- Croatia's first appearance in the final round (against France this Sunday) reminds us that the size of a nation's population does not correlate with success in football. Remember tiny Slovenia defeating Russia in a playoff to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and then battling the US to a draw? China and India have each qualified only once: freshly independent India in 1950, and China in 2002 when Japan and South Korea hosted and had automatic berths.
- Uruguay, the smallest nation ever to win the world championship, has won the Cup twice: the inaugural tournament that it hosted in 1930, and 1950's upset victory over Brazil at the Maracaná. Uruguay has missed qualifying a few times along the way, most recently in 2006.
- Harris County, Texas, has a population about the same as Croatia's. You might think that, probability-wise, Harris County could find 23 players of equal quality to the Croatian squad. We might indeed be able to field a team that Croatia would not blow completely off the pitch, but only after huge investments of time, money, and sweat.
- After stating aloud that I find Fox Sports's coverage of the Cup (and other football events) abysmal, I'd like to modify that: It's not really terrible, but inconsistent at best. Special props to color commentators Aly Wagner and Stu Holden, as well as analyst Alexi Lalas. (Yes, I'm Team Lex, and not a fan of Lalas's rival, ESPN's Taylor Twellman, although in my estimation Twellman is improving with age.) For the most part, the commentators have been pronouncing all these exotic names correctly and with great confidence, as if they've been practicing. Nevertheless, I have yet to hear an English- or Spanish-language broadcaster on any network pronounce Mandžukić as one would back in Zagreb.
- Speaking of pronunciation: Watching high-quality sportscasts, and really paying attention to the pronunciation of international names, makes it easier to suss out how different languages make their letters sound. I've been doing this since I was a wee lad watching ABC's Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons. Newscasts can help with that as well, but US news programs have been decreasing the amount of international coverage for decades.
- Telemundo's announcers are fun to listen to, with all their various quirks. Telemundo's closed-captioning beats Fox's all to hell: Fox and NBC's sports networks clearly hire captioners whose knowledge of non-English names and football terminology is minimal.
- It's interesting to hear Fox refer to this Cup with no US participation "the best ever." The nation that certain US voices have been casting as the enemy since 2016 is running a memorable tournament. And apparently, unlike in Brazil, no low-income neighborhoods have been bulldozed to make room for new stadium complexes.
- Lastly, as a lefty who believes in making national borders obsolete as quickly as possible, it can be a little weird even talking about nations competing in anything. Most borders in the world have been established through violence, like the borders between the six republics of Former Yugoslavia. (Most of the former Soviet republics also went through some violent scuffles in the 1990s and beyond.) While it's easy to view Serbia as "the part of Europe where ethnic Serbs live," the picture is much more complicated than that: During the breakup years, some Serbs tried to purge non-Serbs from their territory, and the world disapproved; then Serbia asserted its control over Kosovo, and the disapproval took the form of NATO bombs. As accelerating climate change produces extreme droughts, flooding, and rising sea levels, we will see more climate refugees crossing borders, possibly entire countries vacated and coastal cities inundated. For humanitarian reasons, nations will need to agree to make their borders less restrictive, to the point where borders and nation-states become irrelevant. We're talking in the next decade or so. Thus, the World Cup may not survive to celebrate its centennial in 2030, or it may mutate into something very different by then.
This is one of those bullet-point posts, I'm afraid, because these thoughts don't add up to a single coherent theme.
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