Blinded by the Bright Lights

I’m not sure who was more bummed out on Saturday evening, me or the executives from FOX.

Messi? Gone. Ronaldo? Gone. The promise of an epic matchup next Friday between the game’s two biggest names on Friday disappeared in the blink of an eye, like a Mbappé one-timer into the back of the net.

I came into Saturday’s games, the first of the Knockout Stage, ready to see the stars shine. I think I’m starting to appreciate good team soccer, but as a relative newbie, I’m still drawn most to the brightest lights on the pitch. If I’m not watching the ball (which I almost always am), I’m looking for the stars.

That’s why Saturday was such a letdown for me. Was it poor play from Lionel and Cristiano that sent them home? Was it a sound defensive strategy from their opponents? Maybe you know the answer to that, but I have no idea. All I know is that those guys didn’t score or even touch the ball as much as I wanted them to.   

This was Lionel Messi’s fourth World Cup. I’ve heard that he has underachieved for his national team on this stage, and while six goals in four World Cup appearances isn’t great, I’ll admit, 14 wins, 2 draws, 4 losses, and 4 straight knockout stage appearances seems like a great run, right? Which brings us back to Saturday, where Messi failed to score and Argentina’s quest to win their first World Cup since 1986 came to an end. My question is, what else is he supposed to do?

The more I watch soccer, the more it seems like the one sport above all others that is set up to elevate the team over the individual. There are 22 players on the field at one time, and oftentimes the man with the ball is being double-teamed or even triple-teamed. It seems that soccer fans love to elevate the stars in their sport, but it also seems nearly impossible for those stars to win games on their own.

Compare the soccer star’s plight to the marquee names in other sports. LeBron James will be one of 10 players on the court when he laces it up for the Lakers next year. He’ll touch the ball on most possessions, and while double-teams do happen with regularity to the game’s biggest offensive threats, a triple-team is unheard of. You triple-team LeBron, and he will find one of the two open guys every single time.

The stars can shine easier in other team sports too. Hockey’s 5-on-5 format mirrors what we see in basketball as the game’s best have the puck all the time. Quarterbacks touch the ball on almost every offensive play in a football game, as do starting pitchers in baseball.

I came into this tournament hoping to see the stars move on, but ultimately, I’m learning that what makes for winning soccer is good team play. An amazing individual effort will occasionally lead to a highlight reel goal, and will sometimes be enough to propel a team to a win, but more often than not, it’s the squad that plays as a cohesive unit that moves on. For a great example of this look no further than our beloved Schmeichel, whose outstanding individual play in goal for Denmark still wasn’t enough to advance his team past a more technically sound Croatian team.

Chalk it up to one more lesson I am learning about soccer during this World Cup. The brightest stars make for the best promos, but it’s the great teams that stay alive and move on to their next game.

So R.I.P. to Messi, Ronaldo, and yes, you too Schmeichel in the 2018 World Cup.

I won’t be watching you play in the last three rounds of this tournament, but maybe the soccer will be better that way.

“I’ve never scored a goal in my life without getting a pass from someone else.”

Abby Wambach

Bryan Allain has spent 41 years of his life ignoring soccer in favor of the Red Sox and golf, the REAL beautiful game. (His words not ours). This is the account of his 30-day, all in, deep dive on the premier showcase of the most popular sport on earth, the 2018 World Cup.