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2018 FIFA World Cup Postscript

The end is here. We may not want it to have gotten here, but we cannot stop it. 64 games were promised and 64 games were delivered. Invariably, some led to joy, others to tears and a few to other emotions depending on what rooting interest you had. Such is the way of tournaments and, in this, the World Cup excels like few sporting events. Even if you do not care for a team, you will find a way to root for or against someone.TOPSHOT-FRANCE-FBL-WC-2018-BEL-FRA-FEATURE

So as the players from France lift the trophy and head into the night to celebrate what will be a career-defining victory and their fans party on into the next day and the day after (and the one after that) let’s take one last look at everything that happened this time out and maybe look ahead at what awaits us in 2022 in Qatar (still can’t believe that is real).

The Last Ride: Despite putting on valiant efforts, this World Cup likely represented the end of many a legend’s time on this stage. They may still show up at Copa America or the Euros, but it’s tough to see them appearing in Qatar four years from now. Starting with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The rivals for the de-facto title of “Best Player in the World” will be 36 and 38 respectively by that time. Even with the improved quality of nutrition and fitness plans, it is tough to imagine they will still feature in their nations’ plans. But for players ranging from Spain’s great midfielder Andres Iniesta to Mexico’s Rafa Marquez and Guillermo Ochoa, Colombia’s Radamel Falcao and Japan’s Keisuke Honda, this is likely their last go-round at this stage. Golden generations turn and one thing is always certain: you cannot count on time to stand still.

The Next Revelations: But if there are players stepping off the stage, then we should also recognize some of the players who have announced themselves to the world in Russia. We’re talking about France’s dynamic right-back Benjamin Pavard, Colombia’s monster of a center-back Yerry Mina, Uruguay’s diminutive Tasmanian Devil midfielder Lucas Torreira, Russia’s creative star Alexander Golovin, Croatia’s terror on the wings Ante Rebic, England’s wall of a goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and great young defender Harry Maguire. I could probably keep going, but I’ll stop to speak about one more player specifically. In any case, these young stars have all stepped forward and made their names known.    

WC Post -MbappeThe Arrival of Kylian Mbappe: Two years ago, he was a precocious teen leading the line for AS Monaco. Rumors of bigger clubs circling abounded but he seemed willing to turn any move down and keep trusting on his talents. With last summer’s move to giants Paris Saint-Germain, the expectation was that he was going to take another step forward in his career. Well, by now, everyone knows who the young French forward is. He had 4 goals to his name in this World Cup but his biggest contribution has been in being a counter attacking nightmare to opponents; his speed and pace creating all kinds of opening for Les Bleus. All of this earned him the Young Player of the World Cup Award and an earned distinction it was. In a team full of lights, it’s the 19-year-old who has shone the brightest and proclaimed himself a star.

Luka Modric, World Star: For as long as he’s played, the diminutive Croatian has battled to make a name for himself in. Whether at Dinamo Zagreb, Tottenham Hotspur or Real Madrid, he’s played with some tremendous talents and made them look good, but found himself constantly challenged to prove himself. Even at Real Madrid, arguably, the pinnacle of club football, he lives in the shadow cast by luminaries like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. However, none leave Russia with a name as large as he does. The Golden Ball winner for Best Player of the Tournament, Modric was the heart and soul of Croatia’s epic run to the Final. In many ways, he embodied the spirit of his team and his nation of four million; toppling the likes of Argentina, Denmark, Russia and England en route. That they took three matches into extra time and two into penalty shootouts speaks to a strength that is tough to overcome. Modric won’t ever be looked past anymore.

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Match of the Tournament: For me, it’s tough to pick between the crazy France 4 – Argentina 3 match that occurred at the Round of 16 and the tension-filled 2-2 draw between Croatia and Russia that went to penalties. For the France-Argentina match, you had it all: counter-attacking goals, lead changes, thunderous strikes and teams going all out to score against one another. On the other hand, the Croatia-Russia match had lead changes, goals scored in Extra Time, penalties saved, a keeper battling an injury, goals scored at the death and the pressure of a penalty shootout with the host nation involved. I ain’t gonna try to split the difference here. Both matches were amazing and they were the top of a great batch of matches.

Disappointments: I’m gonna go with two: Spain and Brazil. La Furia Roja found a way to top a decent group and then went out against a more determined Russia. Truth be told, they seemed to never look comfortable during their time at the World Cup and it brings to question whether or not the Lopetegui saga had the impact it may have had. The players and staff tried to downplay it but, after starting the tournament well, they drew against Morocco and got only a 1-0 win against Iran before facing the hosts where an own goal allowed them to take a lead before Russia came back and they played it to penalties in a match they never looked like scoring. For their part, Brazil shrugged off the disappointment of drawing against Switzerland to secure comfortable wins against Costa Rica and Serbia before dispatching a good Mexico side in the Round of 16. However, their attacking talents were all put to bed by the Belgians’ stout defense. I get that this is a team that was less built on all-out attack and more defensively-minded. That said, when the time came for them to step it up, the Selecao didn’t find a way to break through teams set up to deny Gabriel Jesus, Firmino, Coutinho and Neymar. Speaking of whom…

WC Post - Neymar

Neymar the Meme: For a player vested with the famous yellow and green Number 10 kit, there is a certain expectation. It’s the number of the face and the heart of the team. It’s been worn by Pele, Rivelino, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka’; names that shine brightly in Brazil. And the expectation was that the PSG star would find a way to enshrine his name on that same level. Alas, Russia 2018 will be forever remembered for the fouls he took and the show he made of everyone of them. His rolling on the ground, trying to get the attention of the referee turned up in hundreds of memes, photos, gifs and videos. It was parodied at Wimbledon. It turned into an Internet challenge. It had Will Smith coming to his defense (no idea why the Fresh Prince got in on it). For a player with all his talent, Neymar is going to have a way to turn opinion around on him. 

The Scapegoating of Ozil: Having a poor showing at a World Cup can have nations turn against players. No better example was found this time out than in the way many in Germany turned against their Number 10, Mesut Ozil. I’ll grant you that I am biased towards him. He announced himself to the world 8 years ago as a talent in South Africa while still plying his trade at Werder Bremen. His languid style and vision to find the right pass marked him as one of the best young players around. Not soon after Real Madrid came a-calling. By the time Brazil ’14 came around, he had moved to Arsenal and was considered one of the best players in the world and a key figure in their winning the World Cup. He was also, in some ways, the face of the new and modern Germany — one of the many families who have emigrated to Germany and become German. Sadly, that does not seem to have lasted as he has come for abuse — sometimes racial in nature — from political and social segments in Germany. A picture with current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not help him with that and has been used as the lash to castigate the third generation Turkish-German player with. Beyond that, there are the usual recriminations about his style of play — lazy, does nothing, superfluous when things aren’t going right — which follow him wherever he goes. Der Mannschaft lost as a team but, given the fingers pointed his way, maybe the German midfield maestro may opt to hang up his international boots. And that would be a shame.

WC Post - Ozil PostWhat’s in a Flag?: Alas, Ozil was not the only one who faced questions about his loyalty to the colors he was wearing.  Sadly, the nationalistic specter that has lingered over much of the global discourse due to refugees and migrant movements around the world came to the World Cup en force. You had a lot of anger thrown at U.S. hero Landon Donovan for daring to root for Mexico as part of an ad campaign for Wells Fargo. Silly perhaps but it came right as US-Mexico relations were at a low. Meanwhile many of the French players, 18 of the 23 to be accurate, came into question as to whether or not they would be as committed to Les Bleus cause as their Croatian counterparts, with many openly rooting for the Eastern European nation over the multi-ethnic side that was representing France. Some of that is, sadly, inevitable in a contest between nations. But it only went to show how even silly sporting events can, at times, reflect our larger world.

A World Cup in November?: The Final had not arrived and we were told the news of FIFA’s plan for Qatar 2022. Given the concerns for heat in the Middle East nation — highs of 106 degrees Fahrenheit/41.5 degrees Celsius are common during the June-July time the World Cup normally takes place — the decision was made schedule the tournament from November 21 to December 18. At that time, Qatar has a more pleasant weather — in the mid-70s F/mid-20s C for highs. At first glance, it makes sense. There was no feasible way Qatar could deliver air conditioned stadia to keep players and spectators from suffering from the high heat.

WC Post - QatarThe obvious issue is that this will fall right in the middle of many league seasons throughout the globe. The European soccer season will have four months before it must stop. Leagues in North and South America will be reaching their season’s ends — with competitions and tournaments often climaxing in late November. And remember: it’s not just the 28 days that FIFA is making everyone take off. Players must be called up to their national teams, have at least two weeks of preparation before the tournament stars and then have another two weeks (at least) of rest post-tournament. In effect, this shuts down leagues for November and December — right when everything from the Copa America is being settled to Champions League is having its last group games and the Premier League has its busy holiday season.

This is going to have tremendous and far reaching impact. League seasons may push into the 2023 summer, where Africa Cup of Nations and CONCACAF Gold Cup are currently scheduled. Clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich can expect to lose key players to the World Cup and then will have to figure out how to give them rest once seasons return. And for TV partners like Fox Sports, they will have to figure out how to balance the World Cup right in the midst of their normal sports events of the fall like NFL and college football. FIFA President Gianni Infantino acted like this was always the plan and everyone else would have to deal. Let’s see what the fallout is.

Team of the Tournament: Not surprisingly, expect Les Bleus and Hrvatska to feature heavily here.

