Manfriend’s Mumblings | Sports Chat: FIFA World Cup 2018

World Cup 2014
Germany, celebrating the 2014 World Cup win. (via WikiCommons)

So, that dreaded month is upon us – a month that can be very challenging, yet incredibly rewarding. Nope, it’s not Ramadan again! It’s the World Cup!

Excitement fills me even as I type the words.

But I can hear the voices already.

“It’s not actually that interesting …”
“The players are always diving around like little b*****s!”
“It’s run by a group of criminals!” *
“There’s a lot of violence.”
“It happens every four years anyway!”

To which I say:

No.
Yes.
I know that.
Not always.
And finally, what the heck is wrong with you?!

The World Cup is one of the only events, in any sport, that really deserves the title of a “world cup,” as it actually involves every recognized footballing nation, big or small. Whether you call it football, like smart people, or soccer like … others, it’s a huge deal all around the world. I challenge you to name one other thing that has this much of an impact, brings this many people together, and is this full of entertainment.

FIFA World Cup 2018
Flags of all the nations competing in the finals. (Via Pixabay)

To those people who have been under a rock for eternity, and don’t know anything about football: I feel sorry for you. Nothing can be more fun than seeing 22 sweaty men treating a ball with more love and care than one of their five girlfriends. Actually, seeing them score a goal, and then celebrate by sliding on their knees is quite fun, too, especially as most players spend the entire game spitting all over the pitch.

Ahhh, memories.

I could talk forever about the World Cup, [Editors’ Note: Yes, he can. *eye roll*]  but instead, what I want to do is to give newcomers a chance to get the best out of the group stage.

So, welcome to my must-watch and don’t-even-bother selections. However, before I reveal that information, it’s important that you understand the basics of this year’s World Cup:

  • It’s being played in the very ‘welcoming’ country of Russia.
  • The opening game is on June 14th, with the final match being played on July 15th.
  • Thirty-two nations, from five different continents, are competing: Africa x 5; Asia x 4; Europe x 14, including host Russia; North and Central America x 3; Oceania x 1; South America x 5.
  • There are initially eight groups of four teams.
  • In the group stage, all teams play each other for points, with the top two teams going through to the knockout phase.
  • Knockout games are one-off games, which will go to extra time and penalties if there is no winner.

If you want to enjoy this tournament, then there are many games that you should avoid, but before we get to those, lets look at the must-sees:

Games to Watch

Portugal vs Spain

This game will be on Saturday at 2 a.m. Beijing time, and my alarm is already set. It is a historical footballing battle between two of the better nations in the tournament. Portugal are the reigning European Champions, and Spain are globally accepted as having the second best domestic football league in the world (second to the English Premier League). More interestingly, Spain have no coach now, after Lopetegui got sacked for accepting a job from Spanish giants Real Madrid without asking for The Spanish Football Association’s permission. If you’re still not sure about tuning in, the players on show are of world-class reckoning.

Plus, we get to see the amazing talent of Cristiano Ronaldo (Don’t even dare ask “Who?”) come up against his teammate Sergio Ramos. Normally, games between these two teams can be hit or miss, but the chance of seeing my man-crush Ronaldo – alongside the actor who played Aquaman in “The Justice League,” – in what is very likely to be his last-ever World Cup. Yes, please!

All of Group D

Every major tournament has a group branded the “Group of Death,” and this year it is Group D. Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland. Every game in this group will be interesting. Any one of these four nations could win the group or come last. Argentina will undoubtedly be favorites, but they’re not well-balanced. The Argies are very top-heavy, like the guys who go to the gym but always miss out leg day. They play Iceland in the first game and it will give us a good idea as to how well Argentina will do. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of controversy surrounding their coach, Sampaoli. Rumor has it that he has been a very, very bad man.

Iceland, around two decades ago, were classed as a minnow of international football, even tagged as “whipping boys.” But now, they’re about to play in their first-ever World Cup. They don’t have any major stars, but Iceland are a great example of a team. They qualified from arguably the most difficult group, overcoming Ukraine, Turkey, and Croatia to win the group. The latter they will play again during the group stages. They are a great team to watch, and not just because of the ‘Viking Clap’.

