By Michael Lewis
With the World Cup ready starting today, Sunday, Nov. 20 when host Qatar kicks off against Ecuador, I feel like we are celebrating Passover around Thanksgiving time.
That holiday, which is usually held in the spring, retells the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt.
The youngest child usually has the honor of asking the four questions.
In a variation of the one question asked at the Seder table:
Why is this World Cup different than any other World Cup?
Answer: there are many reasons why.
It’s not in the summer
It may not be officially the winter – although the folks in suburban south Buffalo who have had some six feet of snow dumped on them this week will tell you otherwise – this forever will be known as the winter World Cup. The competition was moved to November to make sure the players weren’t going to play in the heat.
The forecast for next week calls for temperatures to be in the mid-seventies and early eighties.
As we have become accustomed to, the previous 21 World Cups were held in the summer.
Leagues were forced to change their schedules and cram more matches in a short period time.
And here was no hype, at least in the traditional sense, for Qatar.
Which will bring us to arguably the most pressing issue – tired or overworked players.
No rest for the weary
Players in their European seasons have jumped from their club games one weekend to national team matches the next.
And due to the “winter” World Cup, seasons have been squashed together, with many teams playing their domestic contests on the weekend and cup matches midweek, week after week after week. A good manager or coach will know how to rest players and rotate their lineups, but you have to wonder if some players were overused in domestic games and might not play at full capability.
There is no time to rest, recuperate from injuries and knocks in the most important national team competition on the planet.
We’ve seen players forced to pull out of their respective teams because their injuries won’t heal in time for Qatar. They deserve better.
What I fear is that some players will break down during the World Cup and it will affect them and their respective club teams when they are scheduled to return to action in late December or January.
Listen, I understand injuries happen. But if they occur at a June/July World Cup, many players can recover in time for their club seasons, which traditionally start in late August or early September.
On the bright side, teams have 26-player rosters, three more than the traditional 23, which allows coaches to have a deeper pool of players from which to prove. And there will be five substitutions instead of the traditional three.
No or few warm-up matches
Usually, there was a month’s break between seasons of the major world’s leagues and the tournament. It gave players a chance to catch their collective breaths from their club season and prepare mentally and physically for the World Cup.
Now, it is just smashed together and very little room to breathe.
At previous tournaments, teams had an opportunity to play two, three or even four matches to fine tune their players and get them accustomed to playing together.
Not this time.
The last time the U.S. men’s national team played together was in September – with players that weren’t on the team back then. Center back Tim Ream, for example, wasn’t on that squad. And the USA did not look good at all. Another game or two right before the World Cup would have been nice.
The Americans had barely a week to prepare for their opener against Wales on Monday.
Not exactly the best way for any team to prep for a major tournament.
I always thought the game was about the players. I guess the powers that be have put that on the back-burner.
COVID-19 can still rear its ugly head
The bad part of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but COVID, like it or not, is still around.
Visitors to Qatar needed to take a COVID-19 test. If they were positive, they would not be allowed in the country. As we have learned over the past few years, there can be bad results, saying someone is negative when they do have COVID.
You have to wonder what happens if a player, and worse, if a star player, gets COVID, what they will do to a team.
And putting fans from so many countries across the globe probably won’t help matters as well.
Hopefully, there will be no outbreaks.
As we have seen in various leagues and tournaments, the Video Assistant Referee can giveth and it can taketh away.
Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.
It would have been nice to have it around in the Round of 16 encounter between England and Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa without. Frank Lampard ripped a shot that bounded off the underside of the crossbar and downward. It landed a good several inches past the line in the goal; we could see it quite well on instant replay. The game should have been tied at 2-2. However, it was ruled no goal. Germany then rolled to a 4-1 win. Goals change games, as they say. So do bad calls by game officials.
There is another side to VAR.
The most frustrating VAR call? Well, of course, offside, outside of a penalty kick or a red card, the most controversial ruling in the sport. If the VAR reviews determine a player a smidgeon, just a hair of someone’s arm of being offside, it will disallow the goal.
In the “old days,” the pre-VAR days, human eyesight would have been challenged to catch such an “infraction.”
While offside rulings when goals are put into the back of the net can be controversial enough, these close calls could make even for more confusion and arguments.
Hopefully not, but in the passion of the moment with so much at stake, players have been known to lose it.
I would love to see the powers that be change the offside rule to a player needing to have part of his body even with the defending player. But that’s another discussion for another time.