GK: Thibaut Courtois, Belgium

D: Benjamin Pavard, France/Rafael Varane, France/Yerry Mina, Colombia/Diego Laxalt, Uruguay

M: Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia/Lucas Torreira, Uruguay/Luka Modric, Croatia

F: Kylian Mbappe, France/Eden Hazard, Belgium/Antoine Griezmann, France

Bench: Danijel Subasic G Croatia, Domagoj Vida D Croatia, Harry Maguire D England, Paul Pogba M France, Denis Cheryshev M Russia, Harry Kane F England, Romelu Lukaku F Belgium

Goal of the Tournament: I have to go for either Nacho’s strike against Portugal or Benjamin Pavard’s against Argentina. In doubt, I take the young Frenchman’s as his came in a knockout game.

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Final Memories: Whether good or bad, exciting or poor, World Cups are entities unto themselves. Each one has a flavor all its own and each one imparts moments that seem crazy even just a few months after the fact. So with all that said, here are some of mine that I’ll take:

  • Robbie Williams’ middle finger to open the World Cup.
  • Iran celebrating their last minute win over Morocco
  • Racing to my folks’ place to catch Spain-Portugal with my dad.
  • Juggling matches on computer screens and cellphones during Matchday 3 – specially South Korea-Germany/Mexico-Sweden.
  • Senegal dancing
  • Colombia dancing
  • Alou Cisse leading Senegal within the 7th tiebreaker of a place in the Round of 16.
  • Mexico beating Germany convincingly.
  • How every El Tri fan I know never stopped celebrating those days.
  • The scenes in England of countless 6 pound sterling pints going up in the air in elation as the Three Lions scored.
  • Diego Maradona becoming a spectacle during the tournament.
  • NOT watching any of this World Cup on Fox! (Thank you Telemundo!)
  • Catching the England-Croatia semifinal in my phone on a bus.
  • “It’s coming home!”
  • Russia starting out with a 5-goal performance.
  • Fortnite celebrations becoming a thing.
  • All the penalty shootouts.
  • The VAR hand signal becoming a thing.
  • The rain after the Final.
  • Andres Cantor shouting “GOOOOOOOOOLLLLLL!!!!!” throughout it all.

OK, with all that let’s leave Russia behind. The Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and all the other leagues are just around the corner. Hope you find a team you can get behind and continue enjoying this soccer madness all the time!

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Thoughts on the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group Stages

So that was that. Honestly, did this first part of the World Cup fly by or was it just me? I know that for some — OK, for many — the quadrennial spectacle of footie is a salve to soothe life’s various punches. In 2018, it may be the only thing keeping some sane in our insane world. Well, that is unless you’re Germany.

Before we head into the maelstrom that is the knockout stages (starting Saturday morning here in the US, y’all), it’s good to take a look at what has happened, who has excelled, who has disappointed and what have been some of the bigger stories.  So let’s do that starting with…

WC - VAR

VAR, what is it good for?: The big story this World Cup has been Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) and the role it has had in matches. Most obviously, the focus has been on penalties awarded. The record for penalties at a World Cup was 17 in France ’98. So far, Russia ’18 has had 24 penalties awarded so far with 10 of those 24 coming after a VAR review.  We have even had matches with multiple penalties awarded. The impact has been visible. Until Denmark and France this past Tuesday, we had not had a 0-0 draw in this tournament and it remained the only scoreless match of the group stages. Just as importantly as penalties, it was in the way VAR impacted key moments like the first South Korean goal against Germany being given after the assistant referee wrongly judged it to be offsides. The hand signal for that TV review has been the biggest addition to football so far.

The Struggles of the Big Names: When looking at the luminaries ahead of this World Cup, names the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Robert Lewandowski would have featured on program covers and websites front pages. Unfortunately, they’ve rarely featured in score sheets or stats lines. Salah struggled to get on the pitch (guess that Ramos injury really impacted him) but still managed to net 2 goals. For the rest, it has hardly been a great time in Russia. Messi has 1 goal — key though it was. Neymar has 1 assist and 0 goals so far. Now Argentina, France and Brazil all qualified, such was their quality. However, for any of these nations to have a dream of reaching the Final and lifting the World Cup, they have to hope their big names start doing their part and leading.

WC - Fans

The Host Surprise: It was no secret that Russia had been struggling through their friendlies ahead of this World Cup. They struggled to score and struggled as much to defend. So it was rather easy to dismiss their chances in a group they led by virtue of being the host nation. Even their 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia seemed a bone thrown to them before Egypt and Uruguay got to the business of progressing past them into the knockout stages. Except that Sbornaya had other plans. They followed up that pasting of the Arabs by beating Egypt 3-0 and securing passage to the knockout stages. If you’re looking for the revelations of the tournament, look no further than midfielders Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev. Cheryshev has 3 goals so far in this tournament (tied with Spain’s Diego Costa) while Golovin has 1 goal and 2 assists to help lead their nation. Meanwhile stalwarts like Yuri Zhirkov and Igor Akinfeev seem to be holding time still to continue leading their nation’s team forward.

Other Surprises: Let’s start with Japan. Four years ago, they left Brazil without a win. They were able to beat Colombia in Russia and do enough to manage to pip Senegal for that runners-up qualifying spot (that enough being 2 fewer yellow cards). Though they missed by that thin of margins, Senegal had a great showing at this World Cup. Meanwhile after finishing ahead of Netherlands in qualifying and beating Italy in a playoff, Sweden entered Russia looking to show they belonged. And they did by beating South Korea and Mexico and topping a group that included Germany. They haven’t been pretty and should have held on for a draw against the Germans, but then they turned the style on against the Mexicans. So fair play to them. For their part, Mexico started the World Cup with its first big shock by beating the Germans. Even if they needed some help from the Koreans to advance, that should not take from a set of good performances by El Tri. They head into their clash against Brazil on a high.

WC - Mexico

The Curse of the Champs: I warned that it was possible that the Germans would not finish this World Cup atop though I didn’t expect them to fall so soon. They are now the fourth champ in five World Cups to not make it out of the group stages — following in the footsteps of France in ’02, Italy in ’10 and Spain in ’14. Recriminations, accusations and all the rest have already started but the simple fact is that the Germans started on the wrong foot — their midfield getting ran over by a rampant Mexico team — and did not seem like they were going to get into this World Cup until Tony Kroos’ epic 95th minute goal saved their bacon against Sweden. Everyone thought that this was the moment Germany would wake up to seize their destiny. Their poor performance against South Korea, however, finished off any chance of a defense. They could not finish chances — Timo Werner a shadow of Mirsolav Klose while Thomas Mueller was horribly off. While they have a bevy of young talent, the changes to Die Mannschaft might be greater now.

Africa’s Poor Showing: Set aside Senegal’s difficult elimination. I mean, the Lions of Teranga and Samurai Blue came down to the 7th tiebreaker! Nigeria and Tunisia at least won a match each. The poor Pharaohs of Egypt never seemed to get themselves sorted and Morocco was unlucky to get only one draw. However, there were hopes that at least one or two of these nations would find a way to progress to the knockout stages. Consider that this is the first time no African nation has at least qualified to the Round of 16 since 1986, when the tournament expanded to its current format. A 32-year run stopped here. All CAF representatives are now flying home and that’s a disappointment.

WC - Croatia

The Dark Horses Riding: For years, Belgium and Croatia have been the pick of many looking for a talented but overlooked nation that could win it all. Invariably they found a way to stumble and fall. However, they seem to be doing everything right this time. Both teams won all their group stage games, beating the likes of Argentina and Nigeria for Croatia and England and Tunisia for Belgium. Led by Romelu Lukaku’s 4 goals, Eden Hazard’s 2 goals and Youri Tielemans 2 assists, the Belgians look at times like the team capable of putting any opponent to the sword. For their part, the Croats are relying on a team effort by everyone including Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ante Rebic, Josip Pivaric, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and a stout defense to see them through. Again, a lot will depend on who they face, but teams are not likely to overlook them at this point.

The Teams With Another Gear: It’s surprising to get to this point and barely have mentioned Uruguay or Brazil. Both topped their groups with ease — Uruguay winning all three matches and not conceding a single goal (the only team to not do so). Brazil was held to a controversial draw with Switzerland but otherwise did what it normally does against Costa Rica and Serbia. What’s been intriguing is that neither team have been imperious. But for their 3-0 victory over Russia, Uruguay has been coasting on doing just enough to secure the result. Same with Brazil with a pair of 2-0 victories over Costa Rica and Serbia were enough to see them through. Both teams have aspirations to regain the World Cup. If they do so, they’ll have to be firing on all cylinders to overcome what should be stouter competition than they have faced so far.

What about England?: A quick word on the Three Lions then. They had already secured passage to the knockout stages before facing Belgium and much of the talk in England was of maybe not going all out to win this match so as to avoid the “harder” side of the draw — which includes Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Mexico, Belgium and Brazil. Instead they happily took the loss today and are set to face off against Colombia, with progression likely meaning matching up against Sweden or Switzerland, then one of Spain, Russia, Denmark or Croatia. Despite having the tournament’s leading goal scorer in Harry Kane (5) and a defense that has only conceded 3 goals so far, there was an intense desire to land on the “easier” side of the knockout bracket. Well, mission accomplished. Now gotta go show that it was easier by winning it. Or football might not come home for a while longer.WC - 3 Lions

My Team of the Group Stages (4-4-2):

GK: Dominik Livakovic, Croatia

D: Josip Pivaric, Croatia/Miguel Layun, Mexico/Diego Godin, Uruguay/Miranda, Brazil

M: Luka Modric, Croatia/Denis Cheryshev, Russia/Juan Quintero, Colombia/Philippe Coutinho, Brazil

F: Harry Kane, England/Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

Bench: Fernando Muslera, G Uruguay/Marcelo, D Brazil/Yerry Mina, D Colombia/Viktor Claesson M, Sweden/Aleksandr Golovin, M Russia/Cristiano Ronaldo, F Portugal/Hirving Lozano, F Mexico

Match of the Group Stages: Have to go with Spain 3 – Portugal 3. I know it wasn’t the shock that Mexico-Germany created but for 90+ minutes, two good teams went at it and there was nothing separating them. It had it all, great goals — remember Costa’s turn and shot? Or the Nacho shot from distance that flew like a lightning bolt? — as well as great controversy — did Costa foul Pepe? — and a star-studded cast to rival most big club matches. Even when Pique fouled Ronaldo at the edge of the box, you just knew the Portuguese legend was going to find a way to curl that shot past David De Gea and into the net. Sure enough, he did. WC - Ronaldo vs DeGea

Goal of the Group Stages: I’ll give you a few because it’s tough to decide.

