The group stage is over and we’re on to the knockout rounds. All the Thorns in France are still playing.
The second set of group stage games were mostly dull or infuriating, as most teams played their b-teams. This was partly due to the short turnaround, partly so new players can get a few World Cup minutes and experience, and partly team managers gaming the group stage scoring. Finishing second, or even a strong third, can be better for a team’s prospects in some cases.
We commuted between our base in Reims and Paris. By the way, Reims is pronounced approximately Rawnce, with the rolled French “r”. I have not mastered it. The first match for us was group B; South Africa lost 1-0 to China in a dull match. Given a choice, I wish we could have seen Australia’s dramatic comeback versus Brazil to save their tournament.
Next up was Italy taking Jamaica apart 5-0. The Jamaican fans were loud and very colorful. Despite the score, they seemed in a party mood. After that, it was back to Paris for the USA v Chile match at the sold out Parc Des Princes. The Chilean goalkeeper is amazing and singlehandedly prevented a blowout.
The third set of group stage matches were more intense for the players, as their continuation in the tournament was often at stake. Korea v Norway was the first of these for us, and it was a drab affair, and the emptiest stadium we’ve seen. Korea was my disappointment of the 2019 World Cup. Historically they have been a competitive side with the ability to beat almost anyone. Not this tournament, as they were entirely toothless, flushing out against an unimpressive Norwegian side.
We returned to Paris for the Scotland v Argentina match – the most bizarre and frustrating game of the entire tournament so far. Both teams needed a win to have a chance of advancing. Scotland jumped out to an early lead on some impressive goals. Argentina’s substitutes came on and reversed the flow of the game, which had been all Scotland to that point. They brought it back to a 3-2 score.
Then the referee got involved. Scotland made a double-substitution. With the second sub still coming off, the ref restarted play! Scotland had only 10 players on the pitch – I have never seen a more blatant error by a referee and neither of the AR’s or 4th official intervened. The ref then waved off a tackle in the box, consistent with her general “let them play” approach. After nearly a minute of additional play, VAR called in that a penalty review was needed. After nearly three minutes, the penalty was given. The video “evidence” shown on the stadium screen was entirely inconclusive. In any case, with time running out, the Argentina player stepped up and made a weak PK shot that was easily saved. Once again, VAR intervened and a re-kick was awarded because the keeper was less than one step off the line. The fans were howling at this point and time had expired. The second kick was better and the match was tied. When play restarted, the clock was at 97 minutes. The referee awarded only 4 minutes of stoppage time! And the 4th official never displayed it! After at most two minutes, the ref then stopped the game and forgot to blow her whistle and point to the center circle – so nobody knew what was going on.
This was the most incompetent refereeing I have ever seen (and I include Marco Vega’s 2016 NWLS semifinal in that list). I can only presume that the crew’s tournament is finished. The match was also an indictment of FIFA’s VAR usage. Specifically:
- Stopping the match after play has resumed, sometimes minutes later.
- Taking 3-8 minutes to make a simple decision
- Not having AR’s flag any offside in the attacking third, no matter how obvious.
- Reviewing goalkeeper encroachment on PKs (with yellow cards)
- NOT reviewing field player encroachment on PKs
This policy has made the games nearly unwatchable at times. If VAR cannot make a decision in 30 seconds, then by definition no clear error occurred. The encroachment rule is a very poor rule; deciding to suddenly enforce it for the first time in the history of the game – at the most important tournament – is idiotic. Making play continue when there is a clear offside infraction risks injury for no reason.
I cringe to see what will happen in the first match that goes to PKs. Will we see each kick retaken two or three times? Will the keeper get red-carded if they encroach twice? Will the shootout take longer than the original match?
If this is what VAR is going to be globally, then I vote to simply get rid of it.
Enough of that. The next match we saw was the Netherlands v Canada. Christine scored a goal! She now needs three more to set the world record. It was an exciting game, well played and well officiated. The stadium was nearly sold out. About 7,000 crazy Dutch fans showed up, turning the bowl into a sea of orange. This is the first time we have seen a well-coordinated support group and, like it does for the Thorns, it made the entire match more fun.
The Dutch had a parade to the match, led by an orange double-decker bus with a sound system. A full marching band brought up the rear. There was a police escort. The freeway ramp was closed. It was a big deal. We were wearing Thorns gear, so the Dutch mistook us for Canadian supporters. This led to some friendly banter, which was fun.
Some other things we’ve learned about France
Potato chips. Like in the USA, there are potato chips for sale in every little shop. But the flavors are a bit different than we’re used to, for example, chicken. The best flavor of all is Indian Curry – we need these in Portland. Please make it happen by July 8 when we get back.
Alex Morgan is 100% Funk. And here is the proof:
Football is a big deal in small towns. In Reims, we met a Dutch fan who noticed our Thorns gear and launched into a discussion. Turns out he is a soccer coach and a personal friend of Dagny Brynjarsdottir! He showed us a picture on his phone of her at his house, holding Brynjar.
We are now in Valenciennes, actually in a scruffy little suburb called Denain. There is World Cup stuff everywhere. In the shops and restaurants, people are quite aware of the event. A shopkeeper pulled out his Fotmob app (in Arabic) to show me the standings. The local barkeep was wearing an FFF jersey and was quite proud of his team’s accomplishment although worried about the likely USA v France match.
Denain, small as it is, has three football clubs. All three are hanging by a financial thread, so there is a proposal to merge them into one “elite” club. They are negotiating with the city council for a subsidy. I am not clear why. For now, the players have to pay to play – the opposite of professional.
Musical interlude. Every match has had the same playlist so far. A large shield banner is unfurled to the FIFA anthem. Then the players come in to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. Next are the two national anthems. Last is Halfway There by Tiësto. In Paris, the stadium has an incredible sound system which really delivers the bass. Finally is a countdown to kickoff.
When a goal is scored, they boom One More Time by Daft Punk. At halftime, there is a Dance Cam when Ettie, the mascot, encourages people to do the Twist and Macarena. Participation is sparse, to be generous.
Valenciennes has a couple interesting sights for the Portland footy fan.
It’s gonna be hot! Weather forecasts for France are calling for 100 degree highs for the next week. This may help some of the teams, while testing others. We also may see hydration breaks.