The Club World Cup is already forgotten — Here’s how it could be awesome

The Club World Cup came and went last week, with Bayern Munich winning the trophy and officially confirming what many long believed: the Bavarians are the best club football team in the world. It was Die Roten’s fifth trophy of 2013 and Pep Guardiola’s second since taking over for Jupp Heynckes.

The final was especially significant for Bayern Munich center back Dante. Not only did the Brazilian defender score a goal in the final, he also picked up his sixth piece of silverware this calendar year. Dante also took home a Confederations Cup winner’s medal in the summer on top of the five trophies he won with Bayern.

But Bayern were not the story of this event. Not after home team Raja Casablanca made a dramatic run to the final, taking down Copa Libertadores champions Atlético Mineiro along the way. A few of Raja’s players also took home some souvenirs from a living legend, Ronaldinho, after that match:

Some people seemed legitimately upset that the host team made it all the way to the final (like here and here). Others rightfully appreciated the Cinderella story of the Moroccan club. Whatever it means about the quality of the teams they defeated and ultimately lost to, it’s undeniable that Raja Casablanca’s run captivated both the Moroccan people and the global audience of the Club World Cup.

This tournament always raises the same issues: whether it is a worthwhile event in the first place, and the significance of one-off matches between teams from different confederations. We’ve all heard that for whatever reason, the Club World Cup just hasn’t caught on as a big tournament that clubs want to take seriously. A full week since the final was played, and this tournament is already an afterthought.

Football is a global game, and when you hear World Cup you think of the pinnacle of competition. But the Club World Cup has rarely lived up to that billing.  What can be done to improve this floundering tournament that has so much potential?

How can we see more of this?

dinhofreekick

And this?

The are two things that can be done to make both fans and clubs care a lot more about this tournament: invite more teams, and give out a lot more prize money. Steve Graff write a nice piece on how to improve the Club World Cup for VAVEL.com with similar suggestions. My solution is slightly different, but the general idea is the same.

First, the prize money. The current payout breaks down like this: Winner gets $5m, runner up 4m, third place: 2.5m, fourth: 2m, fifth: 1.5m, sixth: 1m, seventh: 0.5m. That’s not very much money for a team like Bayern Munich, who received over 50m euros from the Champions League. Here’s some more info on Champions League payouts, for those who are curious.

So, in order to make every team take this tournament a lot more seriously, we need to up the stakes. It’d be nice to multiply those payouts by 10, but to be more realistic, let’s go with 5x the current purse. That means the winner gets $25m and the runner up, $20m. Enough to make winning a significant temptation, even for a European team.

And how to finance that? Just add more teams: expand it from 7 to 14 teams. More teams makes it even more fun for the fans, but it also means more high profile players and more of a spectacle, which equals more sponsorship money.

We are keeping the host team. Raja Casablanca’s run to the final was a great story. A host team getting an auto berth is a classic part of a cup competition. We are trying to revitalize this competition. You have to keep the team that brings the home fans to the stadium. With potentially different hosts and the obvious advantage of playing at home, we could see a underdog story like Raja’s more often.

The winners of the Europa League and the Copa Sudamerica are automatically qualified. We are also bringing in some non-trophy winners. The finalists of each federation’s Champions League are invited, with the winners given an additional bye and the runners up entering the competition earlier. Here is a rundown of the seeding:

1. UEFA Champions League Winner

2. Copa Libertadores Winner

3. Europa League Winner

4. Copa Sudamerica Winner

5. UEFA Champions League Runner Up

6. Copa Libertadores Runner Up

7. CONCACAF Champion

8. CAF Champion

9. AFC Champion

10. Oceania Champion

11. CONCACAF Runner Up

12. CAF Runner Up

13. AFC Runner Up

14. Host country league champion

14 teams is a strange number for a tournament, so some teams are going to have to enter at different stages. The top 4 seeds are the UEFA and CONMEBOL trophy winners. They don’t come in until the third round of the competition. UCL and Copa Lib runner ups face off against champions of Asia, Africa, and North America. Here is how the bracket would look every year:

What does that really mean, you ask? Well, here’s how it would have looked for this tournament, given the winners and runners up of all the tournaments in question, assuming the higher seed wins each match:

Now this is starting to look like a Club World Cup that is worthy of the name. This bracket contains potential matchups of legendary European and South American clubs, and gives the weaker confederations plenty of chances to knock off the top dogs. The tournament also contains 5 different rounds of matches for the enjoyment of fans, and most teams only have to play one more game than they currently would under the existing format.

A few simple changes could make the Club World Cup a headline event, truly capable of determining the best team in the world.

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Gamification is Proving Effective for Employee Training

It is evident that eLearning methods are superior to traditional training in areas like consistency, time and cost saving, and performance tracking. But that does not mean that any eLearning course will be an effective way of teaching a skill.

