I have lived in Paris for nine years as of Nov. 5th. Before that time I had not really paid attention to Fûtbol for more than a couple of hours. Many people have mistaken me for a sports fan. This is because I’m crazy about baseball. In California, I was an Oakland A’s season ticket holder and went to 50-55 home games a season (plus one or two road trips). I knew (still know) statistics backward and forwards and loved talking baseball anytime I could.
This does not make me a sports fan. I dislike American football. The concept of grown men charging each other, getting concussions, and entire campuses spawning criminal activity is beyond my comprehension. Basketball is too fast. It requires 100% focus for the entire game. I’ll leave the Olympics out for now. What I love about baseball is that it is like a dance, a ballet. It is teamwork. It is blue skies and a summer day. It is sitting with your baseball family and shutting out the world.
Here in France, there is Fûtbol, Rugby, and Tennis. Tennis I could watch in the States but don’t. Rugby, I still think of as an English game that I’ve never taken to—although it does make more sense than American football. Then there is the world’s most popular game known by many names depending on where you live: soccer, fûtbol, le fût, etc. Les Bleus (France) are one game away from being repeat champions of the World Cup 2022.
After all this time, (and maybe missing baseball), I finally wanted to know what is going on down on the field. I found Soccer for Dummies in my virtual library. Beyond the obvious, that the team with the most goals wins, I’ve learned that there are eleven players on the field. One is the goalie. The other ten are the ones talked about: defense, midfielders, and forward. Watching a game, I couldn’t have told you who was who until I watched Morocco vs France. For the whole month leading up to the semi-final, Morocco had let one goal in. Their defense is incredible. They seemed like worker ants buzzing around the enemy blocking all means of entrance, defending their goalie and their net. It was a thing of beauty. I realized that soccer is also like a dance. I could like this game. Kylian Mbappé, the twenty-three-year-old star of Les Bleus, moves with such grace. While others fall and feign agony, Mbappé never does that. Mbappé, once a midfielder and now a forward can go on the attack scoring goals. These players never stop moving for ninety minutes with a time-out at half-time. Ask an outfielder for the Oakland A’s if he could not stop moving and running for ninety minutes. Well, I don’t know what he would say but I know what he should say.
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On Sunday night, 4 pmCET. THIS WAS INCORRECT IN ORIGINAL POSTING. France will play Argentina for the World Cup Championship. There is a true superstar playing for Argentina who also happens to play for Paris Saint-Germain for a living. Lionel Messi. I gather this will be his swan song World Cup and many are saying he should be given all the awards: Best Player, most goals. There are others besides Messi and Mbappé who are teammates during the year and it must take a true professional to play next to a teammate who just took the World Cup away from your country. In trying to understand what to expect and why someone is great, I read this in the Guardian about Lionel Messi “A major part of the problem is knowing where Messi will spring up. He will almost certainly be part of a front two, alongside Julián Álvarez. But he drifts on the periphery of the game, suddenly appearing, perhaps centrally, perhaps on the right, perhaps deep, perhaps high up. At various times, he will flit into the zones for which Theo Hernandez, Aurélien Tchouaméni, and Adrien Rabiot (or Youssouf Fofana) are responsible. But how you stop somebody such as Messi, who can confound a player as good as Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol with his dribbling, or split a defense with a preposterous pass that nobody else could have seen, let alone executed, as he did against the Netherlands? It may not be possible by tactical means.”
Then I read this about Kylian Mbappé: Just as the first question for any side facing Argentina is how to stop Messi, so the first question any side facing France must ask is how to stop Kylian Mbappé. As with Messi, there is a sense that once he gets the ball, he can do almost anything, as his two goals against Poland demonstrated. But Mbappé, brilliant as he is, is a more conventional talent than Messi. His pace is his greatest asset, so one option is to sit deep against him and deny him space to run into, as Kyle Walker did in the quarter-final.
But what Morocco showed in the semi is that Mbappé can be transformed into a (temporary) weakness. Achraf Hakimi took Mbappé on, surging down the right to link up with Hakim Ziyech. Only after Marcus Thuram had been introduced and Mbappé moved to the middle was that avenue closed down. Mbappé rarely tracked Hakimi and that left Hernandez, not the most natural defender, exposed. Argentina’s Nahuel Molina is not an attacking right-back in the manner of Hakimi, but he was the recipient of Messi’s brilliant pass against the Netherlands; he can get forward. It’s a gamble, and it’s understandable why full-backs would be wary of deserting Mbappé, but at least at times it’s probably worth calling his bluff and trying to create overloads against Hernandez”
I will not be able, in this game at least, to be able to see someone run, think through his options, and perform at the skill level of these two. But I will be able to appreciate that I am watching greatness.
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