Whether you’re a soccer junkie like myself or not, the World Cup this year has been a non-stop source of entertainment. I’ve played the game for over 20 years — including college with a (very) short professional bout — and I have been coaching for the past five years. Needless to say, since the tournament began my face has been glued to the TV screen. This has been slightly upsetting to my wife from time to time, but lucky for her this tournament only happens every four years!
Throughout the month-long tournament, viewers have been provided with entertainment that producers couldn’t contrive, writers couldn’t script, and creative minds couldn’t imagine. While some score lines have been surprisingly one-sided, others have been dramatically close. There have been games ranging from easy picks for wins to incredible upsets. I have frequently referred to this year’s tournament as the “March Madness” of the world.
However, some of the most intriguing memories I’ll have from this tournament, which analysts have referred to as “the most entertaining World Cup ever,” will stem from the things that happened outside of the game. I’ve heard countless heartwarming, progressive-thinking and uplifting stories about the players, the coaches, their cultures, and their countries. I have had many friends ask me my opinions of the games and scores and I found myself commenting more on the backstories than the games themselves because I felt they were that important to share. I’ve been impressed with the sportsmanship, leadership, and respect shown among these world-class players, and that’s honestly been my favorite part of this tournament. Let’s take a look.
With 32 different countries represented, you’re bound to see differences in mentalities, habits, and attitudes from the different cultures. Not just from the players, but from the fans. To some, the game is just a hobby — a great pastime. To others, it’s a lifestyle.
If you don’t believe me, YouTube some of the watch parties that the countries hosted. Entire cities screened the game in their largest public places so they could accommodate the enormous audiences. Also, the entire crowds go INSANE when they witness their countrymen score, RIP to all the drinks sacrificed. Mexican fans celebrated so hard in Tijuana when they scored their first, only, and eventual game winning goal against first-in-the-world-ranked Germany that it measured seismically as a small earthquake! One of the biggest complaints I hear from American friends about the sport is that it’s boring and it takes too long. But, if you tune into a World Cup you’ll see Nigerian fans all standing, dancing, and singing in unison, and Senegal fans proudly wearing matching outfits with their country painted across 7 individual stomachs for all 90 minutes of the game.
My family loved watching the ways different cultures celebrated the sport and took pride in their players. Learning how other people view the world and appreciating our differences makes us all stronger when we come together.
The World Cup shows just how popular this game is across the world. I love its ability to bring people together. Soccer, as we in the good old USA call it, has many different translations, but everybody knows it when they see it. The principal of a school here in Fort Wayne was talking about the diversity of the student population, specifically on the soccer field, and said something that made me proud of the sport I love. He said the soccer team, “had its verbal language barriers, but when the players all stepped on the field they all spoke the same language.”
When Mexico lost to Sweden in their final game they thought their time in the tournament was over, but because Korea beat Germany, Mexico moved on in the tournament based off of the point system of the beginning group stages. How did the Mexican fans respond? By lifting up the Koreans, literally.
When Iceland played their opening game against Argentina the only thing on TV was that game! Of all the people watching television in Iceland at the time of the game, TV stations reported 99.6% of the screens were viewing the game. I sat down with friends, family and loved ones and watched many games. No matter how, where, why or when, the World Cup has brought people together. We could all stand to put aside the things we don’t agree on every once in a while and celebrate humanity.
There are many players in this tournament who played through pain and worked hard to overcome athletic obstacles, and they all deserve respect, but a few of the stories I heard about the players and their upbringings had my jaw on the floor and a tear in my eye.
Luca Modric (left) is the central midfielder for Croatia. He’s the team’s captain, star player, heart and soul. If you watch him play the game you can tell he works hard and overcomes the challenges the game throws at him. When he was a child, his grandfather was shot in the head. He was a refugee living in a war zone, constantly hearing the explosion of grenades. He was frequently told he was too shy, too weak, or too small to play soccer at high levels. He overcame all those obstacles, led his team to the finals, and won the Golden Ball Award, an honor given to the best player of the tournament. He achieved his goal and proved so many people wrong along the way.