Whether employees are learning in a traditional setting or via an eLearning platform, there is no guarantee that they’ll be engaged with the material. If the course is mostly focused on the students absorbing information, rather than actually learning and using the desired skills, employees may not be able to replicate those skills in the job setting. And even the best eLearning training courses can be less than effective if employees are lacking the requisite motivation.

A way to ensure learners are engaged with and motivated to complete the material is to use gamification in training courses. Gamification is most often defined as the use of gameplay mechanics for non-game applications. As it pertains to companies and organizations, the non-game application can be innovation, leadership, marketing, or employee skills training. A 2011 study by Gartner predicted that 50% of organizations would gamify innovation processes by 2015.

Gamification has shown favorable results recently. According to a report in Training Magazine, organizations such as Merck, Sharp & Dohme; Sandoz; and Kellogg are finding that employees approach gamified training with greater enthusiasm and motivation and complete the training with more confidence in their learned skills. The competitive nature of gamification means that skills are applied more in training and thus are more likely to be successfully applied on the job.

Companies are not just using gamification to increase employee engagement. A recent Forbes article highlighted how NTT DATA and Deloitte are using gamification to help develop better leaders. It is especially effective for this type of training due to the importance of experience gained from the gamified training. According to Imrad Sayeed, CTO at NTT DATA, “we believe Leadership cannot be taught, it has to be experienced.”

Deloitte has used motivation in the form of achievement badges in their leadership training. Results have shown an increase in users returning to the site, and competition for leaderboard position has motivated many Deloitte employees to spend more time with the program. NTT DATA’s gamified training program focuses on developing 5 key skills for leadership: negotiation, communication, time management, change management and problem solving. 70 leaders have completed the NTT program, leading to hundreds of proposed new ideas that have helped increase revenue, reduce recruitment costs, and increase employee satisfaction.

Gamification is not a blanket solution to training problems, especially if content is not applicable to a gaming process or the employees can’t easily adapt to the gaming platform. It is vital to establish a clear strategy and an environment that enables employees to succeed. If implemented appropriately and effectively, however, gamification is a proven way to increase engagement and motivation, give employees valuable experience, and develop better leaders.

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VAVEL reaches 1 million readers in a month

This is a VAVEL España press release that I translated for VAVEL UK. You can read the original in Spanish here.

Over the past 30 days, VAVEL has received 1,051,086 unique visits, being the 5th most read online sports newspaper in Spain. For us, it is a milestone. The result of believing in the power of improbable dreams.

Ranking of sports websites in Spain by unique users per month: Unique Users per month
1. MARCA.com 6.294.000
2. AS.com 4.152.000
3. SPORT.es 1.780.000
4. Mundodeportivo.com 1.096.000
5. VAVEL.com 1.051.086
6. Yahoo Sports 1.039.000

The history of VAVEL is like that of a rain drop, humble but well-directed, that was able to grow into a tremendous ocean. We began programming and writing from a bedroom in a neighborhood in the south of Madrid, from the humility of necessity as the greatest motivator, from the layoffs that provoked unemployment and the frustration with those irresponsible, reckless, and unable to develop creative ideas, who have controlled the press and the media outlets for many years, who only see journalism not for what it is, but how it contributes to the balance sheet.

Day after day in our kiosks, radios, and televisions, vulgar spectacles were permitted, and continue to be permitted, were incited, and continue to be incited by those who occupy the seats and press boxes of our profession, humiliating every day the thousands of journalists that were left out in the crisis, without a logical explanation as to why this industry invested in these types of controversial audience generators, far away from what you could call journalists, instead of investing in those committed to true journalism.

That is the sin of which they are not conscious, but it will be judged as the press of our age in our history.

VAVEL was a response to that overbearing world – an uprising, rather than continuing to live on our knees.

“VAVEL is not just a newspaper, VAVEL is a movement”. 

Our independence and individual character guarantees that the status quo will not cease in its attempts to block our path, but it also guarantees that we need not give thanks to anyone, because we have achieved this milestone without any hands other than our own, without any help from outside, only with talent and hard work, and outside of this rotten system that languishes – although they still are owners of an advertising monopoly, one of the few valuable things this current system still possesses.

Because VAVEL was born with the ingredient to reverse this moral decadence of the big media outlets, and instead of complaining, we worked with intensity on the idea to create something new, to offer a solution to the problem we saw and were suffering from. The problem that was creating a sad system which we decided to leave in order to create a new one. And today we can proudly say that we can look eye to eye with the old system from the new path that we created.

Everyone said it was impossible. And it’s that VAVEL is an impossibility, but it is now a reality. Now the only thing missing is brands and advertisements joining with the spirit of this movement, in truth. Today, for the first time in the history of this newspaper, we can shout to the world, with tremendous pride and happiness, but still conscious that the best is yet to come, that we reached a million different homes in the last 30 days.

We can only thank our writers that placed their hopes firmly in a sports newspaper that tries to simply be that, sports journalism faithful to the values of respect: respect for talent, discourse, and dedication.