Still not happy? Maybe you will want to see Croatia, in their amazing tea towel-looking football shirts, or Nigeria with their confusing ones.

Brazil vs Switzerland

You have to watch Brazil. They are the most coveted nation, winning the World Cup a record FIVE times, and they are once again favourites. But this time, rightly so: For the first time in a long time, Brazil has strength and depth, the likes they haven’t had since the millennium. This is their toughest game of the groups, and one that I expect them to win. The more important thing for me is to see how many games Brazil can go without conceding a goal. Unbelievably, in the build-up to this year’s tournament, Brazil has only conceded one goal, despite playing friendlies against decent footballing nations. Plus, you get to see Neymar, the most expensive player in history. He is a delight to watch, especially surrounded by players like Coutinho, Willian and Jesus. No, he looks nothing like the one you are thinking of.

FIFA World Cup
Devastated home fans after the Semi-final against Germany in 2014. (Via WikiCommons)

The most important aspect of this game is that it is the first World Cup game Brazil will play since their humiliating defeat against Germany in the Semi-Finals of the tournament 4 years ago, which was held in front of their home fans.

Denmark vs France

This game is likely to be a group-decider. France are one of the favourites for the tournament, but they have a tendency to capitulate in tournaments that are not held in their home country. The main reason: squad harmony. I know you are surprised to hear that, as the French never moan about anything … *queue skeptic eye-rolls*

Denmark are a good side, and will be a difficult team to play. In Christian Eriksen, they have a play-maker who is as good as anyone else in the world. He will be influential if the Danish – mmmmmm, a danish … wait, concentrate, where was I? Ah, yes, Eriksen. He will be influential if the Danish are to progress in this tournament.

Germany vs Mexico

Germany have had a bit of a strange 2018 so far. They have lost the majority of their games played, and are looking very weak. In their last friendly, they won 2-1, which would be a good sign, but they played Saudi Arabia. The game against Mexico will definitely be an entertaining one for the neutral. Expect a bucket full of goals. I predict four, at least. Both Germany and Mexico are high-tempo attacking teams. Hopefully they won’t change their styles.

England vs Belgium

This will be the final group game of the tournament, and what a game it should be. If all goes to plan, which it usually does not, this match should be a decider to see who will finish top of the group, as both teams are likely to win against Tunisia and Panama, respectively.


As for the all of the other games, you shouldn’t really make an effort to watch them. Definitely don’t wake up in the middle of the night to watch any of them. (That last note is more for personal use. I know my partner appreciates the self-reminder.)

However, if you do feel like you want to watch other games, you should definitely avoid the following:

Games To Avoid

Russia vs Saudi Arabia

Normally the opening game of a tournament is huge … except this time. The game is between a Russian team, who are awful at best, against a nation who are always prone to a 7-0 loss. I’m expecting a very boring draw – maybe 1-1. Not even the Russians and Saudis will want to watch this, so why would you?

Belgium vs Panama

This game will be the World Cup equivalent of the initial confrontation between the “Sky-People” and the Na’vi. (If you are not sure of the analogy, then instead of watching this game, turn on Avatar. You can thank me after.)

England vs Panama

Again, I would urge you to watch Avatar. Even for a second time. This game will be very boring. England have a tendency to play boring football against weaker teams, and win 2-0.

Uruguay vs Russia

It’s very likely that Uruguay will have wrapped up the top spot by the third game, and watching their reserves kick lumps out of old men isn’t my idea of fun. If it is yours, then by all means, enjoy.

Panama vs Tunisia

Poor Panama. I didn’t realize that I had selected every one of their games on this list. I have nothing against them, really, apart from that they will be boring, none more-so than in this game, which I expect to be a dead rubber. Normally, when a game lacks stress, teams will end up playing good, expressive football. I don’t expect that to happen here. I will even stick my neck out and say that Panama has featured in this section more times than the number of goals they will score in the competition.


