Heads Up on the World Cup

The rest of the planet is transfixed by the soccer—er, football—tournament. Here’s your explainer
Russia and Croatian players running into each other on the soccer field
Croatia and Russia get into it during their quarterfinal World Cup match. Photo: Christian Charisius/AP Images
July 9, 2018

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Once every four years, sports fans around the globe are glued to their TV sets—at home, in bars, just about anywhere—watching the World Cup. It’s as popular worldwide as the Olympics—and it’s even been the spark for a war.

Granted, here in the United States TV ratings for the World Cup are way down this summer: our team failed to qualify for the first time in more than thirty years. Still, it’s been a wild ride, with previous champion Germany not even making the round of sixteen, while host Russia got much further than expected. Now the semifinals are approaching, as France takes on Belgium on July 10 and Croatia and England face off the next day.

We reached out to Jonathan Wilson, professor of English and author of Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloombury, 2013), to put it all in context. He played the game as a kid growing up in Willesden in northwest London, remains a passionate fan, and maintains hope against hope that the England squad will prevail. He took time out from watching the World Cup to chat with Tufts Now about this year’s competition, and make a prediction or two.   

Tufts Now: What teams have shocked you with their play: best and worst?

Jonathan Wilson: Russia, of course, played better than anyone expected, and so too England, who have to contend with an unrelentingly nasty tabloid press back home always ready to pounce. Senegal played quite beautifully and were unlucky not to beat Spain, who were unimaginative and disappointing throughout (except for the exciting 3-3 draw with Portugal). Japan and South Korea both gave wonderfully spirited performances in unforgettable games against Belgium and Germany respectively.

I can’t really say anyone’s play has “shocked” me. After sixty years of obsessively watching football/soccer I may be past shocking. That said, the Colombian player who, while the ref couldn’t see him, tried to scuff up the penalty spot before Harry Kane took his kick presented a variation of gamesmanship that I hadn’t seen before. 

Who’s the best player in the tournament so far?

Certain individuals have had outstanding games. Kylian Mbappe’s electric two-goal performance for France against Argentina comes to mind, but for me the star of the tournament has been Croatia’s—and Real Madrid’s—Luka Modric, surely the best midfielder in the world right now. He’s an indefatigable runner, who glides through games distributing the ball with elegance and grace. Everything Croatia does moves through him. His vision is extraordinary—he seems, like Argos, to have a hundred eyes.

Second to Modric, I would put Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne. His strike against Brazil was magnificent, and if his coach Martinez had played him in that forward role earlier in the tournament I think we would have seen more goals from him. But I’m not going to argue with Martinez’s tactics—his team is in the semifinals. 

What are the biggest surprises in the tournament so far?

The success of Video Assistant Referee system, and the fact that to date, I believe, only two straight red cards have been issued. 

Biggest disappointment so far?

The relatively poor showing of the African teams: Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria, and Senegal. I think it was clear to everyone that the wonderful Liverpool striker Mo Salah had not fully recovered from the mugging he took from Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in the Champion’s League final, and we were sadly prevented from seeing him play at his best. 

And, well, Brazil if you’re Brazilian and Germany if you’re German, but I don’t think either team was quite what it was cracked up to be before the tournament began.  

Any more surprises ahead?

Let’s hope so. 

Two of the sport’s best players, Ronaldo and Messi, are long gone from the tournament: were you surprised their teams didn’t even make it to the round of sixteen?

Not really. Argentina played poorly in the qualifying round and almost didn’t make it to Russia: only a hat-trick by Messi in the very last game against Ecuador saw them through. They have an aging midfield and rely too much on one player. That’s fine when it’s basketball and your one player is LeBron, but it doesn’t work like that in soccer. Similarly Portugal, while European Champions from two years ago, were almost forced into a playoff to secure a place. So neither team’s soccer was scintillating going in. Clearly, we’re witnessing a changing of the guard.

Will Americans ever join the rest of the world in soccer ability?

Americans certainly don’t lag behind in soccer ability in the women’s game, but I think it will take a long time for the men’s game to catch up with the very best teams. There’s a great piece co-authored by Andrew Helms, A10, in The Ringer that pretty much explains all the problems of the U.S. Men’s National Team and offers some remedies. 

Can you explain to Americans why this is the biggest deal in sports ever worldwide?

I could, but it would require a long detour into the nature of American exceptionalism—and that might turn out to be as boring as a late-season baseball game between teams that are each thirty games out.  

Your prediction on who is going to win?

Head says France, heart says England. 

If England wins it all, how will you celebrate?

I will eat a lot of Cadbury’s chocolate.  

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.