We end by informing you that we are already preparing the latest updates, the New VAVEL that we have been preparing for 8 months. It will see the light before the end of 2013 or at the start of 2014, and just as we promised to revolutionize sports journalism with the New VAVEL launched in 2012, in this New VAVEL of 2014 we promise not just to revolutionize sports journalism, but to change the concept of what a media outlet can be.

And to you, the reader, we give you 1 million THANK YOUS!

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Philipp Lahm: The World’s Most Complete Player

In the never ending debate on Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, some find it convenient to conclude that Messi is the best player in the world, while Cristiano is the most complete player in the world. But what does the most complete player really mean? Cristiano has pace, power, incredible technical skill, he can shoot with either foot, can jump higher than maybe any other player, he can score with his head, inside the box or outside, from penalties or free kicks. But if he was asked to play in defense, or organize a midfield, dictating tempo from the center, would his ‘completeness’ serve him just as well there? Could Cristiano Ronaldo play any position on the pitch?

Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that Cristiano is the most complete attacking player in the world. There is a different player, however, who is truly the most complete player in the world, whose intelligence and attributes enable him to play literally any of the 10 outfield positions. His name is Philipp Lahm.

Philipp Lahm was born in Munich and joined the Bayern Munich youth team at the age of 11. His talent was evident early on, with one of his coaches, Herman Hummels, famously stated that “If Philipp Lahm will not make it in the Bundesliga, nobody will anymore.” For Bayern’s youth sides, Lahm played at right midfield or defensive midfield in addition to full-back.

At the senior level, Lahm has proved more than adequate at either the right or left full-back position for both Bayern and Germany over the years. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Munich this summer, he’s had nothing but the highest praise for Lahm, calling him the most intelligent player he’s ever coached. In an interview with adidas, Pep had this to say about the Bavarian:

“He understands the game. Not all players do. A lot of players understand his position. Philipp can play in all positions. Football is a game where people move and you have to decide in one second what’s going on in your position as well as all around the field, and what he decides in that moment is right.”

Guardiola is a product of the Barcelona system implemented by Johan Cruyff, who himself evolved his game from the concept of Total Football as a player under Rinus Michels at Ajax and later Barcelona. In this footballing philosophy, players must understand space, where their teammates are, and the intricate movements required to break down an opposing team. Complete players are valued in this system, and Philipp Lahm is the most complete of them all.

Lahm has the technique, intelligence, spatial awareness, and tackling, passing, and shooting ability to play in any position. He hasn’t scored too many goals in his career (just 18 for club and country at the senior level since his professional debut in 2002), but no one could deny that he’s capable of finishing when given the chance.

Lahm’s unique combination of skills is why Guardiola has trusted him as the team’s base in central midfield this season, despite the unprecedented success that Bayern had last year under Jupp Heynckes with Lahm as the right full-back.

The central holding midfielder, operating as a single pivot, is a very important position for Guardiola. It was the position he occupied as a player at Barcelona, and the position he entrusted to Sergio Busquets once he became the manager. The single pivot in Guardiola’s system is required to do several things extremely well. On offense, the pivot must be able to collect the ball from the goalkeeper or the defense in order to build play from the back, and use intelligence and vision to pick out the appropriate pass going forward. The player needs excellent positioning sense, and must always be available as an outlet for the more advanced midfielders if they are under pressure. When the opponent has the ball, the pivot must be available to drop into the defense as a third CB to cover for the advanced full-backs. He must also be ready to press quickly and win the ball back in the midfield to cut out opposing attacks before they begin.

The qualities that Busquets possess allowed him to displace Yaya Touré in this role for Barcelona, another player who could play in almost any position on the field. And Busquets went on to be a cornerstone in the Barça side many consider to be the best team ever assembled. But is it possible that Lahm, who has played full-back his entire career, is even better in the ‘Busquets’ role than Busquets himself?

A look at some statistical graphics from Squawka reveals that while Lahm may not be superior to Busquets in the role, he is just about the best imitation you can find. Let’s take a look at heat maps and total passes for Lahm and Busquets from a Bayern Munich match in the Bundesliga and a Barcelona match in La Liga this season.

These games are quite similar in terms of the performances of the two sides. Bayern beat Schalke 4-0, having 60% possession while completing 685/790 passes (87%) for a performance score of 517. Barça beat Real Sociedad 4-1, having 64% possession while completing 700/766 passes (91%) for performance score of 563. Two performances as dominating as they come, and it’s not as if they were against weak opposition. Both Schalke and Real Sociedad are competing in the Champions League this season.


Statistics courtesy of Squawka.com

As we can see, both Lahm and Busquets locked down the middle of the park and completed a very high percentage of their passes. Lahm’s heat map is more contained to the center while Busquets roamed from touchline to touchline. This can likely be explained by the free flowing attack of Barcelona compared to the discipline of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s full-backs and wingers stick to the wide areas, which allows the central midfielders to contain themselves in a more narrow stretch of the pitch.

