World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.


Wait, Could Brazil Crash Out Too?

When the World Cup draw was made last December, I don't think anyone doubted Brazil chances to make it out their group. Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica all seemed like unworthy opponents of Joga Bonito FC. 

But two games in and with impressive performances by Serbia and Switzerland, Brazil could be headed out at the close of next Wednesday. 

Yes, Brazil finished off Costa Rica two-nil, but it took deep in to stoppage time for them to actually convince the casual viewer they could muster three points. And even then most of us were left with doubts.

After watching Serbia's performance vs Costa Rica (a 1-0 victory which they dominated and should have been awarded a penalty kick) and then against Switzerland (a 2-1 loss, that was impressive for both sides), it's clear the Brazilians have their work cut out. 

Surely, Serbia still has to beat Brazil and Switzerland can't lose to Costa Rica, but it's no longer implausible that scenario happens. Costa Rica has looked a shadow of the inspired 2014 side. And both Serbia and Switzerland look more than capable of getting the results they need. 

In all my life watching soccer (since the 1990 World Cup as an 8 year old), I've not seen a Brazil side this up in the air. Maybe the 1998 final, but even then most of us had the confidence they'd pull it out--they lost 3-0 to France. Maybe even in 2002, when they struggled to qualify for the World Cup, but managed to find a way to win it all. 

The difference between 1998/2002 and today, is that Neymar is a playmaker rather than a goal scorer. Ronaldo, the original and still the more talented one, finished off chances his teammates created. Sure he could create things out of nothing, but he didn't force his teammates to play every offensive movement through him. The current Seleção, however, has to run everything through Neymar. And much like the situation with their neighbor to the West, they're easily stymied by the lack of dynamism up top despite being stacked with talent. 

A Serbia side with conviction and sense of purpose could derail hopes of a deep run for the Brazilians. This World Cup could do with a little bit of excitement and maybe Brazil heading home after the group stage is exactly what we need.