Welcome to quarters, no mulligans allowed
July 5, 2018
Any hack golfer will be familiar with the concept of mulligans, a bad shot that won't count against you because you can take another. Not a feature of the professional game, mulligans feature prominently in amateur rounds and, surprisingly, at the World Cup.
To win a World Cup, a team must play seven games. Because of the increasing parity in the world and the difficulty to concentrate and maintain a high level for that many games in a row, teams rarely just go out and dominate seven games in a row on the way to winning a World Cup.
Instead, the winning team usually has at least one game where they are not at the their best but somehow survive, advance and improve.
In 2014, Germany won the World Cup, but struggled to a 2-2 draw in the first round against Ghana, who finished last in the group. In 2010, eventual winners Spain lost their first match to Switzerland 1-0.
In 2006, eventual champions Italy tied the U.S. 1-1 and barely scraped by Australia, 1-0 on a penalty in the first knockout round, en route to the title.
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In this World Cup several of the eight surviving teams have already had their mulligans, at this tournament. First up is France vs. Uruguay on Friday, July 6. France played to an un utterly tedious 0-0 draw with Denmark at the end of the group stage before winning an electrifying 4-3 knockout match against Argentina.
Nineteen-year-old Kylian Mbappe was introduced to the world, scoring two goals and drawing a penalty, overshadowing Lionel Messi as the torch was passed to a new generation.
Uruguay hasn't had a Mulligan moment yet in this tournament, winning all of their games and allowing only one goal in four games. This bodes well for France in what should be an epic encounter between the best defense and the world's next superstar.
Friday's other match is between Belgium and Brazil.
Brazil have had their mulligan moment already, in a 1-1 draw with the Swiss. Belgium, on the other hand, had to overcome a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 against a naive but thrilling Japanese team. Up 2-0, the Japanese refused to engage in time wasting or cynical tactics but kept pouring forward and creating chances against a heavily favored Belgian side.
In the end, Japan lost on the last play of the game on a perfectly executed counter attack after bringing too many players forward for a corner.
I will be rooting for Belgium and against Neymar. Not only is this Belgian team a beautiful kaleidoscope of cultures and playing styles brought to Belgium by its status as the capital of Europe and an open and tolerant attitude towards migrants using sport to help integrate them, but also because Brazil's Neymar has been disgraceful in this tournament. Neymar's rolling around the floor, faking injuries, crying and generally drawing attention to himself and away from a wonderful collection of teammates are the types of behavior that push the casual fan away.
Saturday, July 7, sees the host nation, Russia, take on Croatia. Russia had their mulligan moment in a 3-0 loss to Uruguay at then end of the group phase but rebounded to beat, heavily favored Spain in their first knockout round. Croatia also have had their mulligan in their worst game of the tournament, allowing Denmark to take them to penalty kicks in the first knockout round.
Russia's endurance continues to astound fans as they have run more miles than any other team. Russia is willing to concede possession, sit back, work hard defensively and hit teams on the counterattack. They may ride this tactic and the support of their fans all the way to a semifinal, though Croatia will be the favorites.
Speaking of penalties, England has finally slain that dragon. After losing six successive penalty shootouts to be eliminated from World Cups (1990, 1998, 2006) and European Championships (1996, 2004 and 20012), the English team finally held their nerve to defeat Colombia in the knockout round.
England has had their mulligan moment, losing to Belgium in the last group game 1-0, and are poised to go deep in this World Cup but they will have some challenges to overcome, including the fatigue from the Colombia match and their inability to create many chances beyond penalty kicks and corners.
Sweden would be the first European opposition that England has been able to defeat in this World Cup with earlier wins against Middle Eastern, Central American and South American teams, a European team will be more familiar with, and less intimidated by England having seen them lose to Belgium.
Sweden lost a heartbreaking match to Germany on a free kick in the last minute, but rebounded to beat a good Mexican team and win their group.
They then advanced by beating a tough Swiss side. This will be a close match between the new possession style of the England team and the Swedish team playing a traditional, "English," physical and defensive style of play.
There are no mulligans left for these teams now. The four semi-finalists will be determined this weekend. This writer's original pick of a Brazil vs England final still is possible, but if I am wrong, I'll take a mulligan and try again in 2022.
David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards. Follow him on twitter at @huskynationcope.
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