Alireza Beiranvand is the goalkeeper for Iran. I watched their first game against Morocco. Morocco played extremely well and seemed to be the better team throughout the entire game, but Beiranvand stood resolute in front of his net and didn’t allow any goals in a hard fought 1-0 victory won in the final minutes of the game. My fondest memory of that game was hearing that when this man started playing goal keeper as a child, his father didn’t think it was worthwhile. He saw no value in his son playing, and didn’t want him to do anything other than work in the family business and tend the farm. In fact, his father shredded his goalie jersey and goalie gloves.
He kept working hard and following his dreams. Now here he is, mission accomplished on the biggest stage, a shutout as a goalkeeper for his home country in the World Cup.
Soccer is a game that consists of 22 total players on the field, eleven on each team. With so many players on the field at one time, it’s harder to influence the game when compared to other sports. To put it in my personal perspective, I will use two “greatest of all time” arguments, Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lebron James.
Lebron James just made a jump from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers, and with that move the Lakers odds of winning the NBA championship went from 20/1 in the league to 5/1. When Cristiano Ronaldo made his move from Real Madrid to Juventus a week ago, the odds of his teams winning a champions league went from 15/8 to 8/1. Although both jumps and both teams became better contenders for their respective competitions, I found this was a bit of numerical proof that it’s harder to individually influence a soccer game/team.
Also, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (below) are arguably the two best soccer players of all time, neither players had their strongest performances of their lives during this tournament. Some would argue they individually didn’t play well enough, I would argue other teams had better supporting casts. Argentina and Messi didn’t even make it out of the group stages while Ronaldo’s Portugal barely made it to the round of 16 only to be quickly defeated by Uruguay. When I look at the final 8 teams of the tournament I see the most common factor to be a strong TEAM filled with world class players and/or hard workers and role players, not a group of players that are lesser known being led by one player whom most of the pressure is on. It’s much harder to make it far on the coat tails of a super star in this tournament, and shows the value EVERYONE brings to the table.
One of the first games I tuned into was Iceland vs. Argentina. If you were familiar with their backgrounds, this was a story for the ages. Iceland has a population that is less than half of Indianapolis and has a square mileage similar to that of Maine. The players ability levels range from a few playing in fairly high-level professional leagues to others playing part-time. Their goalkeeper is a filmmaker, one player is an accountant, and their head coach is a dentist.
Meanwhile, their opponent Argentina was a star-studded cast who plays for the largest clubs in the world with the biggest price tags in the world. The final result? 1-1. Tied. Equal. Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, earned a penalty kick, a one-on-one shot 12 yards from the goal, against Hannes Þór Halldórsson, the part-time goal keeper, part-time filmmaker. Hannes saved it and preserved the tie. Argentina has qualified in 17 of the 20 World Cup tournaments, winning it twice and being runners up three times. Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, with this being their first qualification EVER. I’ll point you back up to the bold statement before and repeat it, tied.
Russia, the host country and lowest ranked country at 70th in the world, survived all the way to the final 8 after beating Saudi Arabia ranked 67th, Egypt ranked 45th, Spain ranked 10th and then losing to an underrated Croatia ranked 20th, who were the eventual tournament runners up, in a penalty kick shootout after 120 minutes of regular play. (Below)
Belgium, a strong contender for the title, being ranked third in the latest FIFA rankings, went down 2-0 to an outstanding Japanese team who worked harder than any other team I saw in the tournament. Belgium battled back to win the game 3-2, with the third and final goal being scored in the last minute of the game. I loved this game not only because of the dramatic end, but because of the way the game was played. When the final whistle was blown both teams fell to the grass because both gave it everything they had. It was the type of game that I would tell my players that I coach to go back and watch because all of the goals were scored with masterful technique, skill and text book tactics followed to the “T”. You didn’t see players rolling on the ground faking injuries, crying and flopping, you saw passion and dedication.
Panama had a rough tournament, losing all three games. Panamanians DID. NOT. CARE. This was the first World Cup their country had ever qualified for. The first game, they played all 90 minutes and went without a goal losing 3-0. Their second game they went 77 without scoring a goal and were losing 6-0. Once again, they DID. NOT. CARE. They did not quit, their fans continued to provide support, and they did not stop trying. In the 78th minute Felipe Baloy scored the first World Cup goal in Panama history, making the score sheet now 6-1 and the Panamanians celebrated as if they had just beat England and won the World Cup.
