Happy World Cup, all!
By the time you read this, the 2018 tournament will have kicked off with the nailed-on barnburner that is Russia-Saudi Arabia (C’mon, prove me wrong! Please??). Starting on Friday, however, we’ll be treated to daily marathons of football featuring: goals (seriously, Russia-Saudi Arabia, come and get me), and more than a dozen (14, to be exact) players last seen plying their trade for FC Barcelona’s double-winning side – at least one of whom, you’d figure, will be kissing the trophy on July.
Let’s run through the 2018 World Cup’s Barça contingent:
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
We know the deal at this point. Three consecutive international finals. The heartbreak of defeat in three consecutive international finals. Retirement, and subsequent unretirement, from the national team. And, let’s face it, Cristiano lifting a major trophy in the meantime probably doesn’t help.
Let’s establish some facts: Lionel Messi is probably the greatest footballer of all time. This Argentina side is a talented, but deeply flawed one that is unlikely to win the World Cup. Virtually nothing that unfolds over the next month will change either of these facts. Y’know, unless Messi goes full Maradona and deletes “probably” from that earlier sentence.
The perception among many in Argentina, given his gob-smacking last decade-plus with Barcelona, is that Messi’s somehow disappointed with La Albiceleste.
For starters: few people have ever done anything as well as Lionel Messi has played for Barcelona. That his performances for country have not measured up to his performances for club, on some level, is just down to simple math. Beyond that, keep in mind that it is largely by the grace of Messi that Argentina was even in Rio four years ago, within eight minutes of a penalty shootout for the biggest prize in sports. Beyond even that, recall that, were it not for Messi’s heroics in Ecuador in October, this iteration of Argentina – hardly bereft of talent, featuring the likes of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala and Ángel Di María – might not even have the opportunity to fall short again in Russia. Bemoan Messi’s “disappointments” if you’d like, but at least acknowledge that his efforts provide the opportunity to dream in the first place.
Andrés Iniesta / Gerard Piqué / Sergio Busquets – The staple of any great heist movie: One last job.
The insanity of the whole firing-the-coach-the day-before-the-tournament-kicks-off thing aside, Spain’s 2018 World Cup will be remembered as the swan song for the mot accomplished international generation of our lifetime. The exodus began with the exits of Carles Puyol, Xavi, David Villa and Iker Casillas, but the presence of this trio of Barça icons and, ugh, Sergio Ramos, kept us from having to squint too hard to recall past glories.
Over the past few weeks, with great reason, a good bit of attention has been focused on Andrés Iniesta’s Barcelona farewell, but let’s take a moment to appreciate, one more time (because, let’s face it, Brazil 2014 made it tough), the core of La Roja’s incredible 2008-2012 treble. Singing the praises of Sevilla’s own red card magnet is a job for someone else, but this Barça contingent includes one of the best and most decorated defenders of his era, and two midfielders about whom the same can be said – one of whom has an extra-time World Cup winning goal on his CV, and has a legitimate best-ever case.
These three are cornerstones of some of the best sides – club or country – in the history of the game. Let’s remember to take note.
Oh! I almost forgot. Lest you think this is just some teary farewell tour, Iniesta’s Eleven (yeah??) also have a genuine shot at winning this thing!
Jordi Alba – I can only imagine the merciless abuse that’s directed at Sr. Alba around Camp Nou, as the only current member of La Roja with only a single international winners’ medal. And it’s not even from the World Cup! Why even bother?!?
It’s presumably even worse on the days that Iniesta, Piqué and Busquets invite Xavi and Puyol over for coffee. Poor, poor Jordi…
On the bright side, few players are more likely to feel completely at home at this tournament, as Alba will be sharing a backline with Piqué, just behind Iniesta, with Busquets nearby. I mean, it’s not like Messi is that big of a miss, right?
Paulinho / Philippe Coutinho – The two signings of the season.