Both players completed a great number of passes with extraordinary accuracy (77/84 or 92% for Lahm, and 80/86 or 93% for Busquets). It would be difficult to find more similar performances from any two players on any two teams in the world. And lest you think that these stats from just one game don’t tell the whole story: this season, Busquets has completed 95% of his passes in La Liga and 93% in the Champions League, while Lahm has hit on 91% in the Bundesliga and 94% in Europe.

The difference between Lahm and Busquets, however, lies in the Bavarian’s ability to perform just as excellently in other areas of the pitch. Playing at both full-back positions for Bayern and Germany over the years has seen Lahm positioned in the opponent’s half just as often as not. Last year alone for Bayern, Lahm contributed 11 assists, mostly from crosses and cutbacks from the right wing. Even playing mostly as a holding midfielder for Bayern this campaign, Lahm has created 20 chances to 8 from Busquets.

At some point this season, Pep Guardiola will once again be able to count on the services of Javi Martínez and Thiago, which could likely see Lahm moved from central midfield back to his usual place on the right side of defense. Or Pep may decide that he can’t displace his new midfield general, and incorporate Martínez and Thiago in alongside Lahm.

Wherever the coach decides to play him, know that Philipp Lahm will perform at the highest level. As Guardiola claimed earlier this season, “if I told him tomorrow he has to play at centre forward, he’d be one of the best in Europe.” It is difficult to doubt the words of such an accomplished tactician. There is no outfield position on the pitch that doesn’t suit the most complete player in the world.

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Villarreal: The Submarine Resurfaces

La Liga has historically been ruled by Real Madrid and Barcelona, with a variety of challengers to the two dominant poles. Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Super Depor, Sevilla, Villarreal, Málaga… the challengers come and go while Spain’s big two remain.

Villarreal might have been the least likely in the series of challengers to the La Liga duopoly. Nicknamed el submarino amarillo for the yellow shirts the players wear on the pitch, the club hails from a small town in the province of Castellón, from which it derives its name: Villarreal, or Vila-real in the local Valencian dialect. Vila-real has a population of just around 51,000, but the supporters have no problem filling their club’s stadium, the 25,000 seat El Madrigal.

The yellow submarine has its history, but not much of it in the top flight. Founded in 1923, Villarreal only made their Primera division debut in 1998. The club’s fortunes began to improve with the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as coach in the summer of 2004. In his first season in charge, the Chilean manager guided Villarreal to a third place finish in the league, earning a Champions League berth.

With Pellegrini at the helm, Villarreal became mainstays in Europe, reaching the Champions League semi finals in 2006, and earned their best ever La Liga finish in 2008, coming second to champions Real Madrid. Pellegrini left for the managerial seat at the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2009, and a number of coaches attempted to fill his shoes over the next few seasons, but the club continued to finish in the top half of the table.

The submarine returned to the Champions League after the 2010/2011 campaign, finishing 4th in La Liga. Despite losing playmaker Santi Cazorla to big spenders Málaga that summer, Villarreal still appeared to have a strong team, with players like Giuseppe Rossi, Cani, Borja Valero, Cristián Zapata, and Bruno Soriano part of the squad. So when they were drawn into the Champions League ‘Group of Death’ that fall, along with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Napoli, they might not have been favorites to progress, but they were expected by many to contend.

Contend they did not, however. Villarreal failed to earn even a single point in the group, an auspicious start to what would be a nightmare season. The club fared little better in La Liga, losing star striker Giuseppe Rossi to an ACL injury in a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid that October. Villarreal slid down the table and eventually finished in 18th place, which caused the submarine to sink to the depths of the Liga Adelante, Spain’s second division.

Tragedy struck shortly after relegation became official. Villarreal chose Manolo Preciado as the man to raise up the sinking club, but the Santander-born manager suffered a fatal heart attack just a day later. He was rather hastily replaced by Julio Velázquez, but his death sent shockwaves through Spanish football, and it was tough for any manager to step in after the unfortunate event.

That summer also saw the departures of Valero, Nilmar, Diego López, Jonathan de Guzmán, and Jefferson Montero, among others. Rossi was still sidelined by further complications to his knee injury, and would later depart for Fiorentina in the January window.

It is the defining characteristic of a submarine, however, to plunge down deep and resurface once again, and Villarreal did just that. Although many important players had moved on, others like Cani, Bruno, Manuel Trigueros, and club icon Marcos Senna remained to fight for promotion back to the first division. At the club, there was an optimistic feeling that the drop to Segunda would be short-lived.