#5. Philippe Coutinho vs Switzerland

#4. Hirving Lozano vs Germany

#3. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Spain

#2. Tony Kroos vs Sweden

#1. Nacho vs Portugal

WC - CleanWhat Else Hasn’t Been Said?: I mean, there’s tons of stuff. Like Senegal and Japan fans each taking it upon themselves to clean up their sections after matches and how that seemed such a noble gesture in these odd times. Or how Mexican fans seemed to embrace every Korean person they could find after the Koreans beat Germany to help put them through. The craziness between Switzerland and Serbia and the Swiss players displaying the Albanian eagle — nearly costing the Swiss key players in the next match and inciting a small international incident. The presence of so many Latin American fans in Russia. Seeing Iranian fans at games free from some of the restrictions imposed on them back home. The sight of Diego Armando Maradona seemingly on the verge of cardiac arrest as Argentina advance by the slimmest of margins. I could go on but I better stop. Two weeks is a long time and this is just been the appetizer.

So with all that said…BRING ON THE KNOCKOUT STAGES!!!

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2018 FIFA World Cup Primer, Predictions & Pretty Pictures

The long wait is over and the time is at hand. Four years have passed since the last of the party in Brazil and now, we are hours away from the FIFA World Cup to kick off in Russia. What a strange and different world it is since those heady days. That’s what I appreciate the most about the World Cup on a personal level: it allows for reflection on where the world at large and I personally stand. Whether it was Mexico ’86 and watching it on my folks’ old tube in Nicaragua or USA ’94 and catching it on the road while on a school trip through the Rockies or Korea/Japan ’02 and staying up till 4 AM to catch a kickoff with my dad, every experience is somehow uniquely different even if the end result was always the same. I wonder what I’ll remember most of this World Cup.WC - Russia 2018

So as before, you are going to get a brief overview of every group, a player that you should be on the lookout for, a match that should be on your radar (if all of them isn’t a sufficient answer) and maybe a reason or two to pay attention to story lines you might hear told or repeated as the tournament progresses. Oh, and there’s some pretty pictures too. And not just of cute girls. I’m being more grown up now. Come on. Also, all the kickoff times I’m going to give will be for Central Standard Time. You figure it out when it is in your neck of the woods!

So with all that said, let’s get at it!

Group A: Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

Group Analysis: Ten years ago, the hosts were a precocious up-and-coming power. Unfortunately none of that promise was fulfilled in the interim. So they will go into this World Cup hoping that a little home cooking can be the difference between a group stage exit or making the knockout rounds. Sbornaya will have vets like Igor Akinfeev and Alan Dzagoev around to lead them. They will likely have to fight it out with Egypt to see who advances. The Pharaohs will boast Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny and the oldest player to ever play in a World Cup, 45-year-old keeper Essam El-Harady leading them. Uruguay will be the prohibitive favorites with a team that features both World Cup veterans like Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and young players like Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Betancur. Saudi Arabia, for their part, will have to show that they can hang with teams with more talent and cohesion than they bring.

Player to Watch: Mohamed Salah, forward, Egypt. How could it not be him? Scorer of 32 goals for Liverpool and Player of the Season in the Premier League, Salah was the spark in one of the most dynamic attacks in football this past season. He will be called on to lead the Pharaohs, who have yet to win a match in a World Cup (drawing 2 and losing 2 so far). Egypt will only go as far as Salah can take them — so pretty much the same as his club season. However, the news that his presence might still be touch and go due to his Champions League Final injury should concern Egypt and its fans. They cannot afford his absence.

Game to Watch: Egypt vs Russia, Tuesday 6/19, 1:00 PM. This is a potential decider for the second place spot if Uruguay keeps to their usual form. The Pharaohs don’t concede much while the hosts have yet to show what they really can do in pressure situations. They have not won a game in either the last World Cup or the last Euros — drawing 3 and losing 3 with a similarly-poor record in last year’s Confederations Cup. Point of fact is that only one host has failed to get out of the first stage of the competition: South Africa in 2010. That’s not the kind of history the Russians want to join in. 

WC - Russia FansReason to Watch: Can Luis Suarez go one World Cup without controversy? Eight years ago, it was his handball against Ghana in the dying moments of extra time. Four years ago, it was his bite on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. Suarez is one of this generation’s best strikers and yet there’s always a caveat about his behavior on this stage. Some might chalk that to an overdeveloped sense of competitiveness. Fact is Uruguay need him to be on his best behavior to succeed. This is likely the last chance for players like him, Cavani, Diego Godin and Martin Caceres.

Winner: Uruguay. Second Place: Egypt.

Group B: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran

Group Analysis: The top two powers in this group crashed out of the World Cup four years ago in ignominy. At least Portugal was able to redeem themselves by winning the Euros two years later. They bring a mix of youth and experience and one Cristiano Ronaldo along for the ride. Spain still boast a ton of talent from these last few tournaments — in particular, a midfield that has the likes of Andres Iniesta, Isco and David Silva. For their part, Morocco will hope that defensive strength can see them take points off the Iberian giants if they want any chance to advance. Iran, making the World Cup for the second time in a row, will be pushing for an upset. In truth, it’s down to the two big nations to brush aside any concerns of past failures and prove they can step up in this stage once again.

Player to Watch: Isco, midfielder, Spain. What? Not Cristiano? While the three-time Ballon D’or Winner is a known quantity, the time has come for a new generation of Spanish midfielders to take the places of stalwarts like Xavi and Iniesta. With 9 goals this past season for Real Madrid, Isco appears ready to step into that hole and be the lynchpin of La Furia Roja. He has proven himself to be a leader for Spain – helping them win the U-21 Euros in 2013. While players like Iniesta and David Silva enter their twilight, the 26-year-old is in his prime. It’s time to show he has what it takes to be the next great Spanish midfielder. No pressure.   

Game to Watch: Portugal vs Spain, Friday 6/15, 1:00 PM. The Iberian clash comes early and could help show which of these two giants will top the group. Both of them know all about how a bad first match ruins a tournament — Spain’s 5-1 loss to the Dutch and Portugal’s 4-0 loss to the Germans, both in 2014, fresh in their memory. In a match loaded with glittering attacking stars, it could come down to the defenses as to who walks away the winner.

Reason to Watch: The two Iberian teams are teams in transition, from one “golden” generation to the next. We already mentioned Spain giving way from the Iniestas and the Piques to Iscos and Marco Asensios but Portugal is also on a similar path. They are balancing what’s likely the final World Cup for the likes of Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Moutinho, Bruno Alves and Pepe to up and comers like Bernardo Silva, Gelson Martins, Andre Silva and Bruno Fernandes. They have that Euros 2016 success with them and might want to replicate the trajectory La Furia Roja took of Euros success leading to triumph in the World Cup. In any case, enjoy these wonderful players for the last time.

Winner: Spain. Second Place: Portugal.  

WC - Russia CitiesGroup C: France, Denmark, Peru, Australia

Group Analysis: Let’s be quick here – anything but Les Bleus topping this group will be seen as a shock. France is bringing a star-studded team to Russia and their mission is to recapture the top prize, which they haven’t in 20 years. Their players all feature at the top of the game with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante’ and Raphael Varane in charge. The only team that appears ready to give the French a fight is the Danes, led by Christian Eriksen, Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjaer. The Socceroos meanwhile bring a bunch of talent both from the A-League and the lower leagues of Europe as well as the eternally-young Tim Cahill with the hopes of making some noise. As for Peru, there is a mix of local talent and players who’ve moved onto bigger pastures like Jefferson Farfan, Yoshimar Yotun, Andy Polo, Christian Cueva and Christian Ramos. They could be one of those disciplined sides that surprises opponents.

Player to Watch: Christian Eriksen, midfielder, Denmark. It would have been easy to pick Griezmann or Pogba, but fact is that the French can sustain one of their stars having a poor tournament and still win it all. ANYTHING Denmark does in this tournament will rely on the Tottenham midfielder to do for his nation what he does for his club. He has scored more goals for his nation (21) than all their forwards called up to this World Cup (17 between them). A great World Cup could push Eriksen (age 26) to the uppermost echelons of the game and maybe create an even greater demand for his services from the biggest clubs.

Game to Watch: Denmark vs France, Tuesday 6/26, 9 AM. No surprises here. The two European powers could be going into their last match in the group stages with nothing to play for but pride. OR they could be needing a victory to determine top seeding. OR one of them could be on the verge of elimination. Put simply: this match could determine so much for the teams taking part and their ability to progress in the knockout stages.

Reason to Watch: The French. Like I said, they enter the World Cup as many an expert’s pick to lift the trophy. But win or lose, Les Bleus are never boring. Win it all in 1998. Crash out in the group stages in 2002. Reach the Final in 2006 and lose it with Zidane’s header becoming the image of that tournament. Have a player boycott in South Africa in 2010. Things were more by the book in 2014 but that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t change in a moment’s notice for France. They carry stars everywhere on their squad — like Germany or Brazil, they could fashion a good team from those who did not make it here — but talented teams have fallen short at the World Cup before.

Winner: France. Second Place: Denmark.

