End of the Rainbow: Glory but no Gold

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Content advisory 16+ So Russia's definitely glorious and decidedly improbable run at the World Cup came to an end last night, via the usual route in the later stages of this event: Penalties. But what can we say about it? The way FIFA has it set up, there is no other method available to conclude drawn matches , and, after 120 minutes, who will attest that they want another 30 minutes of watching worn-out guys staggering and hobbling around in circles? Last night there were great moments in the extended session, first with Croatia scoring and then Russia dramatically equalizing. But most of the time it is just a walk through to get to the penalty phase, with both sides looking so tired they can hardly get up and down the pitch.

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Besides, Russia lived by the sword against Spain and accordingly died by the sword against Croatia. Maybe now Croatia's luck will run out if they have to take penalties against England. That's how it goes. All in all, losing like that after killing yourself in authentic, exhausting, and often brutal competition throughout the evening must leave a sour taste. It certainly does with the fans -- all that effort and energy for nothing. It seems fluky. Like two boxers having an arm-wrestling contest to decide the outcome after beating each other to death for 12 rounds. Or a free throw shooting contest when a basketball game finishes regulation time knotted up at 100-100.. So, I mean, why not a farting contest or just a coin flip? Or a stare-down to see who blinks first ?

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And the main problem is that the penalty competition is dissimilar to the normal frantic action of the match itself. In tennis, for instance, the tie-breaker is still about playing tennis -- it is not reduced to just a serving contest. In golf, it is still about guys driving down the fairway before trying to make the putt. Only in hockey is there anything like deciding the winner by having someone going one-on-one against the goalie. But not in the NHL. In play-off action there, they just keep skating through as many overtimes as they need. In American professional football (the NFL), they do what is called ‘sudden death’ -- where they play as normally and the first team to score wins. In the colleges (university football is B-I-G business in America), each team gets the ball on the opponent’s 25 yard line and attempts to punch it in. They do it until the tie is broken -- when one team scores and the other is stopped. In baseball they play as many innings as they need. So a 9-inning game can go 20 innings or more (The record is 26).

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In soccer, we get ‘penalties’. One guy against the keeper. No other action. It seems deflating, anti-climatic and often just based on who gets lucky and guesses right, the striker or the keeper. Dramatic, yes -- I admit. In some countries a miss can result in a contract being put out on your life. But, I repeat, it’s deflating, a downer. Like having sex all evening, but getting the orgasm by telephone later on.

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But this is a built-in problem that 'soccer' has. Scoring goals can be so difficult that sometimes, especially from a spectator's standpoint, it can seem that centuries could pass before either team got the ball into the back of the net. (But then again, goals often occur because of ridiculous errors on part of both players and referees.) Which, by the way, is why "I want it and I want it NOW" Americans so often run out of patience with this game. Sometimes it's just down to American stupidity, but sometimes, Jesus Christ, they do have a point. I mean, how long can it go on, I myself sometimes wonder? How often have I witnessed matches between top nations (it doesn't happen so much in club competition) play briskly for the first 20 minutes or so, then settle back, each defense taking deep positions, until the drama fades and the match fizzles? The level of boredom can be excruciating. At least the penalty phase causes people to wake up and start watching again just to see what happens. But it still stinks. All the more so because the very existence of the ‘penalty alternative’ actually encourages weaker sides to retreat into a shell and play the whole match just in hopes of reaching the penalty stage. In a shoot-out anything can happen, they (often correctly) reason. Like Russian roulette.

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That notwithstanding, Russia deserves a stupendous pat on the back. It is impossible not to admire the great commitment of the players who kept striving, pushing, running, doing everything they could for their country. I like the coach also. It makes me wonder if some of the former Russian national team members, the ones who in the recent past in international competitions have disgraced themselves and their nation, losing and then ostentatiously partying and showing us all how little they cared -- I hope some of them were watching. Maybe they felt a twinge or two of regret, seeing how giving the maximum effort can lead people to respect and even love a football team? Nah, probably those fuckers could care less.

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But what we DID see was how the spirit of a whole country can be ignited -- in the most positive way possible -- by something like this. I am tired of trying to explain to people who hate sports the many ways in which sports are vital and provide a multitude of positive experiences and emotions. It's like trying to explain the color red to a blind man. So if you don't like sports, hey, take a hike and don't let the door hit you in the ass as you go out. BTW, maybe the Russian government can (or could) learn a thing or two from this. Hey, gov-boys and girls, you blobs of flatulence taking up space in the Duma, did you notice how letting people be free to express their joy of life can actually DO GOOD???? -- instead of gouging everyone's rectum with one stupid and oppressive regulation after another?

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Back to football. This has been, so far -- and we are getting close to the finish line -- one of the best World Cups I have ever seen (maybe THE best), and I have watched every one of them since 1974. It has all been handled perfectly, and there has been no violence (I told you there wouldn't be) -- and what is really great is that now we will have a new champion other than, say, household names like Germany or Spain or Brazil. I don't much like the French -- don't know why, I just don't -- and so I will be pulling for Belgium in one of the semi-finals. To me the match is a toss-up, although it could be that Big Brother France (the bully boy of the French-speaking nations) will intimidate and wear down their opponents.

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I have never lived in either of those countries, and so I cannot speak of their mentality, but if life holds true there as it does everywhere else, then the French probably think they are gods and the Belgians pieces of shit. Life is like that. The other Scandinavian countries used to look down on the Finns. Everybody in the UK laughs at the Irish. The Americans used to tell Polish jokes (WHY, for God's sake, I never knew.) The Canadians laugh at people from Newfoundland. New Yorkers look down on people from Chicago or Boston. Real Madrid sneers at Atletico. Man United will always rule City. Etc. Etc. That's why I think France will win. Positive vs. Negative Karma. But I will be pulling for Belgium, who I see as the underdog.
The world would loved to have seen England vs. Russia for a lot of reasons. Maybe just to find out if the England players might be fed some poison gas along the way (OK, OK, maybe not funny). But what do we have? Croatia. And this leads me to comment on some of the idiotic stuff I have been hearing from Russians who think everything is a conspiracy.

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You know, among the many things I hate about this life, one of the things I hate the most is people who always think everything is fixed or represents some kind of conspiracy. The only reason Russia went so far, these aborigines cry, is that the cards were stacked and the government bought off the opposition. Bribes went forth, money passed hands, and there was Russia in the quarter finals !! How else could it have happened?. Never mind the thousands of moments in all the matches which could not POSSIBLY have been staged. Never mind the heroic efforts of the Russian team -- these efforts being INSULTED by stupid conspiracy theories -- never mind that life very often really is spontaneous and full of amazing things, and never mind the hours and days and months of hard work which have made this tournament AND the great Russian team the roaring success it has been.

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No, it's all a conspiracy.
Go fuck yourselves, guys, OK?
The rest of us have enjoyed every minute.
My predictions? I think England will beat Croatia. Probably France will slip by Belgium. And, finally, France to win it all. They have great speed and deadly scorers. Maybe the REAL Final will therefore be the semi-final. Either team would be favored against England or Croatia. Sweden had looked good until they played England, and the English made monkeys out of them. Is England's fine young squad peaking at just the right time?
But no ending on penalties PLEASE.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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