It wasn’t exactly clear waters from the outset though, and a rough start in the Liga Adelante saw Velázquez get the axe on January 15th, with the club floundering in 7th place. His replacement was Marcelino, who had incidentally coached his last game before the assignment with Sevilla in a loss to Villarreal. Squad reinforcements Jonathan Pereira, Jérémy Perbet, and Javier Aquino also arrived in the January transfer window. The new additions began to right the ship, and Villarreal finished the season in second place, earning automatic promotion. Marcos Senna, who gave his all for the yellow shirt over the past decade, departed for the newly formed New York Cosmos this summer after helping give one last gift to the fans who fill El Madrigal: a return to the highest level of competition in Spain.

Back in the top flight, club president Fernando Roig made funds available in the summer window to compensate for Senna’s exit and improve the squad. On loan players Pereira and Perbet were given permanent contracts, Sergio Asenjo was brought in at goalkeeper, and defensive reinforcements arrived in the forms of Gabriel Paulista and Bojan Jokić. The marquee signing of the window, however, was Mexican international Giovani dos Santos, who had also attracted interest from Valencia and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

With such big moves, the yellow submarine certainly wasn’t a relegation candidate at the beginning of the season, but few could have predicted this fantastic start. Villarreal currently sit in fourth place in the league table, behind fellow unbeatens Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. What’s more, they have done it in entertaining fashion, scoring at least 2 goals in each Liga game, save a 0-0 draw with Celta Vigo. Gio dos Santos looks as if he’s finally found a place to shine with 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games.

The match of the season so far was surely against Real Madrid at the Madrigal, which ended in a 2-2 stalemate but could have easily gone to the home side if not for some heroic saves by Madrid keeper Diego López, one of those sold off by Villarreal after the relegation a year ago. The yellow submarine delighted the crowd with fast, attacking play that cut open the Madrid defense time and again.

Given the current state of La Liga, Villarreal’s chances look as good as any team’s to grab that fourth and final Champions League place. It’s a long season, but Marcelino has them playing with style, and the have displayed a consistent attacking threat. After earning 14 of a possible 18 points so far, it doesn’t seem as if the submarine will be returning to the depths of Spanish football anytime soon.

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Málaga: One year later

A year ago today, Málaga CF drew 0-0 in Greece to Panathinaikos, advancing from the playoff to the Champions League group stage 2-0 on aggregate. What followed has often been described as a “roller coaster”, as Los Boquerones went on a wild ride that peaked with a dramatic quarter-final tie against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, which the German squad won in the dying minutes.

The ride slumped to an end from there, as the Andalusians won only 3 of their final 8 La Liga games. What followed was a summer clear out, with tactician Manuel Pellegrini off to Manchester, golden boy Isco jetting for Madrid, and a host of others moving on from La Rosaleda. Many important squad players from Málaga’s Champions League run, such as Joaquín, Júlio Baptista, Jérémy Toulalan, Javier Saviola, Martín Demichelis, Diego Lugano, Manuel Iturra and Lucas Piazón, have departed for pastures anew. Wading through the mess of loan deals – both in and out – the club has arranged over the past few years, 12 players from last year’s squad left Málaga this summer, per Transfermarkt. Former Real Madrid boss Bernd Schuster arrived to replace Pellegrini, having last coached in 2011 at Turkish club Beşiktaş.

What seemed such a promising project just 3 years ago, when Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani bought the Mediterranean coastal club, has slowly fizzled out. When he arrived in the summer of 2010, Al Thani promised investment in players, club infrastructure, and projects to strengthen the tourism industry of Málaga and surrounding areas. The Sheikh did spend money on players like Toulalan, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Santi Cazorla at the outset, but his reign has been plagued by financial irregularities recently, with the club failing to pay player wages and tax bills on time. The situation led to Málaga receiving a four year ban from European competition, which was later reduced to just one season.

The explanation for the abrupt halt in investment from Al Thani is not exactly clear. As a member of Qatari’s ruling family, it’s not as if he doesn’t have the funds to pay the bills, so it seems he chose to stop the flow of money for some reason. Al Thani reportedly has been unhappy with the way Spanish authorities have handled the process on some of his ongoing projects, such as plans to build a new stadium and training complex for Málaga CF and a marina expansion in nearby Marbella.

When questioned recently, the Sheikh insisted he is in it for the long haul and is looking to build a more stable organization that complies with Financial Fair Play. Whatever the reasons for austerity, a squad of many new faces has begun the La Liga campaign, with Schuster himself saying he expected zero points from the first three games. After two, his prediction looks pretty accurate. Málaga have fallen 1-0 to both Valencia and Barcelona and face a tough Sevilla side on Sunday. The new boss has been quite outspoken since arriving at La Roselada, claiming earlier this month that he had no problem with performance enhancing drug use in football “as long as it’s for recovery purposes”. Schuster should provide the Spanish media with some entertainment lost by José Mourinho’s departure from the league this year.