Heart was on display all month long. It showed that people can overcome huge obstacles if they’re passionate, and showed that what people will remember isn’t necessarily who won, or who had all the greatest talent— they’ll remember how hard you work and the respect you have for the game and each other along the way.
As a player I always struggled with my competitive spirit. I made an enemy out of my opponent once I stepped on the field and had trouble controlling it and even turning it off once I stepped off the field. I respect the players participating in the World Cup for not only having the skillset to play at this stage and handle the pressure, but to be able to shake their opponents hands once the game is over. During the games words are exchanged that aren’t so kind, tackles are made that are rough, legs are kicked, elbows are thrown and people get hurt. You would think that on the biggest stage, where the stakes could not possibly be higher, these players would hate the opponent for trying to keep them from achieving their goal of World Cup greatness, but it’s the exact opposite.
Cristiano Ronaldo (below) is arguably the greatest player of all time because he has won the Ballon d’Or (MVP of the entire world of soccer) five times, only being matched by Lionel Messi. One of the biggest feats he has yet to conquer is a World Cup Championship. Portugal was ranked fourth in the world coming into the tournament, and he had a good chance. They made it to the round of 16 only to be beat by Uruguay 2-1. Many people argue that the only thing he needs to cement himself as the greatest is to win a World Cup. Late in the game, Portugal and Ronaldo were losing 2-1 when a Uruguayan player went down injured. My mindset would be, “this is the team keeping me from greatness.” Ronaldo’s mindset was, “I’ll help this injured man walk off the field instead of making him limp the long distance by himself.” World class talent, world class respect.
Belgium had an outstanding run in the tournament, finishing third. Along the way they upset Brazil, a higher-ranked and very skillful team, 2-1. One of the bigger stories of the tournament was how the Brazilian star Neymar had a terrible habit of falling on purpose to get fouls called for him. Many memes have been created making fun of him for this, and they are all hilarious. Reverting back to comparing to myself as a competitor, if that were me that just beat Brazil and Neymar, I would have been boastful to the player known for his flopping, told him he needs to stop and that its shameful to the game. But Thierry Henry, the Belgium Assistant coach and Eden Hazard, the captain for Belgium, were pictured consoling Neymar after the loss that Neymar personally labeled “the greatest disappointment of his career.” Maybe I just need to lighten upon Neymar and stop yelling at him when he’s on my TV, and I’m on my couch, thousands of miles away from where the game is being played. My wife always criticizes me for yelling at the TV when I watch soccer saying, “they can’t hear you!” (I respond with louder yelling, thinking maybe my volume being too low is the actual issue she’s trying to fix).
It was gut wrenching exit for Japan when they lost in the final seconds of the game to Belgium 3-2. They had done everything they could have. They fought hard, played great and were simply beat by a better team. There was no shame in what they had accomplished. Once the final whistle was blown, the players dropped to the grass in because of exhaustion, being overcome with emotion, or a combination of both. They could have walked off upset and saddened by the loss and no one would have given them any criticism. However, before they left, they cleaned. The fans cleaned the stadium and the players cleaned the locker room and left a thank you note! Going above and beyond even when you’re facing a tough situation — like a devastating loss — is true leadership.
Croatia’s Cinderella run is something I have already commented on a few times. When they made it to the final four, they once again were faced with a tournament giant in England. They rose to the occasion when Mario Mandzukic scored a late game-winner in extra time at the 109th minute of the game. It was the biggest goal scored in the country’s history. It put them into the championship game where they had never been before. So of course, the Croatian players celebrated. They all ran to the corner flag and dog piled Mandzukic, but there was some collateral damage that came along with it, and the team also dog piled one of the many camera men standing along the side line. All of the players began focusing on making sure the camera man wasn’t injured instead of celebrating the greatest soccer achievement in the country’s history.
If you have any great World Cup stories or articles that I may have missed let us know, we’d love to hear about them!
WRITTEN BY Sam Meyer