Group D: Argentina, Nigeria, Croatia, Iceland

WC - FishtGroup Analysis: Everything starts with the Albicelestes here. After coming up just short in Brazil, Argentina is hoping they can put together one final run to regain that elusive World Cup trophy last won in 1986. They bring their team loaded with stars led by Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala to make that happen. The rest of the group is made up of fashionable dark horse candidates to make some noise. Croatia has been that team expected to make the leap into next great power for years and now most of their best players like Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic are 30 or over. Nigeria meanwhile brings their awesome kit and a feisty team full of young stars like Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho. For their part, Iceland will look to repeat their Euros 2016 form and surprise teams with their unity and grit and hope Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alfred Finnbogason can score enough to see them shock the world once again.

Player to Watch: Lionel Messi, forward, Argentina. He is the best player in the world. He has won everything there is to win for his club. However, for his nation, his highest achievements were the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship and the Gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Despite reaching several finals with the senior squad, Messi has not had the same success and everyone in Argentina is quick to point that out. While only 30, the likelihood is that this is his last, best chance to lead his nation to the title that’s eluded them for 32 years. He already retired once after coming up short in the Copa America. But win a World Cup and his name will ring alongside the likes of Maradona in his home nation.

Game to Watch: Nigeria vs Argentina, Tuesday 6/26, 1:00 PM. The blue bloods vs the new kids. The traditional power vs the hot new team. There’s plenty of talent and capacity in both squads and while a loss should not derail Argentina from their quest, it would not be outside the realm of possibility. If anything, coming at the last Matchday, it could create a dynamic where Argentina needs not to lose but Nigeria needs a win.

Reason to Watch: Nigeria, Croatia and Iceland have all been, at one point or another, the hip choice for supporters who have no team to get behind. They’re all non-traditional soccer nations. They’ve all had golden generations or players who managed to woo fans around the globe — think of the Nigerians of 1994 or the Croatia of Euros 2008 or Iceland of Euros 2016. Lots and lots of people will be getting behind these teams and hoping that, given a chance, they finally put it all together and deliver on the promise of their talent. So which one steps up?

Winner: Argentina. Second Place: Nigeria.

Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Group Analysis: Brazil has found a way from the depths of the failures of four years ago and they enter this World Cup with a mission to finally add that sixth star to their famous kit. Their usually-loaded team is no different this time with names like Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Casemiro and Fred all along for the ride. Anything but winning this group would be seen as a disaster. That leaves the Swiss, Ticos and Serbs to battle it for second place. Switzerland brings a solid team of veterans who all know one another, led by Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Stephan Lichsteiner. Costa Rica proved it can shock bigger teams last time and return much of the same team that surprised in Brazil including Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. Serbia, for their part, proved they could qualify with ease with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Mitrovic the key for them. Any one of them could end up taking that second place spot. It might even come down to who can limit the damage the Brazilians do to them.

WC - BrazilPlayer to Watch: Neymar, forward, Brazil. I tried to think of anyone else but fact is the star wearing Brazil’s famous Number 10 kit is the man of the hour. Once again, the team is built around his talents and having a number of talented teammates surrounding him, all eyes are on him to lead Brazil towards the Sextacampeão. Such expectations proved costly last time but that was on home soil. He’s already rich, talented and famous. He’s already played at some of the biggest clubs. All the same, if Neymar wants his name to join the likes of Pele, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and the other legends of the Selecao, he’s gotta win one.  

Game to Watch: Brazil vs Costa Rica, Friday 6/22, 1:00 PM. Let me just say that I fully expect Brazil to win this group. BUT if the Ticos are going to continue their giant-slaying ways, then they’re presented with the biggest giant of them all here. This could all be one-way traffic when it’s all said and done but Costa Rica did rather well in qualifying and brings back players that won’t be awed by their occasion or their opposition. Anything can happen…..

Reason to Watch: With all the glamor going the Selecao’s way, let’s consider the Swiss and the Serbs, both of whom bring lots of young and interesting talent. Switzerland has Xhaka, Seferovic, Shaqiri, Schar and Rodriguez all 26 or younger and already key contributors for both club and country. For their part, the Swiss have Milinkovic-Savic, Mitrovic and Randonjic along with others. Some of them are playing for the biggest clubs of the biggest leagues while others are waiting to burst out and show themselves. This could be the World Cup where one of these nations announces themselves.

Winner: Brazil. Second Place: Switzerland

Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Group Analysis: The Champs are here! The World Cup champions return to defend their crown. At first glance, they should have no problems qualifying to the knockout stages. For all their talent, it’s the fact that they’ve experience and youth in their squad that should scare — only Manuel Neuer and Mario Gomez are over 30. Meanwhile Mexico bring a squad full of players who ply their trade in Europe — Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado and Chicharito Hernandez amongst them. The Swedes, who managed to beat Italy to the final spot in this World Cup, will be trying to prove they belong against bigger nations with Emil Forsberg their key player. As for South Korea, they’ll go as far as Son Heung-min takes them. He’s their spark-plug and if he and Ki Sung-yueng aren’t firing, it may be another short stay in a World Cup for the Taegeuk Tigers.

Player to Watch: Mesut Ozil, midfielder, Germany. Eight years ago, the German was a revelation for the up-and-coming Mannschaft. In that time, he has only gone to become one of the game’s biggest names, known for his vision and passing ability. That said, his mercurial nature and difficulty in applying his talents to every match have earned him as many detractors as he has supporters. Claims of being lazy or not running or being uninterested continue to hound him. He’s unlikely to be the goal-scorer who’ll push Germany up — bet on Thomas Mueller there — but if he is the lynch-pin of the team, he could go a long way towards quieting his critics. No one argues with a two-time World Cup Champion.

Game to Watch: Germany vs Mexico, Sunday 6/17, 10:00 AM. The glamor match in this group pits Die Mannschaft against El Tri. While they will be favored, there is no room for errors or mistakes for Germany. Given the short three-match format, a fast start and a victory are the favored outcome but it’s unlikely Mexico will just hand them over. I’m not saying Mexico will upset the Germans but if they do, it could create a harder road for Germany to advance. And the second place team in this group gets the winner of Group E — which should be Brazil.

WC - German celebrationReason to Watch: All eyes will be the Germans as they try to accomplish something not seen in 56 years: repeat as World Cup Champions. The problem for Germany is that history is not on their side. Defending World Cup champs haven’t fared well recently, with three of the last four (Spain, Italy, France) crashing out in the Group stages with only a single win between them. Only 4 teams have even made it all the way back to the Final, with only Italy and Brazil defending their crowns in 1938 and 1962 respectively. In short, even with all their talent, the smart money should not be on them to pull it off.

Winner: Germany. Second Place: Mexico.

Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

Group Analysis: Belgium, the eternal dark horse, arrive at this World Cup as one of the prohibitive favorites thanks to a bevy of talent that features amongst the best clubs in the world. They have experience, speed and talent in the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois. That also brings expectations. Not that it’ll be easy to live up to them with England and Tunisia around. The Three Lions bring their own squad of talented youth to Russia, led by Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. For their part, the Eagles of Carthage return to the World Cup on the back of a side built on players like Wahbi Khazri and Ferjani Sassi. They’re not always pretty but they get the job done and their tenacity could prove tough for the bigger sides. As for Panama, this is rarefied air for them as they make the World Cup for the first time in their history. They’ll rely on some local talent and some MLS stars to try and make some noise but they might not be long for Russia.

Player to Watch: Harry Kane, forward, England. Could have taken any of the Belgian stars here, but I think for England to go anywhere then the Tottenham star must be at the forefront and scoring. His meteoric rise for country mirrors his rise in club football: four years ago he was on the U-21 team. Today he is the captain of the Three Lions. So far he has 24 goals in 13 matches for the senior side but scoring comes at a premium in the World Cup. England usually qualifies out of group but they have not reached a Final since they won it all in 1966 and not made a semifinal since 1990. If that is to change, then Kane has to be as lethal and opportunistic a finisher as he normally is.

Game to Watch: England vs Belgium, Thursday 6/28, 1:00 PM CST. This game could very well decide who wins the group and who comes in second. Besides that, we have a bevy of Premier League stars for both sides taking on one another: from Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Kompany and Alderweireld for Belgium to Kane, Sterling, Vardy, Lingard, Henderson, and Rashford for England. In short, this game could end up being a high-scoring affair OR it could devolve into a free-for-all given how well players know one another. Either way, it should be interesting.

WC - Russia MountainsReason to Watch: Not to get all geopolitical for a moment but let’s consider that relations between some of these nations and the hosts are not on the best of terms. Now to be fair, this isn’t new. England fans and Russia fans clashed on the streets of Marseille two years ago during Euro 2016. Russian authorities have banned the sale of alcohol to England fans 24 hours before their matches. There’s the specter of former Russian agents murdered in England and how the responsibility was cast on the Russian government with talk of boycotts and bans flying back and forth. There’s also the little matter of Brexit still going on in Britain and how “Brussels” (the European Union’s de facto capital) was portrayed in the UK. That would be the Brussels in Belgium. Tunisia and Panama might just sit back and enjoy the Eurocentric fireworks!

Winner: England.  Second Place: Belgium.

Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Group Analysis: Four years ago, the Colombians were a revelation. Led by James Rodriguez, they took Brazil by fury — sometimes literally. They bring back many of the stars of that run: James, Carlos Bacca, Juan Cuadrado and David Ospina among them as well as the healthy Radamel Falcao. They’ll battle the Poles, who top this group with ease. Not only is Robert Lewandowski here to score goals, but they bring loads of veteran talent like Grzegroz Krychowiak, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Piszczek. But after missing the last two World Cups, time may be running out for them to deliver on their promise. Meanwhile Japan brings their old stars for one more go at the World Cup. Players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa are unlikely to return next time. As for Senegal, everything starts with Sadio Mane’ up front and Cheikhou Kouyate’ in midfield. They’ll be leading the Lions of Teranga into their first World Cup in 16 years — where they made the quarterfinals.