Meanwhile, the team that replaced Málaga as the Spanish entrant in the Champions League playoff, Real Sociedad, head into their game with Lyon today holding a 2-0 advantage, the same advantage that was enough to secure Los Boquerones passage to the group stage one year ago. Real Sociedad’s path to this position, however, sharply contrasts with Málaga’s quick spending ways. Instead of splashing the cash, the txuri-urdin built their success on the back of a tremendous youth academy, with players like Xabi Prieto, Iñigo Martínez, and Antoine Griezmann integral parts of the Basque club’s success. Funnily enough, both Málaga and La Real sold star midfielders, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, to Real Madrid this summer. Real Sociedad will hope another youth product, Rubén Pardo, can replace Illarra in the long term. The team looked impressive against Lyon last week, but still have a long way to go to match Málaga’s run of last year.

Málaga are certainly looking worse off one year removed from their historic victory over Panathinaikos, now banned from Europe and bottom of the La Liga table. The situation might yet improve though. Recent reports in Spain indicate some of the Sheikh’s plans might be coming together. Hopefully this entices him to fulfill his financial obligations to creditors this time around. Los Boquerones may also benefit from not having European competition to worry about this season. They can focus on slower growth to avoid UEFA’s ire and adhere to Financial Fair Play.

Málaga could well be on 0 points after three games, but after Valencia, Barcelona, and Sevilla, it will get easier. A stabilization of the club’s finances and a modest mid-table finish would be a successful year. It’s not exactly competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona, as Sheikh Al Thani claimed he wanted to do when he bought the team, but it would be an important step forward for the club’s future.

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Madrid Best XI with Bale

 

Below is my Real Madrid best XI with the addition of Gareth Bale:

football formations

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Ancelotti’s XI appears set to face Betis

We are fast approaching the start of a new La Liga campaign, and Real Madrid kick off the season on Sunday at home to Real Betis. It was a very successful preseason for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, managing six wins, one draw, and zero losses. Madrid also took down former boss José Mourinho and his new side Chelsea to win the Guinness International Champions Cup, whatever that’s worth. With so many quality players in the squad, Ancelotti will have a selection dilemma to sort all year long. Let’s take a look at who might line up in the XI against Betis.

We must take into account the plethora of international fixtures that occurred on Wednesday. Madrid had a total of 14 players called up for duty with their national teams, with Isco the only one not featuring on the pitch. Of the 13 others, about half went 90 minutes and everyone except Denis Cheryshev, who entered as a substitute but limped off 7 minutes later, played at least half the game. Long travel distances and the short rest means some players could be fatigued for Sunday, but Ancelotti is still likely to start a number of those who got significant minutes with their country yesterday.

football formations

This is the same lineup that MARCA reported on Monday as Ancelotti’s preferred XI. Based on preseason results and the games yesterday, I believe nothing has changed. In fact, events in yesterday’s games have reinforced Ancelotti’s thinking in areas where positions were up for grabs.

The main question mark here is Casemiro vs. Khedira, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Brazilian has the edge. Casemiro did not feature on Wednesday while Khedira played a full 90 minutes and had a blunder that led to Paraguay’s second goal. The German has also been on the fringe of Ancelotti’s plans all summer, and was reportedly offered by his agent to PSG this week. All signs point to Casemiro getting the nod.

Other players are more assured in their positions, but few are guaranteed. Here is the rundown for the rest of the lineup:

Attack: Karim Benzema had another goalless outing with France and was subbed off after 74 minutes, but is still above Álvaro Morata in the pecking order. Cristiano Ronaldo is in exceptional form and may be needed to pick up the goalscoring slack.

Midfield: Xabi Alonso has been training with the full squad but as of now Luka Modrić has won the position and should get the chance to start on Sunday. Ángel di María, who played most of the match for Argentina against Italy, appears to be slightly behind Mesut Özil and Isco, but this looks to be a fierce competition all season. Isco got his first call up with la selección but didn’t get off the bench against Ecuador. Özil played the entire game for Germany but is pretty much an unquestioned starter.

Defense: Marcelo has been a key player for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil team this summer and got a decent run against Switzerland, while Fábio Coentrão limped off at the end of Portugal’s match with Netherlands and reportedly wants out of Madrid. All of this means the Brazilian will start at left back. Raphaël Varane still hasn’t recovered fully from his knee injury while Pepe has had a solid summer, so he and Sergio Ramos should be just fine as the central pairing. Dani Carvajal starts over Álvaro Arbeloa because the latter played 90 minutes in Ecuador while the former is well-rested and had an excellent preseason.

Goalkeeper: As well as Diego López has played, it just seems impossible that Ancelotti would keep captain Iker Casillas on the bench after last season’s debacle. Casillas has also played well this summer, and will make his long-awaited return between the goalposts at the Bernabéu.

Madridistas are very optimistic heading into the season, and will surely hope there is no repeat of last year’s slow start. With a strong lineup ready to go, Ancelotti and crew should be able to kick things off with a win and all three points against Real Betis.

