Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2018

In The Unlikeliest Setting, The Purest Drama Unfolds

In retrospect, the question should not be whether the setting was appropriate.  It was perfect. For of the dozen venues being used for the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup, none has the history of Fisht Stadium in Sochi. All were either built or renovated in preparation for this, the first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe and the first to be spread across two continents, Europe and Asia. From Kaliningrad Stadium on the Baltic Sea, to Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, the host stadiums are spread across more than fifteen hundred miles of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation. But the southernmost venue in Sochi was originally constructed to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Sochi Games, the first Olympics held in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, were a reminder that while the Communist Party may no longer be in charge, the country remains a controlled state. At a cost of $51 billion, Putin’s Games were by far the most expensive Olympics ever, surpassing even the $44 billion spent by China, another rigidly controlled economy, in the summer of 2008. These numbers are several multiples of what democratic countries dare to spend on these quadrennial festivals, but Sochi wasn’t just big as measured by dollars. The 2014 Winter Games also had a record 98 events, including a dozen new competitions. With 29 total medals and 11 gold, the host country topped the board for most medals and most first place finishes.

But all the money and infrastructure and success in competition was revealed to be a giant state-sponsored sham just two years later, when the World Anti-Doping Agency released the McLaren Report. Named after the Canadian law professor who chaired a special three-member WADA panel investigating allegations of Russian doping, the report detailed a broad and systematic effort by Russian authorities to both encourage doping and subvert the drug testing process during the Sochi Olympics. While the IOC rejected WADA’s recommendation to ban Russia from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, individual sports federations wound up disqualifying nearly thirty percent of the athletes on the original Russian roster. A dithering IOC then banned the Russian Olympic Committee from this year’s Winter Games, while allowing individual athletes to compete under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

Of course, FIFA itself is no stranger to scandal. For the governing body of international soccer (football in every country but ours), the problem has not been doping (at least not any more so than in other sports), but the age-old lure of cold hard cash. More than a decade ago a British report alleged bribery for sponsorships and vote-rigging in Sepp Blatter’s long tenure as FIFA president. Then in May 2015, U.S. federal prosecutors brought multiple indictments against FIFA officials and leaders of various regional soccer federations. The charges alleged fraud, bribery and money laundering around sponsorships, the World Cup site selection process, and the FIFA presidential election. A second wave of indictments followed several months later, bringing to 34 individuals and 2 corporations the total number of defendants charged. To date there have been 16 guilty pleas and 2 convictions, with many cases still pending.

While the scandal led to Blatter’s downfall, his successor Gianni Infantino has shown his own love of money, having led the push to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026, and proposing what amounts to a new mini-World Cup to be held every two years among 8 teams. Infantino’s “Final 8” would replace the existing Confederation Cup, and the new FIFA president claims to have “solid and serious” sponsors ready to put up to $25 billion behind the competition.

On Saturday it was impossible to ignore the reminders of why it is easy to become cynical and dismissive about our games, even as the minutes wound down on an important Group Stage match between Germany and Sweden. There they were in Sochi, at the very scene of Russia’s great crime against sport. One cannot say the city’s name without recalling the elaborate con against athletes from all around the globe that was conceived, funded and executed by a sovereign state. And there they were playing for the World Cup, still arguably the grandest international competition of all, but one inextricably linked to its organizing institution, an association steeped in the scandalous effect of opacity and money.

Against such a backdrop, what chance did the two soccer teams have of overcoming the cynicism, of vanquishing the doubts, and of giving fans a reminder of the grandeur of our games? It would surely require a classic contest to do so in such a setting. So that is exactly what Germany and Sweden gave the world.

The Germans arrived in Russia believing that they could do what no team had done in more than half a century, namely repeat as World Cup champions. Having defeated Argentina 1-0 in the 2014 final in Brazil, Germany looked to match Brazil in 1958 and 1962, and the team was widely considered a favorite to do so. Ranked number one in the world, the German squad was regarded by most analysts as even better prepared than four years ago. But then Mexico upended all the pre-tournament assumptions by stunning Germany 1-0 in their opening Group Stage match.

Now, against a Swedish team ranked twenty-fourth by FIFA, the Germans had fallen behind again when Ola Toivenen put a soft lob over the reach of netminder Manuel Neuer at the 32-minute mark. Sweden’s goal belied the flow of the match, which had been heavily in Germany’s favor. With Mexico already having won its second Group Stage match, and the Swede’s coming into this contest with a victory over South Korea under their belts, a second German defeat would result in the unthinkable – the defending champions and pre-tournament favorites failing to advance past the Group Stage.

Early in the second half the constant German pressure finally paid off, as Marco Reus netted an errant pass to tie the score. But while a tie would at least give the Germans life, it would still leave their hopes of advancing hanging by a cobweb. Germany would need to defeat South Kores in its final Group Stage contest, and hope that Mexico beat Sweden. But under that scenario Mexico would already be through into the knockout round, and thus have little incentive in its final Group Stage game.

Then in the 82nd minute, Jerome Boating was sent off with a red card, forcing the Germans to play the remainder of the match with only ten men. In the stands the faces of the blue and yellow clad Swedish fans glowed with hope, while those of the German faithful were etched with grave doubt. The 90th minute came, and with it word that five minutes of stoppage time remained. But unlike other times sports, soccer’s extra time is not counted down on scoreboards. All that fans knew was that at least five full minutes remained, with the exact clock kept only on the field.

Four minutes and forty seconds of overtime had elapsed when a foul gave Germany a free kick from the left side of the box. As Toni Kroos lined up, the entire watching world knew this was the moment, Germany’s last chance. Kroos approached, but rather than attempt a shot or pass he lightly touched the ball, rolling it a yard forward to his teammate Reus, who merely touched it, setting it in place. As he did so Kroos took his full windup and ripped a curling shot toward the net. Swedish defenders leapt, the ball just missing one of them. Sweden’s goaltender raced and stretched as far as he could, the ball passing just beyond his grasp. It curled into the far corner of the net, Germany 2, Sweden 1. In the stands and on the field, joy became despair, doubt turned into ecstasy, and the unending human drama of our games triumphed over cynicism once again.

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Responses

  1. If you made up that story, no one would believe it. Thanks for the insight and dramatic presentation, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I’m not a big soccer fan, but the World Cup has been interesting with the obvious underlying stories, and that game was mesmerizing from its start to its incredible finish.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • I just read your latest post and can see drama on a world-wide scale. Eeeesh!
        Ω


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