Tucson soccer community eyes World Cup semifinals
Local fans pick France, Croatia, Argentina, Morocco — or just want to enjoy the games
The World Cup is down to the last four teams, one of the more intriguing quartets of recent global soccer contests. Cup holders France is joined by perennial favorites Argentina and two teams that would be first-time champions if they make it to the winners stand, 2018 runner-up Croatia and underdog Morocco.
One person that has been watching is FC Tucson owner Jon Pearlman. As a long time coach and scout, he has his “smart” pick, but he isn’t afraid of having a sentimental favorite.
“It would be hard for anyone’s favorite not be to Morocco; everyone loves an underdog story,” he said. “Soccer is about dreams and about people coming from all over the world of different backgrounds. It’s supposed to be a classless sport… it’s been very much a team effort.”
“It would be the greatest story in sports history,” if they were to win, he added.
Much of Morocco’s success has come due to their goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, also known as Bono. No opposing player has scored on the Quebec-born keeper for Spanish club Sevilla FC, the only blemish on the perfect record coming from an own-goal in their group stage match against Canada. The two less-heralded teams in the four, Croatia and Morocco, both have had remarkable goalkeeping. That fact is of particular interest to Hope Hisey, goalkeeper for the University of Arizona and FC Tucson.
The two keepers have had very different styles. Bono, Hisey says, is a lot more prone to use the spread save: spreading his limbs and going towards an attacker to block the goal. Croatian keeper Dominik Livaković, who plays his club footy for Dinamo Zagreb, plays a bit more cautiously.
“He stays on his feet,” she said. “He doesn’t go to ground early.”
“There has been a lot of great goalkeeping,” she said. “What’s fun about that is that, based on the country they play in, their style of goalkeeping has been very different…they’ve shown that there is not just one way to keep goal.”
As much as she admires the two of them, she has a different favorite for the winner.
“I want Messi to get his World Cup,” she said of the Argentine phenom. “The stars are aligned for him to capture it.”
It’s been a while since Argentina won the World Cup. You’d have to go back to 1986, before Hisey, and Lionel Messi for that matter, was born, to find when men in blue and white stripes lifted the trophy. Joshua Pearson, who photographs soccer matches for the Tucson Sentinel, has a favorite with much more recent success.
“My favorite to win and the team I have enjoyed watching this whole time is France. They play with joy,” he said of the cup holders. “The way they play is easy on the eyes.”
Even though he picked France to win, he thinks lessons can be learned from the surprising performances of Croatia, Morocco and Japan. Although they were eliminated by Croatia in the round of 16, Japan beat both Germany and Spain in the group stage.
“What it’s showing is that you don’t have to have a team packed with stars; you need to play as a team,” he said. “I think that’s been crucial for all of these unexpectedly good results. It’s this concept of ‘we’re all in this together.’ You don’t have to have superstar pieces to make the puzzle fill out.”
Some fans aren’t picking a winner at all.
“I’m torn,” said local soccer fan Sarah Smogoleski. “It would be nice to see Argentina win as this is likely Messi’s last World Cup appearance. I rooted for France last World Cup, but you have to love Morocco and the Cinderella story there.”
Like a lot of fans, she’s just loving watching the games.
“It’s great going out to a spot and watching both die-hard soccer fans and people who only watch soccer when the World Cup is on come together,” she said. “I love seeing the representation of so many countries in one place.”
Croatia faces off with Argentina Tuesday at noon Tucson time. France and Morocco play on Wednesday. The winners of both matches face off on Saturday in the final.
The U.S. men's national team exited the tournament after a loss to the Netherlands. Even going out in the round of 16, people that follow the team still saw the seeds of what will be a great team in the future.
“I thought they did pretty well,” said Pearlman, who is a U.S. national team scout. “Not having a number 9 (striker) was one of the critical pieces that was missing.”
“The future is very bright. The midfield performed really well and got better as the tournament went along,” he added. “I thought we were one of the better teams in the tournament, but at the end of the day it’s about people scoring goals.”
Longtime soccer reporter Grant Wahl died during the match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday. He started by covering basketball (he did the first Sports Illustrated cover story on LeBron James), but switched sports to be the best chronicler of soccer in this country. He covered the game with passion, but also had a social conscience that expressed itself during the coverage of this particularly controversial tournament. He was 49.
He came out to Tucson a few times, not only to cover Major League Soccer preseason here but also to visit family in Green Valley. Pearlman met him a few times.
“He was incredibly pleasant and bright,” he said. “Grant Wahl was a soccer writer before it was cool to be a soccer writer. He was an activist. He was a human being with incredible principles. Everybody that was involved knew his work.”
“Every day is not guaranteed. This is really tough,” he added.
Paseo de la Gloria
A common complaint against Lionel Messi is that as amazing as he’s been for Barcelona and now Paris Saint-Germain, he doesn’t turn in those performances for Argentina. Winning the World Cup would, in all likelihood, end that complaint.
Local soccer fan Andrew Greenhill made a visit to Buenos Aires in 2018 and saw just how angry Argentines can be about this point at a place called Paseo de la Gloria.
Paseo de la Gloria features a display of statues of great Argentine athletes: Gabriella Sabatini, Manu Ginobli, Diego Maradona and others.
Lionel Messi was there too, sort of.
“The statue of Messi, but it was missing from the pedestal except for the feet,” he said. “The guy explained that the country was angry with Messi. The vandalism was because he had done better in his club career than for Argentina.”
“It reminded me of the incredible passions that fans there have for this team,” he added.
Greenhill is rooting for an Argentina win, possibly for the sake of that statue.