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Promotion and Relegation in the United States

The past month has been very exciting for US Soccer. It’s been quite a successful month for MLS, with announcements of future expansion and the acquisition of USMNT standout Clint Dempsey by the Seattle Sounders, one of the league’s most successful franchises. The American game has also seen the return of an historic team, as the New York Cosmos of the NASL took the field for the first time in almost 30 years. The sport has taken big steps forward, but there has also been a backlash against the structure and rules of MLS and calls for an overhaul of the US Soccer pyramid from fans, journalists, activists, and the NASL commissioner alike. Soccer fans in this country are energized by the progress the game has made but divided over how it should move forward.

Let’s start on July 23rd, when I came across a post by Chris Jones of Has Been Sports. Jones listed all the teams in the top three divisions of the US Soccer pyramid as if there were promotion and relegation between each division (MLS, NASL, USL Pro). His post inspired me to take a closer look at how pro/rel could work in this country. But as I started to lay out how I thought it could be implemented, the story kept changing.

On the night of the MLS All-Star Game, a week after Jones took a hypothetical look at pro/rel in the US, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will expand to 24 teams by 2020. The announcement sparked an unprecedented call for promotion and relegation from soccer fans in America, many of whom have been calling for pro/rel for some time, especially with the resurgence of the NASL as a potentially viable second division.

Other reasons for fan backlash include FIFA guidelines, stating that a first division should not exceed 20 teams to protect players from playing too many games. Even assuming that somehow does not apply to MLS, further expansion beyond 24 teams does run the risk of diluting the product. This happened in the United States with the NBA and NHL, leagues which were and are the pinnacle of their respective sports, which MLS is not, and sports that draw from a global talent pool as soccer does.

So far MLS has not responded to the calls for pro/rel, instead touting the incredible growth that both the league and the sport of soccer have seen in the US in the past decade. We’ve already known for a few months about NYCFC, the joint partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees which in 2015 will become the 20th MLS team. Now MLS wants 4 more by 2020. These new MLS franchises could be existing clubs that currently reside in the lower tiers, but that is by no means a guarantee. There is a lot of buzz in Miami surrounding a potential expansion franchise part-owned by David Beckham, which would be a completely new team. If Miami is one of the four as many suspect, it would make sense to bring in Orlando as well, creating a Florida rivalry. For the final two teams, MLS could look to other cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Detroit, markets which are already home to lower division clubs. But will MLS bring those existing clubs up to the top flight or create completely new ones?

Meanwhile, the NASL reached a major milestone with the New York Cosmos returning to the field on August 3rd. But another huge move by MLS overshadowed the return of the Cosmos. Clint Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders, returning to MLS after seven seasons in the English Premier League. The details surrounding his move, such as his large contract compared to the league average, and the fact that MLS paid his transfer fee rather than the Sounders, caused fans to voice more concerns about the MLS single entity structure and the lack of clarity over the rules.

Throughout all this, the NASL has done its best to make news. As noted, the Cosmos have started playing at Hofstra University, but the current second tier also moved forward with expansion plans of its own, recently announcing the addition of franchises in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville for the 2015 season. By then, there will already be a USL Pro club in Oklahoma City, as a yet-to-be-named team will begin play in 2014. Sacramento Republic FC will join the USL Pro division for the upcoming season as well.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson has also lent his voice to the growing discussion. Last Tuesday, he revealed his vision for US Soccer in an interview with Empire of Soccer’s Dave Martinez. That vision includes promotion and relegation as a byproduct of a successful MLS. Peterson believes that the fans want something different than what MLS has given them, which echoes the sentiments voiced by those in favor of pro/rel or unhappy with the lack of transparency within MLS.

Now, it’s certainly no surprise that the commissioner of the current second division would want pro/rel. But let’s go back to Chris Jones for a second. According to his Twitter profile (@CJonesHBS), Jones is one of the founding members of Nashville FC, a club which is “100% supporter owned and non-profit.” Nashville FC’s stated goal is “to compete in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) within the first three years of [their] existence.” The NPSL it is currently the fourth tier of the pyramid, roughly equal to the USL Premier Development League (PDL) in the eyes of US Soccer and a long way from MLS at the moment.

Implementing pro/rel in some form in the United States would give clubs like Nashville FC – clubs that are created organically from the bottom up instead of being awarded by MLS – the ability to advance through the soccer pyramid with the goal of one day making it to the first division. It would allow the current NASL clubs to have that same chance, the chance to compete against the best. It would give every fan in America the opportunity to one day see their local team play against the top teams in the country. This is about more than just an ambitious commissioner of an new pro league, or the idealistic vision of a founding member of a club with no players. It’s about an opportunity that association football clubs and their fans have everywhere in the world – everywhere, that is, except the United States.

It is evident that US Soccer will soon reach a tipping point. MLS wants 24 teams by 2020. NASL is more hesitant to make declarations but could be targeting 18 by 2018. USL Pro is on 13 and counting. There will likely be 60 different teams in the top 3 tiers of the pyramid within the next 6 years. The US national team draws from the deepest talent pool in its history. Interest in soccer is greater than it’s ever been, as new TV deals give Americans unprecedented access to games from leagues all over the world. The popularity of the sport is exploding.