Though his performance waned down the stretch, Paulinho was vital to a number of invaluable early-season goals, and provided much-needed strength in midfield. Coutinho, meanwhile, at long last joined the club in January, and contributed an impressive 10 goals in roughly half a season, while also displaying a gift for not only taking over a game, but doing so while seamlessly adapting to the Barcelona system.
The duo will now take to the middle of the pitch in Russia with the Seleçao, facilitating an attack that features (among so many others) Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, on the side that – in this man’s opinion – will raise the cup when all is said and done.
Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
And the beat goes on. Luis Suárez, scorer of 51 goals in 98 international matches, and five in 10 World Cup matches (every one of them meaningful to the result!) will once again spearhead Uruguay’s attack alongside Edinson Cavani, as he did with Diego Forlan before him, and help La Celeste advance (cruise, probably) through the group.
All that’s left is figuring out the mark that Luisito will leave on the leave on this particular tournament. The goal-line hand ball 2010, gnawing on Giorgio Chiellini in 2014…
Samuel Umtiti – Umtiti’s combination of strength, skill and intelligence should keep him among the world’s best for quite a while. Not a single euro that went into keeping this man at Camp Nou for the foreseeable future was misspent. Umtiti is as vital to Barcelona’s success as anyone not named Lionel Messi.
The story is not dramatically different on the international scene, on a French side that should, theoretically, have no problem finding the net early and often. Alongside a wide defense that is the squad’s biggest question mark, Umtiti and Madrid’s Raphaël Varane – as good a central defense pairing as there is in this tournament – are tasked, along with Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris, with keeping easy victories from devolving into nerve-wracking shootouts.
Ousmane Dembélé – One of the highest variance players in this tournament. There’s a case to be made that Dembélé, coming off of a trying and injury-plagued debut season with Barcelona, gets lost in a sea of attacking options that includes (brace yourself): Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Nabil Fekir, Thomas Lemar and Florian Thauvin, loses confidence (either his own, or that of his coach), and fails to leave a mark on the tournament.
Conversely, a healthy and confident Dembélé, who spectacularly capped off a victory over Italy in a recent tune-up, could very well be a revelation. It’s not difficult to imagine him, out wide, roasting defender after defender with his incredible speed and skill, creating a boatload of chances during a deep run for France, and leaving Russia with some serious “best young player in the world” buzz.
Marc-André ter Stegen (Germany)
Not Manuel Neuer, but not a massive downgrade, either.
Neuer has been declared fit and traveled to Russia as Germany’s first option in goal. Against that backdrop, “Die Mannschaft” will be hoping that ter Stegen spends the next month as a hilariously overqualified cheerleader. Should the injury woes remerge, however, the tournament’s best backup will be waiting in the wings.
Weird… It’s not like the Germans to have things so under control.
Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić, along with Madrid’s Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, and Inter’s Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic, makes up one of the world’s best midfield corps, behind an attack featuring Juve’s Mario Mandzukic. From the middle of the pitch forward, Croatia can hang with any one in the world, both in terms of talent and top-end experience. These guys will not be overawed by the grand stage of the World Cup, given their collective experience at the world’s top clubs.
Some pertinent questions do linger: conflicts at the FA level that threaten to ensnare Luka Modric the credibility of an inexperienced coach and, on-pitch, the defense. Any or all of these could derail a team that should get past Sweden and Nigeria to the round of 16, at least.
Yerry Mina (Colombia)
After a brutal start to his Barça career, Mina has an opportunity to rebuild his confidence alongside Davinson Sánchez in central defense, with James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado (Johnny Square!), Villarreal’s Carlos Bacca and Sevilla’s Luis Muriel likely powering the Colombians beyond the group stage, at the very least.
Thomas Vermaelen (Belgium)
With as much respect as one can muster… Fans of Belgium will be hoping to see as little as possible of Vermaelen.
Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata has already been called upon to deputize for Vincent Kompany alongside the Tottenham duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Digging deeper into the depth chart for another oft-injured defender would be less than ideal.
Enjoy the games!