I realize that this article would have been a lot easier to write four years ago, when I nearly put myself into an early grave by attempting to watch every game. This time around, I have decided that it might be better for my health and well-being to moderate. Plus, it will keep my partner happier with me. [Editor’s Note: Wise move, sir.]

Whether you like the FIFA World Cup or not, you cannot undermine its importance for billions of people around the world. So, even if you are not a fan of football, and hate FIFA, give this tournament a chance.

You won’t regret it.

* FIFA is an organization riddled with massive, cringe-worthy problems. Don’t believe me? Check out John Oliver’s pithy summation of the whole thing. Released four years ago, it’s as salient now than ever.

Manfriend’s Mumblings | Sports Chat: Cricket

Ever heard people describe sports as boring, or say that nothing happens? It kind of frustrates an avid sports lover such as myself. Especially when those aforementioned people will happily waste hours playing useless phone games or watching pointless TV shows for the sake of entertainment.

So, why defend sports off the “bat”? The simple reason is, most people who hear the word cricket will immediately say:

“It’s so boring!”
“Some of the players don’t do anything!”
“Five days?!”

All, very educated responses, obviously, especially as they are given after a gargantuan two minutes of hearing about the sport. (All that is needed for a valuable opinion nowadays.) Yet, for over two billion people – a number taken from a very creditable source: Manfriend’s mind – it’s a huge deal. Of course, Indians do make up the majority of that number.

If you are from one of the Commonwealth countries – India, Australia, South Africa etc. –  then you are familiar with the sport. It was designed by the British in the late 16th century – another sport we created and then allowed others to be better at. Yet cricket is an unknown in Russia, China and the U.S.

Now, there are three versions of the game: test match; one-day; Twenty20 (T20). I’ve always dreamed of explaining the test match to Americans and seeing their facial expressions when they find out that it takes five days and can still finish as a draw. Telling Americans that a sporting event can finish as a draw is worse than insulting them, or on par, at least. Of course, the test match is the true form of the game, but let’s begin with baby steps.

I appreciate that many people will compare cricket to baseball, but that would be silly. So, let’s look at the basics first, fielding positions.

Cricketfieldingpositions
(Via WikiCommons)

There are two positions that never change: the wicket keeper (similar to a catcher,) who is the only player that wears gloves; the bowler, who delivers the ball. Even though the two positions never change, the bowling personnel does after every six legal deliveries. This is known as an over. The types of bowlers available throughout the world of cricket are as follows:

 

  • Fast bowler
  • Swing bowler
  • Medium pace bowler
  • Off-spin bowler
  • Leg spinner
  • Wrist spinner

Do remember that every one of these bowlers have different variations of what they do, making some of them almost impossible to hit. Also, most of the spinners have a bowling action that is very difficult to read, which causes problems for the batsmen, as they don’t really know which way the ball is going to spin.

The remaining nine players are controlled by the captain. In no other sport is the captain more important than in cricket. He needs to select the next bowler and advise on what he wants from him, as well as arrange the field in order to get the batsman out.

cricketbatter1
(Via Royal Challengers Bangalore’s Flickr page) “Royal Challengers Bangalore player AB De Villiers plays a shot during match 57 of the Indian Premier League 2012 between The Pune Warriors India and the Royal Challengers Bangalore.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/royalchallengers/8009082874

So, how do you score runs? Well, there are quite a few ways. A batsman can hit the ball and then run. A run is scored when the two batsman, one of them facing the bowler and the other at the non-striker’s end, run to other end. If both batsman get to the ‘popping crease’ at the other end, then it constitutes a run. You must remember that there’s a fielding team that’s retrieving the ball, so you better make it quick. You can also score a run if the bowler sends down a wide delivery, oversteps the popping crease (no ball) or if the bowler bowls it so short that the ball bounces over the head of the batsman by a considerable margin.

cricketball
(Via WikiCommons)

If that’s not exciting enough, then you can smack the ball out of the field. All around the playing field there is a boundary rope. If the batsman hits the small leather ball that’s stuffed with cork, and it bounces inside the field before going out of bounds, then that’s four runs. If it goes out without bouncing, then it’s six. The batsman will continue to accumulate runs until he is out.