Player to Watch: James Rodriguez, midfielder, Colombia. Four years ago, the Colombian was a sensation as the top scorer of the tournament. Since then he moved from Monaco to Real Madrid, found it tough to maintain a place with all the other galacticos and has been loaned to Bayern Munich where he’s been a key piece of their title-winning sides. None of this has affected his impact for los Cafeteros, where he’s second in goals with 21 in the current squad. He has to be the architect for his side to progress in this tournament.

Game to Watch: Poland vs Colombia, Sunday 6/24, 1:00 PM. Another potential group decider. The Bialo-Czerwoni vs Los Cafeteros appear as the two teams ready to vie for this group and a meeting in Matchday 2 gives them a chance to stake their claim most clearly. Both sides bring experienced talent and have shown an ability to mount a challenge in tournaments. So it’ll be interesting to see them both go at it for group supremacy.

Reason to Watch: If you have been paying attention, you will notice I’ve not uttered the term “Group of Death” at all in this preview. The reason is simple. There is no Group of Death in this World Cup. While there’s a couple of groups where seeding might be an issue, most tend to have a clear distinction between who will progress and who will likely head home. All but this group. There’s a case that any one of these teams could feel strongly about progressing to the knockout stages. Maybe not win the group outright but definitely take enough from the others to find themselves drawn into a Round of 16 clash against the winner of Group G. That ought to make this group one of the toughest to win.

Winner: Colombia. Second Place: Poland.

So with all that said…LET THE GAMES BEGIN! It’s non-stop footie for 30 days and we won’t come up for air until July 15!

WC - Russia Fans 2

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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” Review: “Times When You’re Alone”

Solo - PosterWhen the Star Wars Story Anthology movies were presented as a project, I gotta say that I was excited. Obviously, more Star Wars is good for me. The idea of movies that were not part of the main Episodic sequence and thus free to explore different ideas, characters and stories. They could go darker. They could hire any single director they wanted without fear of long-term impact. They did not have to feature Jedis or Sith. No one needed to have “plot armor.” In short, there was freedom in the concept that may not have been present in the traditional series.  

So I guess the surprising thing is the number of issues that Lucasfilm/Disney have had making their first two films. Rogue One had delays and reshoots and rumors of the firing of director Gareth Edwards. His name is still attached at the credits but the tonal shift between the first half of that movie and its second half is obvious. Scenes shown in trailers and marketing disappeared from the final product and not in a “we were trying to avoid spoilers” way. Similar issues plagued Solo, with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller eventually fired and replaced with Ron Howard. Word of reshoots, of concerns with the new Han Solo, of how audiences would react to the story all leaked once again. So…was it all worth it?

Solo fills in the backstory for everyone’s favorite galactic smuggler/scoundrel. Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is a street urchin from the mean streets of Corellia, working for the gang of Lady Proxima. He and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) hope to escape one day and travel the stars. However, things don’t go as planned and they are separated. The story follows Han as he makes his way from Corellia through his stint in the Empire’s military to his defection and turn back to a life of crime. Along the way he comes in contact with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his wife, Val (Thandie Newton) who have a mission for crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and his top lieutenant. To complete it, this crew will need Captain Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his droid partner L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as well as his ship, the Millenium Falcon. And somewhere in this quest, Han will meet the partner that will be by his side for most of his life: the Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo).

Solo - Han & ChewieI will give props to Ehrenreich in this: it takes huge huevos to try and step into the boots of Han Solo. This isn’t like trying to be a new James Bond or even a new Doctor. For everyone around, Harrison Ford has been Han Solo — as recently as three years ago in The Force Awakens, mind you. The memory of Ford is still present and strong with everyone as Lucasfilms tries to expand the Star Wars universe. And while a CGI Carrie Fisher stood in at the end of Rogue One, such a trick would have been impossible here. Han is front and center through most of this movie because it is his movie. So carrying that burden and those expectations had to be tough.

Ehrenreich does the smart thing and avoids making his performance a parlor trick of imitating Harrison Ford. Instead he goes for a younger, more wide-eyed Han who, though stuck on the loser’s end of life, has yet to have his optimism browbeaten out of him. He thinks and acts as if he can either outrun, outfly or out-talk his way out of any problem — which is a core component of his character. He refuses to take no for an answer and he’s more likely to try and talk or solve his way out of problems than shoot his way. Again, he’s not yet the cocky smuggler who would shoot a bad guy first at this point in his evolution. And Ehrenreich gets this right.

Of the other cast members, Clarke and Harrelson are doing the femme fatale and the reluctant surrogate father. It’s interesting to see Clarke away from her “Game of Thrones” leading role and having to play someone who is conniving and conflicted. She knows more than she is letting on at all times. Harrelson, for his part, is playing the older, wiser, more world-weary version of what Han will one day become — his only relationship worth anything being that with Newton’s Val. Bettany’s Dryden Vos is your standard fare criminal bad guy: smooth talker with a violent streak that comes out of nowhere.

Solo - LandoThe performances that stand out and steal the movie are those by Glover as Lando and Waller-Bridge as L3-37. Glover is everything you’ve heard: he’s smart, he’s smooth, he’s cool and he is the younger version of Billy Dee Williams’ classic character that you didn’t know you needed. In short, if he is getting his own movie, it’s well deserved. His partner in crime, L3-37, is just the latest of awesome robots we have gotten from the new Star Wars movies like K-2SO and BB-8. Waller-Bridge infuses her with sass, personality and a cause that’s unique in all the Star Wars universe. The choices she makes are both obvious and surprising.

But the character and relationship that I think surprised me the most was that between Han and Suotamo’s Chewie. You would think that, given we’ve seen them in four movies, we would know all there is about those two. But knowing how they meet is an interesting journey all the same. We take them for granted given that we met them together in A New Hope but these characters do not know each other like that in this story. They are having to earn each other’s trust throughout their adventures here and it’s fun to see them acknowledge how they can lean on one another to stay alive. For all the moments that Solo puts here that we know have to happen, the first time Han and Chewie sit together at the controls of the Falcon did give me a jolt of joy.

Written by Lawrence Kasdan (he of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens fame) and his son Jonathan, Solo looks to strike a more adventurous tone than any of the previous Star Wars movies. Yes, the Empire is very much here. Yes, there are hints at the Rebellion that is forming against it. But none of the characters are much invested in such ideas. These characters are all rogues through and through — each one looking to get as much over on the powers at large and each other to achieve the wealth they covet for their own goals. The story and its tone are light because of that. This is more akin to a heist movie like Ocean’s Eleven than it is anything resembling Star Wars.

Solo - Qi'ra & HanThus we are, for once, freed from the Saga’s tropes of big battle sequences, Jedi vs Sith lightsaber duels or The Force. Instead the movie is built around a variety of action heist and escape pieces like the train robbery on Vandor or the epic Kessel Run. It’s in these moments where Solo really gets to shine as it allows its cast of rogues, pirates, thieves and scoundrels to get on with doing what they do best. I won’t be spoiling anything by saying that none of the plans conceived of by Beckett, Han or Qi’ra go quite according to plan but the fun of any heist is seeing how the heroes get away with it. And while we may think we know how things are going to work out given our knowledge of the movies that followed this one chronologically, it still finds a surprise or two along the way. Give Ron Howard credit for this: he knows how to give you moments of tension and excitement when they are needed.

Where Solo struggles is to give us the emotional journey that it could potentially have had. After all, when we meet Han and Chewie in the Cantina, we meet characters who are self-serving, desperate and amoral. They’re in it for Number 1. The characters we meet in this movie have not yet had all their naivete stripped from them. Oh sure, particularly Chewie is found in some dire straits and his need to find his tribe is strong, but with Han, we only see the start of his change into that character. Even though he’s lying and scheming his way to get ahead from the first scene, Han is not yet the guy who’d shoot someone standing in his way first. I wonder if, despite the desire for single, anthology movies, they hoped that they could bring back Ehrenreich, Suotamu and Howard to make a sequel where we got to explore Han’s relationship with Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, Greedo and the rest of the scum of Tattooine before he met Obi-Wan and Luke.

This is perhaps the hill that Solo fails to overcome. It has a lead protagonist we care about and characters that we can root for from the outset. These are not the grand heroes of space opera. They are not vested with “Chosen One” status by a greater power than they. If anything, Solo has the most human of all the tales ever told in a Star Wars movie. For in a galaxy so corrupt that it grinds and uses lives carelessly, the only choice many sane sentient beings can make is to turn to a life of crime and abandon any hope for greater meaning. To find a fast ship and make off for the parts that are not under the heel of an oppressive dictatorship and try to find a way to keep food in your belly and fuel in your baby. In short, we should all want to be Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Solo - TrainSo what to make of Solo: A Star Wars Story? It’s a fun movie. I will not deny that at all. The action pieces are a treat. It’s great to spend more time in a galaxy far, far away. And we get to see moments and places we have only heard spoken of in other stories. It does not reach the emotional heights of Rogue One, but I don’t know that it was trying for them. It’s not looking to reinvent the wheel or shake things up. That is enough here. After all, people are still freaking out about the new and different scruffy-looking nerf herder and how he’s not the other guy.

Perhaps, much like we had to do last Christmas with The Last Jedi, it’s important to recalibrate what our expectations of a “Star Wars” movie are. Not that I mind particularly as it pertains to this “A Star Wars Story” Anthology series. There are built-in advantages that I hope Lucasfilm works with to give us new and different and fun movies. And I do hope the stories do not just become “Well, let’s check in with this Original Trilogy character and see what he/she was up to.” Otherwise it could run out of steam really fast.

Do we need to see a Yoda movie where he spends thirty years learning to live on Dagobah?

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Arsenal Review: The New Boss, Not Same as the Old Boss?


