprised everybody when they became semifinalists. And that was their first-ever Euro! However their prowess at the Euro didn’t carry over for World Cup qualification.

It’s interesting Cardiff is one of the Euro 2020 venues but team Wales won’t play any of their Group games there! Recently Wales has shown a mixed bag of results in terms of their play. They’ve achieved wins over Mexico and the Czech Republic. However they’ve also had losses to England, Belgium and France. This group looks to be a good group for Wales to play in and their chances to advance are good. Euro 2020 will give them the chance to prove themselves again.

Switzerland (13) – Switzerland has always been a team that is full of talent but doesn’t seem to reach high. These last twenty years, they qualified for the last four World Cups, but the furthest they ever got was the Round of 16. 2016 was the first Euro Switzerland made it past the Group Stage, but it ended at the Round of 16 match against Poland there.

Switzerland’s play since World Cup 2018 has been mostly up and down. They’ve had wins against Iceland and Belgium, but they’ve had losses against England, Portugal, Spain and 2022 World Cup host nation Qatar. They have had a great 2021 winning all five of their pre-Euro matches. Euro 2020 can be an exciting time for team Switzerland to prove what they have.

My Prediction: Judging how things look, I predict Italy to top the group with Wales coming in second. I anticipate Turkey to be third and to be a wildcard qualifier.

GROUP B

It’s easy to assume certain teams of Group B will do better than others, but don’t be too fooled. Surprises could come and the big favorites may not come out on top.

Denmark (10) – Denmark is known for mixed success. One quadrennial, they’re there. Another quadrennial, they’re in a slump. They failed to qualify for Euro 2016 but they were successful in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup where they made the Round of 16. The current team consists of six members in the Premier League, seven players in Italy’s league and four in Germany’s Bundesliga.

Since 2020, Denmark’s only lost games came to Belgium. They’ve won against England and Sweden and even drew against Germany. Their biggest win was 8-0 over Moldova. Chances look good for The Red And White to be able to prove themselves. They may not have the same form as they did when they won in 1992 but Denmark could have their best result since.

Finland (54) – Many regard Finland as one of the least successful football teams in all of Europe. Finland is the biggest European nation never to qualify for a World Cup. This will be the very first Euro Finland has ever qualified for. The players play for various leagues throughout Europe and in the MLS.

The current Finnish team will surprise you. Since the start of 2020, they’ve had wins against Greece, Sweden and France. 2021 however has been a difficult year for them. They haven’t had a single win and have lost to Switzerland, Finland and Estonia. Finland comes to Euro 2020 as possibly the biggest underdog. However anything can happen during the total 270 minutes of Group Stage play.

Belgium (1) – Possibly the biggest change of football in the last ten years has to be the mega-success of team Belgium. The 2010’s saw a turnabout where The Red Devils went from delivering substandard play to suddenly performing as one of the best team units in the world. With players like Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Vincent Kompany, Belgium wen from underachievers to a third-place finish at the 2018.

As for Euro, Belgium’s best result is runners-up in 1980. Belgium definitely want to do better than the quarterfinal finish they had at the last Euro. Belgium have continued their winning ways since the World Cup. They’ve had wins over teams like Switzerland, Russia and England. England is also the only team they lost to, during a Nation’s League match in October 2020. Euro 2020 is a good chance for Belgium to show Europe what they’re made of. Possibly even clinch their first-ever win.

Russia (38) – Russia’s abilities and prowess as a team was always very questionable leading up to the 2018 World Cup which they were host nation. During the World Cup, Russia sent a message to the world just how good their team really is by finishing in the quarterfinals. All but four of the team’s current players play in the Russian Premier League. The other four play in leagues in France, Spain, Italy and Turkey.

Since 2020, Russia has had a mixed bag of results. They’ve won against Serbia and Hungary. However they’ve also endured losses to Sweden, Serbia and Slovakia as well as draws to Turkey and Poland. In football anything can happen. And Russia could just end up going further in Euro 2020 than most people expected.

My Prediction: I’m tempted to say Belgium will top this group with Denmark being second. I expect Russia to be third, but I don’t know if their stats will hold up for their qualification.

And there you have it. That’s my first review of the groups for Euro 2020. More reviews of the groups coming your way. Remember that the tournament is just three days from starting!

VIFF 2018 Review: Dovlatov (Довлатов)

Dovlatov

Dovlatov is a focus on writer Sergei Dovlatov, played by Milan Maric (right), and what drove him to defect from the USSR.

Every now and then one sees a biographical film that not a lot of people know a lot about, but grow to understand after the film’s end. Dovlatov is the Russian film of the Soviet-American writer Sergei Dovlatov.