So, how do you get a player out?

  • He can be bowled out, when the ball is delivered and it hits the wickets.
  • The ball is caught. Self explanatory.
  • He’s stumped. If a batsman misses the ball and happens to be outside of the popping crease, then the wicketkeeper can catch the ball and hit the wickets immediately, resulting in a stumping.
  • They’re run out. A fielder will hit the wickets with a throw before the batsman completes a run.
  • A hit wicket. The unfortunate time when a batsman hits his own wickets with his bat or body part.
  • LBW (leg before wicket). If you decide to stop the ball from hitting your wickets by using your legs as an obstacle, then you can also be out.
Cricketpitchmswd
(Via WikiCommons)

Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s move on.

Despite the lore and magnitude of international cricket, I want to introduce a domestic competition to you instead: the IPL (Indian Premier League). As previously mentioned the Indians are crazy about their cricket. In a country of over 1.5 billion people, it’s their No. 1 sport, and they know how to put on a show.

 

To begin with, there’s the player auction. I realise this sounds like something from the Dark Ages, with people being auctioned off to the highest bidder. In this case, though, the money goes to the player and not to his agent. So how does this work? Any player who wants to take part in the IPL puts their name into a pool and waits to find out if any of the eight franchise owners are willing to put in a bid.

The kind of bids that are going around are mind-boggling. Basically, it’s a group of rich people who buy their favorite players for their own team. I bet you’re wondering how much the top bid was. Well, it was for the English all-rounder – a term used to describe someone who can bat and bowl – Ben Stokes. He fetched a whopping 125,000,000 Indian Rupees (£1,364,748 €1,560,938 $1,837,833, as of 20.05.2018). That’s a lot of money for a player who I never expected to be a leading star at the tournament (and I can confirm that I was very much correct). I hope the Rajasthan Royals kept the receipt.

Once all of that is over, the tournament begins. Eight franchises, located all across India, play home and away, totaling 14 games per team, with the top four advancing to the knockout stages. No other competition, in any sport, is as hotly contested as the IPL. This year, the pre-tournament favorite, Royal Challengers Bangalore, ended up finishing 6th.

Check out the final table.

After numerous tight games, amazing displays of batting, bowling, incredible fielding and catches that leave you open-mouthed, you’re left with just four teams. This year, those include: my favourites, Sunrisers Hyderabad; Chennai Super Kings, captained by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a man who is a legend in India – think Lebron James, David Beckham and Stephen Hawking all in one; Kolkata Knight Riders; Rajasthan Royals, who are going to be without the aforementioned Ben Stokes and fellow Englishman Jos Buttler. Both had to return to join up with the English National team.

So how does the knockout work? Well, this year, the top two in the group stage play on May 22nd at 9 p.m. IST (Indian Summer Time). This is Qualifier 1. The winner goes straight to the final. May 23rd sees Eliminator 1 between the teams who have finished 3rd and 4th respectively. The loser is out, and the winner goes through to Qualifier 2, played on May 25th, against the team who lost in Qualifier 1, for a chance to make it to the final on May 27th.

If all of this doesn’t help get your interest, then maybe you would be interested in knowing: during the matches, there are dancers performing around the field; the commentators are hilarious; there are some amazing names on show. Unfortunately, Jasprit Bumrah and Mandeep Singh and Ankit Rajpoot are out, but Apporv Wankhade (pronounced: wank-ha-day) could still feature. *insert immature giggles at players’ names*

This sport is full of skill, power hitting, clever bowling and magnificent banter. Nothing beats the sound of a ball coming off the middle of the bat, and being followed by an excited middle aged man shouting, “Woooooah, what a shot that is … ” Still not convinced? Then why not watch a few highlights and see what you think? It will take less of your time than it took to read this article.

Highlights from the IPL.

Magic Moments from the IPL.


A huge thanks to Manfriend for walking us through cricket. Keep your eye out for more sports updates. Have other sports you’d like to hear more about? Write us, and we’ll set Manfriend on it!