AFC - EmerySo just a quick couple of thoughts with the bombshell “rumor” that was dropped this afternoon by the BBC’s David Ornstein AKA the Ornacle AKA the Most Trusted Media Voice on All Things Arsenal. The long and short of it? After flirting for a week or so with hiring former Arsenal captain and current Manchester City staff coach Mikel Arteta, the board had decided give the job of new Arsenal manager to former Valencia/Sevilla/Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery.

And Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else Gooners congregate went mental. And I think some stayed mental.

To be fair, the rumor of a meeting between Emery and the new power trust at Emirates had surfaced around the weekend. However, sandwiched between rumors of an interview with former Gunner legend Thierry Henry for the job as well as those of Arteta house-hunting in London, there was not much of an inkling that they would lead anywhere. If anything, it felt like further cover for the fait accompli hire of Arteta like so many of the other rumors. By that point, we had heard of “talks” with everyone from Juventus boss Max Allegri to former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique to former Arsenal legend/current NYCFC coach/future Nice manager Patrick Vieira. And yet, the name that kept coming back was Mikel Arteta. Like I said, it felt like it was all done but the shouting.

So the idea that today we’d hear that the name of a different Spaniard as the possible replacement for long-time boss Arsene Wenger came entirely out of the blue. To be honest, had it been tweeted out by anyone other than Ornstein, I think it might have been dismissed. However, given his record and how his connections have proven accurate with those in charge at Arsenal, that when he sent that message, there was no one around to doubt it. Just this past January, it was Ornstein who was first to reveal the Alexis Sanchez-for-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap and he was foremost in reporting the various twists and turns that resulted in the transfer of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund. Put simply: the man does not deal in shit rumors.

Just like that, all the coming to terms Gooners worldwide had done to accept Arteta as the next manager disappeared. And, if I’m surprised, a lot of people responded with anger and vitriol at the news.

AFC - ArtetaConsider that just a few days prior there were many Arsenal supporters openly floating conspiracy theories about Arteta being the board’s man and the only choice that they wanted to make. That the new power structure at Arsenal had given only scant attention to Allegri and Enrique due to financial recalcitrance, unwillingness to spend on the transfer market or a desire to not be challenged by a strong manager after finally riding themselves of the strongest force at the club. The theories went that, because Arteta was a man without a minute of experience as the manager of a club — any club —  he would be amenable to being a voice within the new structure and would not seek to wrest power from the new triumvirate of club president Ivan Gazidis, football director Raul Sanhelli and head of recruiting Sven Mislintat.

So can someone explain to me how the hiring of Emery somehow morphed into the safe choice for the board and Arteta morphed into the daring, courageous choice? Because there were many Gooners and media members pushing that idea. That hiring the former manager of clubs like Valencia, Sevilla and PSG was what the board wanted to do all along and they had let their chance for some out-of-the-box rebel hire go. I mean…the whiplash it caused was hurtful!

Look, I’ve maintained that, in some ways, the hiring of Wenger’s successor was always going to be difficult because it would not cause the massive, immediate shift everyone wanted. More importantly, the supporters would all have to come to terms with the new kind of managers after living and breathing the words of one man for twenty-two years. Arsene Wenger was, as I said, the last of the old gunslingers. He was the kind of man who turned down Real Madrid on several occasions because of the love and loyalty he felt for Arsenal. He was also a manager in the old sense of the word — a man who oversaw every department and installed himself as the ultimate arbiter in all footballing decisions.

No man was going to get that much power after he left. Modern managers/coaches are too focused on the day-to-day of tactics and coaching and have accepted the inclusion of directors of football and other front office personnel to oversee areas like transfers and scouting. In many ways, top flight football was becoming more like American football — where there is a head coach, coordinators and position coaches and all they worry about is gameplan and execution while a general manager/president sits in the front office and worries about contracts, scouting and player acquisition. Arsene rejected such a system even as the rest of the top superclubs adopted it. From the old Bayern Munchen three-headed monster of Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer to the boards at Barcelona and Real Madrid headed by Josep Maria Bartomeu and Florentino Perez respectively, the world is no longer one of an all-powerful big man making all the decisions. Even the top managers of the game like Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have accepted this arrangement. They coach the team. They are not the boss.

AFC - Emery 2Emery has had that experience in spades, working first with current AS Roma director of football Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo AKA Monchi at Sevilla FC and, most recently, with Jean-Claude Blanc and Antero Henrique at Paris Saint-Germain.  That the current Arsenal power figures would see a natural fit with him is not that surprising. I don’t doubt they thought the same about Mikel Arteta. The difference seems to be one of Emery’s experience trumping Arteta’s knowledge of the situation inside London Colney.

Aside from a short, disastrous spell at Spartak Moscow, Emery has won wherever he has managed. He helped his first club Lorca jump to La Liga B for the first time ever. Then, he repeated the same trick at Almeria; helping them move up to La Liga. That got him his shot at Valencia where, despite Los Che’s infamous financial troubles, he got them to third place on three seasons with the help of David Villa and David Silva. However, his most glittering spell was at Sevilla, where he led a team that won the Europa League back-to-back-to-back. This got him the PSG job where he led a team of stars to this most recent Ligue 1 title as well as back-to-back Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue cup wins. He is spoken of as a detailed-oriented manager, one who focuses on the little things and works with every one of his players to try and get the most out of them. Unlike Arsene Wenger, Emery is not someone to just stick to his Plan A because that is the way he wants to play.

The instant criticism of Emery is that any manager could have won in Paris with the talent on hand. That he did not win it his first year there stands somehow as an even greater black mark against him. I wonder if these folks think the same of Pep Guardiola for not winning the Premier League in his first season. There is also criticism of his methods — that he uses video footage to try and drill players, that he can be a pushover to strong players and that he can be dismissed outright by whatever culture the club instills. Of course, a lot of those criticisms stem from this recent two-year run as manager of PSG — a club that is dominated by its superstars. I mean, when Carlo Ancelotti isn’t getting them to do what he wants, how is Emery?

I said I was going to be quick, so let me wrap up. I will support whoever is hired as the next manager of Arsenal Football Club. If that is Unai Emery, so be it. If that is Mikel Arteta, that’s fine. If that’s Thierry Henry, OK. Of far greater importance is for Gooners to start accepting the new paradigm. Whoever is hired as the next boss won’t be the boss for twenty-plus years like Arsene Wenger was. Even if, somehow, he manages to coach, lead and claw his way to the top of the mountain for the club, the fact is he won’t be here for decades. That is not the way of modern football or much of modern sports.

AFC - Pep

The pressures at the highest levels of the game are so that the top men do not last long. Not anymore. Look at Pep Guardiola. He burned out at Barcelona after winning everything. He took a year off and went to manage Bayern Munich but did not like it there and left to move to Manchester City — a club that had been building its infrastructure specifically for him. He may have just signed an extension to his original deal, taking him to 2021. While he could opt to stay, I think he will look to leave Etihad Stadium at that time. And he’s not the only who speaks of that non-stop pressure to deliver victories, titles and trophies to his club.

The world of the modern football manager is of short stays at clubs, constantly moving up or down according to the verisimilitudes of fate and the football gods. You take a chance and lead a small club to ascendancy and a bigger club asks you to bring your bag of magic with you to help them. If it works there, an even bigger club asks the same and so on until you get one of the superclubs. But that bag of magic isn’t perfect and sometimes it does not work. Sometimes you fail and get kicked down a peg or two. Or you get enough of a stay of execution that the magic comes back again.

I think we all ought to be ready for this new world. If it’s Unai Emery, at best, he will be at Arsenal for 4-5 years and then Real Madrid or Barcelona will come calling. At worst, he will not help Arsenal climb the Premier League ladder and the club will rid themselves of him in 2 seasons and the search for a new manager will begin. Maybe that will be Mikel Arteta. Or Patrick Vieira. Or Thierry Henry. Or Max Allegri. Or Thomas Tuchel. Or….

We have left the staid shores of the past, Gooners. Adapt accordingly. It’s what we were all asking for.AFC - Bye

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Arsenal Review: Fin

AFC - The CoatI’ve taken about three or four different cracks at this piece. Every time it devolves into a listing of accomplishments, events, highs, lows, failures and successes. It becomes a repetition of dates, transfers, matches, moments, etc. How could it not? In trying to encapsulate twenty-two years of service at one position, it’s very difficult to grasp the full breadth of all of that without falling back into some sort of easy mechanism to make it all digestable. But easy as it is, it’s also a bit cheap and does not really capture the totality of Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal as its manager.

I guess I could start at the end and make my way back.

When the announcement was made on April 20 of this year that Arsene Wenger would be stepping down as manager of Arsenal Football Club, a sort of weird acceptance hit me. Given the nature of the season up to that point — languishing in 6th place on the table, out of the FA Cup, relying on the Europa League for a shining moment in a dark and disappointing season — it was not surprising. Like many Gooners, I too had reached the conclusion that the time was approaching for his departure. Heck, I was certain that he was ready to walk last season before the FA Cup triumph against Chelsea and a new two-year contract was signed.

That feeling on Arsene reaching his nadir was a result of the decline in form of the team. Spending millions on bringing players like Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka, Rob Holding, Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal had not had the effect we had hoped for in restoring the old verve to the side. If anything, Arsenal seemed more than most to be impacted by the quality of everyone around them and rarely the ones driving their own success. Where other teams were able to bring in talent and mount a new challenge — notice Chelsea winning the League, falling to 10th, then winning the League again — Arsenal were comfortably mired in their position as the 4th-5th best team in England depending on the season.

If anything, the last few seasons have featured the same story: a poor patch of form either before or (more often) after the holiday fixture period where the club fell away from contention in both the League and Europe. The reasons for this poor form were often the result of losing a key player to injury but no solutions would be found in time to keep any sort of momentum. This often resulted in some sort of firefighting move — a switch in formation, moving in a new player into a position, partnering two players who’d never partnered before, a change in mindset from attacking to defending — that would sort things out to ensure Top 4 qualification. You could almost set your watch by the story.