It is November 1, 1971. Leningrad resident Sergei Dovlatov has a talent and a yearning to write, but the Soviet government won’t accept his writings. His writings are very truthful to what is happening, but the Soviet government wants writings that glorify the nation, especially the Soviet regime of the time, and champion factory workers. With Leonid Brezhnev in power, the pressure is even harder as writers of such are either censored or unemployed. Dovlatov is denied membership into a Writers Guild and can’t get any of his poems or stories published. Dovlatov is reduced to pounding out articles for a factory magazine like many of his peers. Dovlatov is expected to help contribute to a film from the factory where workers dressed up as legendary writers commemorate Soviet achievements on the eve of the Revolution. Dovlatov can’t take that seriously and his superiors aren’t happy.

His married life is a frustration. He is on the verge of divorcing his wife Lena and he’s currently living with his supportive mother. He is allowed to see his daughter Katya. Dovlatov does find a break from it all. Each day he meets up with many other literary comrades going through similar struggles in this Communist regime. They listen to jazz, play music and tell stories of their frustrations.

Dovlatov’s life during this six-day period seems like a daily ritual. He begins the day with assignments he finds uncomfortable, tries to make the necessary connections to get his Guild status, and ends his day in a literary and artistic salon with colleagues of his own.

However there are two incidents that shake Dovlatov up. The first is when he’s sent to do a celebratory article of subway builder and poet Anton Kuznetsov. They meet in a subway dig with the intention of doing a ‘pure and prose’ article, but both are shocked to have discovered skeletons of children from a World War II bombing. The second is when he meets with a friend who’s a Black Market dealer. Often throughout the film, Dovlatov talks of looking for a German doll for his daughter. He talks with the man, but the police crack down on him and shoot him dead. The film ends after those six days.

I’ve seen a lot of biographic films. I’ve seen a lot of biographies that are frequently from birth to death. There are even some that focus on the period of a person’s life where they emerge into their greatness. They could be a short period of time but most end up being a long period of time. There have often been a lot of films that focus on that one moment in a famous person’s career that either makes or breaks them, like the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln or the writing of In Cold Blood in Capote. It’s even possible to use a week’s period of time that could be when this famous person chances leading into the future path of greatness.

Here in Dovlatov, the focus is on six days. Usually a film maker would pick out a six-day period that could be what changed Dovlatov. Instead the film focuses on a six-day period that could be any six-day period in Dovlatov’s life before he finally defected to the United States in 1978. I think what the focus of the film maker was intended to be was to focus what it was like for Dovlatov to live in Soviet Leningrad. The filmmaker’s intention is to have Dovlatov’s feelings and mindset resemble his works of writing. We shouldn’t forget that soon after the death of the USSR, writers that defected or writers that talk of past-Soviet life became writers of high fixation. Dovlatov may have died in 1990 at the age of 48, but his writing became hugely admired in Russia.

The film doesn’t just show life in Soviet Russia at the time, but gives the viewer a good feel of it. It seems slow at first, but it is very telling. It’s about a writer seeking renown or simple publication, but won’t get credentials because he won’t conform to the writing style the Soviet government demands. During his life, he sees the troubles and the weariness of people in Soviet Leningrad. We should also remember that Leningrad was the name of St. Petersburg during the days of the USSR. What he sees is ugly and hard. Even his own personal life is a frustration. He may get a break when he’s at the parties with his artistic colleagues, but it’s only temporary. The next day, he has to go back to doing what the government wants him to do. One can see the frustration he goes through. One could even understand how trying to get a German doll for his daughter isn’t really something simple and may actually be valuable for this film.

This is the latest film from Russian director Alexei German Jr. German Jr. has had racclaim for his films in the past like 2005’s Garpastum which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 2008’s Paper Soldier which won the Silver Lion in Venice and 2015’s Under Electric Clouds. In this film he directed and co-wrote the script with Yuliya Tupikina, he delivers a piece that’s less of a film with a beginning, middle and end and more of a film that’s a portrait of a famed writer. It’s interesting they casted a Serbian actor, Milan Maric, to play Dovlatov. Maric has a reputation as a stage actor and this is Maric’s first film role. Maric does a very good job getting into the heart and soul of Dovlatov and he plays the part very well.

Dovlatov may not make sense to most people who see it at first. For those that are into writers and into the writing of Sergei Dovlatov, it’s a good look into the inside of the man and what made his writing.

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 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.

World Cup 2018 Preview Links

Russia 2018

So how about that? The 2018 World Cup begins today. Opening ceremony takes place at 16:00 MSK and the opening game of Russia vs. Saudi Arabia takes place at 18:00. I know I’ve been delivering previews to each of the World Cup groups. This is just simply a post with hyperlinks to all my group analyses. I will also post the two countries from each group I think will qualify for the knockout round. So here are the links:

Group A: Russia and Uruguay

Group B: Spain and Portugal

Group C: France and Peru

Group D: Argentina and Croatia

Group E: Brazil and Switzerland

Group F:  Germany and Mexico

Group G: Belgium and England

Group H: Poland and Colombia

For the record, I’m not listing my predictions as who will finish first and second. I’m listing in group order. Anyways best of luck to all teams and let’s have some fun!

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