Soccer - Arsene Wenger FilersObviously it was not always thus. Soon after he arrived in North London in 1996, Arsene set about building a team that would be known around the world for its verve, its vitality and its ability to dominate possession with style and flair. This ethos, this identity, has remained with the club since and become the reason for why so many people felt drawn to the club. “Wengerball” as it came to be called dominated the attention for many from the late 90s until today. Yes, it has become less visible in recent years, but as has been seen when the team is firing, it can turn on a style that’s dazzling. For a club best known for their 1-0 victories and their defensive mindset, perhaps the biggest change Arsene Wenger brought was an affiliation between beautiful football and Arsenal Football Club. To the point that it was not rare to hear world-class stars like Kaka’ and Messi answer that they would yearn at times to play for the French manager’s most imperious sides.

Much of that dazzling display was down to the gems that Arsene Wenger unearthed at the club. It has now passed into legend how he demanded to former chairman David Dein sign A.C. Milan’s wantaway midfielder Patrick Vieira. Arsene’s ability to move in the transfer market seemed like alchemy at times. Lose Nicolas Anelka? Bring on Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord. Lose Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars? Find Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires. Vieira wants to move on? Let him go and bring in Cesc Fabregas. When Henry was ready to go, there were Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie ready to step in. Even in defense, Arsene would find gems the likes of Lauren, Kolo Toure and Laurent Koscielny in far flung places like Cote D’Ivoire and France’s Serie B. All of this — the intelligence in the transfer market, the forward-thinking tactics, even the famous nutritional changes that Arsene brought — all extended from the genius of the man in charge.

When he arrived in England, everyone was quick to wonder if Arsene was a football manager. Tony Adams referred to him as a “schoolteacher.” People considered the erudite, economics degree holding, Frenchman coming over from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan as an odd hire. He spoke on topics that went far beyond the realm of traditional football managers. He spoke about world affairs, politics, economics and social issues. Arsene was willing to engage in any topic or discussion regardless of whether it focused on football or not. And he was willing to discuss the harder topics in the game. He beat the drum for financial fair play before anyone else considered it. He discussed doping in football (only for UEFA to send drugs testers to the training ground days later).

AFC - HenryIn fact, the only thing he was not willing to discuss was the inner workings of the club. He never cast aspersions on a single player — even those that were quick to throw daggers at the club on their way out. Arsene positioned himself as the shield for the club’s failings and shortcomings. When the club came up short in 1998-99, it was Arsene who took responsibility. As the club went on a run of seasons without a trophy after moving to Emirates Stadium, it was Arsene standing in front and taking on all responsibility for what seemed to be a repeating cycle of hope, disappointment and misery. As the members of “Project Youth” quickly abandoned the club for greener pastures, it was up to Arsene to figure out how to retool and keep going. And despite the impact of their departures, he was never anything but supportive of their endeavors and unwilling to castigate them for jumping ship.

Let’s also be fair to the man: he took on not just one, but two massive projects at the same time when Arsenal decided to leave Highbury. On the one hand, he had to adjust to life at Emirates Stadium and a smaller budget for transfers even as the Premier League’s success meant that the edge in the transfer market the club held was disappearing. While Chelsea was busy splashing Abramovich’s cash and Manchester United was flexing its corporate muscle, Arsenal were learning to live within their means. With less cash to find and buy the future stars who could join the current squad, the decision was made to move in a new direction. This meant that a lot of the Invincibles had to be allowed to leave — as their cost could not be borne by the club any more. Enter the second project: build a competitive squad with young players who’d be loyal to the club as they matured aka “Project Youth.”

Here’s the thing: it almost worked. Swapping Vieira, Henry and Bergkamp for Fabregas, Adebayor and Nasri almost netted Arsenal titles in 2008 and 2010 before injuries, poor form, naivete and cynicism would derail it all. Whether it was finding Bakary Sagna, Eduardo da Silva, Alex Song or Tomas Rosicky, Arsene Wenger was able to find great talent still while competing with Chelsea, Manchester United, the rising Manchester City and the other petro-fueled clubs around Europe. He convinced a teenager named Aaron Ramsey to choose Arsenal over Manchester United. Despite the failures to secure trophies, Arsenal never dropped from the pack atop the Premier League. Unfortunately, they also were never able to climb it.

Arsenal have had talent but it did not seem to gel for long. Arsenal have had ability, but that ability went missing too often. Arsenal have world class stars like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Petr Cech and Jack Wilshere and yet it was not enough to close the gap between the club and the champions. For all the talent available to him and all the know-how he possessed, the Premier League title eluded him at the end. Nor was the Champions League some sort of salve — crashing out at the first knockout stage seven times in a row to everyone from FC Bayern to FC Barcelona to AS Monaco. It was as if the club had the opposite of good luck when it came time to draw an opponent in the top European competition.

AFC - FailuresDespite all this, this last period of Arsene’s reign at Arsenal featured three major moments at Wembley that saw the club win the FA Cup a record number of 15 times and made Arsene the most successful manager in that competition’s history with 7 trophies to his name. And I think this showed the juxtaposition between the past and present, between the talent the team appeared to have and what was often the disappointing performances that caused it to miss on its biggest goals. The moments that dazzled seemed to come between bigger and bigger periods of mediocrity. The disappointments could be counted more and more as the years went on.

So when the announcement was finally made, it made sense. And the response was not unsurprising either.

Look, there was always going to be a small section that was happy to see him go. Just as there’s a smaller section that’s invested in the constant bickering and feuding of the supporters. By and large though, the response by Gooners worldwide was the appropriate one: sad yet understanding. There was an awareness that a new manager was needed even as there was disappointment in Arsene not getting the fairy tale ending he so deserved. The club did all they could to mark his final matches as best they could. And despite not getting to the Europa League Final, every Gooner, near and far, can feel proud at how the club made sure that Arsene got the sense of appreciation that so many of us feel for him.

Because ultimately, there are millions of Arsenal supporters who fell in love with the club because of Wengerball.  There are millions of Gooners from Boston to Budapest who were dazzled by the passing displays and the clinical finishes he devised. Many supporters who appreciated all he did, all he said and how he did it all. Whether it was something as simple as his issues with the poofy coat’s zipper or as complex as his rivalries with Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger was the manager. he was our manager.  There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that he did not want to succeed as much as we did. Never a sense that he wouldn’t be desperate to throw a kit on and get out there if that’s what it took.

In a sad way, Arsene came to be seen as much a part of the infrastructure of Arsenal Football Club as the cannon on the shirt. For good or ill, a parting of the ways was in order. How that parting will impact all those involved is yet to be determined. For all we know, Arsene Wenger might start a new chapter of his football life rejuvenated at a new club. Or he might pick a national team to lead. Or he might stay a television expert/pundit and begin resting on his well-earned laurels. AFC - Goodbye

He is, however, the last of the great legacy managers. That much is certain. The modern game, with its never-ending pressures and high-stakes matches every single weekend, is unlikely to allow managers like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pocchetino or Antonio Conte the pleasure of sticking around at one club for very long. We’ve already seen Guardiola leave two massively successful super-clubs in his career due to the pressures at both Barcelona and Munich. I recognize the incredibly unique circumstances Arsene found himself at Arsenal that allowed him to stay but it only shows that it’s unlikely we will see another manager stay 20+ years at a top club. It’s part of what made him and his run at Arsenal so amazing and rare.

So…for all those 22 seasons of incredible highs and unbearable lows…

For giving us some of the best football any supporter has ever had the joy to see…

For the stressful cup runs, the disappointing title challenges, the epic comebacks…

For the open-bus parades that were attended by thousands…

For the gems of footballing talent that seemed to appear out of nowhere…

For an unbeaten season that no one has had the ability to equal regardless of talent…

For 49 matches when no one could beat our team…

For winning the League in Manchester and then winning the League at the Shithole…

For building London Colney, then building Ashburton Grove…

For keeping the team relevant even as it played catch-up with the Oil Rich and the Superclubs…

For giving every Arsenal supporter a club we could all be proud of…

AFC - AdieuMerci.

Au revoir.

And thank you.

Un Arsene Wenger!

Il n’y a qu’un seul Arsene Wenger!

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“Avengers: Infinity War” Review: The Big Spoilerrific Follow-Up

As promised, here’s the big spoilerrific follow-up to my Avengers: Infinity War review (If you are so inclined to do so, you can check that out by clicking here). This means that SPOILERS WILL BE FORTHCOMING. NOTHING IS SAFE! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT, YOU SHALL BE SPOILED! EJECT, MAILMAN! EJECT!!

Seriously, last time to turn around. After this, all bets are off.

 

So with all that out of the way, let’s dig into some of the meat of the plot and characters of Marvel’s biggest opus so far. I mean, 2 hours and 40 minutes of action, of character beats, of epic moments and surprising turns. There’s gotta be some meat in them bones. Let’s carve it apart! And let’s start where everyone is most fixated: the ending.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust…

Russian playwright/writer Anton Chekhov is famous for introducing the idea that there should be nothing superfluous to a story. Every element has to play a part in the overall narrative or it should be removed. This is where his the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun” comes from: introduce an element like a rifle or a gun in Act 1, it has to be fired by Act 3. Otherwise it should not be up on display. You can bet that Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige knows of Chekhov’s Gun because his has been on display for the last 6 years.

Consider that the Infinity Stones have been the cornerstone of at least four movies — The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy — with another one playing a key role in the climax of Doctor Strange. That’s five of the last 13 movies that directly or indirectly touched upon the Stones. By the time, Infinity War started, we knew what the Stones were, what they were capable of and had been hinted at as to their power should they be combined. Then, they spent the movie hinting at the snap of Thanos’ fingers and what it would mean. So the principle mandated that we see what it would be like when Thanos did that. The gun had been shown. We had to see it get fired. And we did.

Thanos’ snap is one of those quintessential comic book moments — small in nature at the time but growing in importance as the years have passed by. It needed to happen. After all this time spent talking about the Infinity Stones, we needed to see what it would be like when he did engaged their combined power. This was not a Lord of the Rings situation where the plot mandated the One Ring never be used. We were promised an epic moment and Marvel was ready to deliver. In some ways, I don’t think that this is what has caused the visceral responses that people have had to this movie’s climax. I think people expected that some of the heroes would die. It’s just that the ones who did were not the ones we were expecting as an audience.

I think had it been Thor or Captain America or Iron Man that had died, people would have been surprised and saddened but not shocked. We have spent a decade with those characters. The expectation is that their turn leading the MCU is coming to a close. Their laying down their lives would have been impressive but accepted. In some ways, it was what everyone was looking out for. But not Black Panther or Spider-Man or Doctor Strange or the majority of the Guardians of the Galaxy. That speaks to the risk that Marvel took. Black Panther is still raking in money at the box office. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a successful return of the Webcrawler. The Guardians are booked for more sequels after the successes of movies 1 and 2. Fans know this. Yet Marvel is willing to be that you would still feel the emotional impact from their passing at the hands of Thanos’ finger snap — and they were right. People responded in an emotional way to their deaths.

Much of that credit has to go to the Russo Brothers who play that moment very well. There’s a moment after Thanos has slinked away where everyone is standing still, unsure of what has just happened; uncertain if anything did happen. Then it all starts coming apart as heroes start withering before our eyes. To me, it hearkened back to the moment in The Ten Commandments between the passing of the Angel of Death and the start of the screams throughout Egypt. You do not know what is happening and then you are uncertain who will live and who will die. But that specter of death hangs over the proceedings — by design. Then the music turns somber and people around the battlefields start turning to ashes and blowing away into nothingness. It is interesting that, at that moment — the moment we have long sought to reach — it is not joy or triumph that we see on Thanos’ face. In fact, he does not linger on Earth or any other inhabited world to see the end result of all his hard work. He just accepts it and goes searching for that sun he told Gamora about: his prize for being a hero.

At What Price A Hero?

What is the ultimate mark of a hero in popular culture? It’s laying down their life for others. For a cause greater than he or she. For friends and loved ones. For something worth dying for. What’s the old quote from Star Trek? “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”? And we get to see this idea on several moments throughout Infinity War.

Heimdall sacrifices himself to save Bruce Banner and send him to warn the Avengers. Loki sacrifices himself trying to stop Thanos. Gamora makes Quill swear to kill her to keep Thanos from grabbing her. Vision keeps asking Scarlet Witch to destroy the Mind Stone, which is part of his cerebral cortex. Doctor Strange is quick to tell Iron Man that his vow to protect the Time Stone supersedes his concern for the life of Tony or of Spider-Man’s. At every turn, our purported heroes are either quick to sacrifice themselves or state that they will sacrifice others for the overall good of the universe i.e. keeping Thanos from achieving his goals.

However, when those ideals are put into action, the results are far different. Strange does trade the Time Stone for the life of Tony Stark. Scarlet Witch refuses until the very end to sacrifice Vision — and when she does, Thanos is able to undo it. Quill finds himself unable to kill Gamora until it’s too late. In fact, the only person who is willing to trade lives for his goal is Thanos — killing not just Gamora, his adopted daughter, but Vision, Heimdall, Loki, the dwarves of Nivadellir, the Asgardians, the denizens of Knowhere and the Xandarians.  All in a quest to obtain the Infinity Stones.

In some way, the idea of sacrificing oneself to keep that from happening would be seen as virtuous. But not here. In Infinity War, we have Captain America — Marvel’s moral center — saying that they do not trade lives for victory. That sacrificing oneself, though valiant, is not the right course for victory. For Cap and for the MCU, it is far better to stand and fight against Thanos and, should they lose, then lose knowing that their cause was the right one. They are bound by a motive to preserve life and not to throw it away which stands in direct opposition to Thanos’ belief that his goal to “save” the universe is worth however many lives it will take.

This is a heady philosophical debate between deontology and consequentialism i.e. doing the right thing because it is the right thing versus doing the most good for the most people. And it’s playing out with characters in costumes or created in a computer. Not that this stops the movie from diving in head on. Centrally, there is Thanos and his belief that the universe is finite, with finite means and resources and capable of sustaining only so many lives. In order to prevent the future collapse that overpopulation would bring, he thinks to halve the universe’s peoples. First, doing it world by world. Then, when this does not prove quick enough, doing it all at once via the Infinity Gauntlet. Of course, the question has to be asked: if he’s trying to do good for most, how is taking out half of the universe’s lives doing the most good?

This is why Brolin’s performance is so key. He presents Thanos not as the sneering, ruthless, death-loving madman of either Jim Starlin or Jonathan Hickman. He’s not interested in tributes of innocents’ heads nor in finding comfort in the arms of Lady Death. He’s not even the angry, menacing presence that looked down on Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy. Allowed the chance to express himself, Brolin’s Thanos is soft-spoken and tries to bring comfort to Gamora. He offers words of encouragement to Tony Stark after he defeats him. In many ways, Thanos’ behavior is that of a hero. He is willing to bear the burden for so many to save the universe. He does not excuse his purpose nor his actions. Of course, behind it all the soft veneer, there is a dark purpose and a single-minded drive towards his goal. He may think he’s being a hero but he’s heroically murdering his way to his goal. And this is most seen in his relationship with Gamora. Which brings us to…

Surrogate Fathers and Wayward Children

Infinity War juxtaposes two surrogate father-child relationships in its tale. On one hand, there’s Thanos and Gamora. On the other, there’s Tony Stark and Peter Parker. In both instances, the child came to the father due to a tragedy. In both instances, there was a time when both surrogate children looked to their father as possessing the answers. Where the differences lie is that, in Gamora’s case, her tragedy was a result of Thanos’ actions. It was his armies that culled her home world. It was Thanos who set her on constant conflict with her adopted sister, Nebula. It was Thanos’ actions and beliefs which eventually drove Gamora away from him. While both have sought to guide their surrogate children accordingly, only one is seeking to live up to that example: Peter Parker.

Throughout the movie, Tony is looking for a way to keep Peter safe and out of harm’s way. He tries to have him stay on Earth. He gets mad at him for stowing aboard the Ebony Maw’s ship yet he is willing to listen to his plan to rescue Doctor Strange. He comes to Peter’s rescue when Thanos has him pinned down. This is the culmination of both their relationship as it started back in Captain America: Civil War as well as the stated path that Tony’s journey was taking him in Infinity War. He spoke to Pepper Potts of having children and a future. She demanded that, for that to happen, he would stop having to be Iron Man. In some ways, one could see Tony handing the torch eventually to Peter. He’s already got a snazzy Iron Spider suit made for him ready to go. Peter is eager to be an Avenger, eager to show he can be everything that Tony thinks he can be. He comes up with plans. He faces down Thanos. He rises to meet the mark he sees Tony, his surrogate father, set for him. Much in the same way Gamora did for Thanos long before she rejected him.

Then Thanos takes Peter from Tony. Tony was not willing to sacrifice Peter to achieve his goals but Thanos was willing to sacrifice Gamora to achieve his. Bringing her to Vormir and finding out that the only way to obtain the Soul Stone was to murder his adopted daughter, Thanos sheds tears for himself and for her. Then he tosses her to her death. All the training, all the care and love was reduced in that moment to his need to achieve his ultimate goal. The price paid, he obtains the Soul Stone but the ending presents that such a price may be more than he was willing to pay despite his actions. Tony mourns a child he barely knew as Peter wilts away and disappears, unable to stop it from happening. Meanwhile Thanos is left with the memory of the daughter he raised and loved but willingly killed.

This is the difference between the Avengers and Thanos and his horde — between heroes and villains. T’Challa welcomes the Avengers to Wakanda knowing he brings a battle to his doorstep. Thor convinces Eitri to help him build a weapon that can kill Thanos despite his depression over the loss of his people — similar to Thor’s own pain. The Avengers and the Guardians are building connections and trying to save lives while Thanos and his Black Order willingly sacrifice their minions and themselves in order to achieve victory. 

And in the end, it is Thanos who stands triumphant. All the good will of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is unable to stop the monster who, with a snap of his fingers, dooms half of all life in the universe.

So What Next?

Obviously, from the post-credit scene, we know that Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel will be appearing soon in the MCU. We also know that we will see Ant-Man, Wasp and Hank Pym later in the summer. Will they join forces with the remaining Avengers in a quest to bring back their fallen friends along with the rest of the lives taken by Thanos? In some ways, the answer seems obvious. We know Black Panther, Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy must return. But what of Heimdall? Loki? Vision? What of the countless heroes who perished along the way to the Snap? Will they all return? In what state? And who else will look towards Earth and their stewardship of the Infinity Stones and see a world that failed?

This is what Kevin Feige meant when he said that Infinity War would change the landscape for the MCU. Maybe not everyone will be back once Avengers 4 is done. Maybe the price to bring those lost back is to lose others. The path is completely wide open for where this story could go, even if we can surmise the ending. The road to that ending though is nascent and different than what the comics told. The Russos alongside the writing team of Markus & McFeely have free reign to go where they will. What Thanos will greet us next year? What Tony Stark? Thor? Captain America? War Machine? Rocket? Okoye? Nebula? Each and every one of the heroes lost someone they cared about in this battle. Someone precious to them. To what ends will they go to bring them back?

Captain America said that they did not trade lives and yet, in order to bring back all those Thanos took, that may be what it takes. After all, what else would a hero do?

What would a friend do?

What would a father do?