As all three of these separate leagues continue expanding, some sort of merger including promotion and relegation must at least be on the table for serious discussion. But many fans are not convinced, and arguments against pro/rel abound. Teams couldn’t survive the loss of fans or money if they were relegated from the first division. Travel costs are prohibitive for teams in the lower tiers. Americans don’t understand and/or won’t accept promotion and relegation in this country. These are all reasons given as to why the system wouldn’t work. But probably the biggest hurdling block to adopting pro/rel in this country is this: MLS owners would never agree to it due to the financial risk associated with possible relegation. This is a legitimate concern as these owners hold a lot of the decision making power.

One way this could be solved is by offering a buyout to every owner as the league switches from a single entity to individual organizations that own the rights to their players. If MLS owners truly fear losing value on their investment by being relegated, they can be bought out at the market price for their franchise, which will almost definitely be higher than their initial outlay. If the sport continues to become more popular and successful in America, other owners will be lining up to purchase teams that are already in the top flight. After all, a number of Americans have purchased teams in the English Premier League, where there is always the possibility of relegation. That hasn’t deterred them from making what is generally acknowledged as a savvy investment. MLS owners have invested a lot of money in their teams, but any owner wanting to start in the lower levels will have to invest a lot to make their team good enough to earn promotion to the top flight. Furthermore, even with pro/rel, the powers that be could still set standards for promotion, which would include financial backing, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation.

But the opposition goes beyond the owners who may not be 100% committed to the sport and the fans, or are worried about being overtaken after they were the first to invest. Many argue that pro/rel is suicide for the business model of MLS altogether. This is true in the sense that MLS as a single entity closed system is fundamentally incompatible with pro/rel. But as long as the second division is stable and successful, relegation would not be the death of any MLS franchise. This is where the growth of the NASL comes in. Implementing pro/rel before US Soccer is ready for it would be far more disastrous than not implementing it at all. But the NASL is on the right path, and more competition can only be a good thing. If the NASL can prove that a second tier league is sustainable, then relegation will not be the end of MLS teams, nor the end of the professional soccer business in America.

High costs for cross country travel can be subsidized with a portion of the league’s shared revenues. With an improved product on the field, the lower divisions could command decent television money that would help support the cost of traveling long distances for games. This might seem like a long shot at the moment, but remember that we are not talking about pro/rel just now, but closer to 2020. Sports television rights continue to increase in value, and 5 to 10 years from now, there could be legitimate interest in the second division in many large US markets.

So if those are the business oppositions to pro/rel, then what about fan concerns? We’ve heard that MLS teams will lose fan support if they go down. But far fewer point out that MLS teams should be well placed to go right back up, so true fans should be able to stick with their team even if it drops to the lower level for a year or two. Clubs in MLS have the advantage of being established at the top flight for some time and should have greater financial capability to attract quality players and market their product effectively to the local fanbase. On the flip side, many soccer fans who are not MLS fans complain that there is no team in a reasonable vicinity for them to support. With pro/rel these fans become MLS fans even if they don’t have a current top flight team in their area, just because their team has the chance to reach the top. This unifies US Soccer fans, as they’ll all be cheering for teams with the same chances in the pyramid. For every group of casual fans that a relegated team loses, many more passionate fans will be added when their local team is promoted, and MLS as a whole will gain fans.

Finally, there are those whole feel pro/rel is an alien concept that is incompatible with sports culture in the United States. Some can be heard saying things like this: “This isn’t Europe, so why should we adopt European rules? The Eurosnobs can go watch La Liga for all we care.” Besides being close-minded, this is based on a fundamentally incorrect premise. Promotion and relegation isn’t just some European rule that a small minority of “Eurosnobs” want to impose on America. This is the way it’s done in nearly every other professional league in the world. It’s what the large immigrant population in this country, which has yet to fully embrace MLS, views as the norm. It also raises the stakes higher, punishing teams who aren’t good enough to compete at the top level. There is no tanking for top draft picks when the worst teams get relegated. Promotion and relegation is based on values that Americans prize highly: survival on merit and equal opportunity for all. Far from being a European rule, the concept of pro/rel is as American as it gets.

So if those are the arguments against promotion and relegation, what about those in favor of it? Well for one, it would create a more authentic soccer culture in the country. Clubs can be built from the ground up, like Nashville FC is attempting to do. Academies will be important to the development of the club in many ways. With no draft, teams will have to develop homegrown players to succeed. They could also sign free agents or purchase players’ rights from another club, but the academy is the best way to produce cheaper players who have a strong association with the club. Local communities will have a stake in the academies and thus be more likely to support the club as it progresses up the pyramid.

These changes would greatly benefit US Soccer as a whole. Integrating all the leagues with a functioning ladder up and down the pyramid unifies everyone under the same goal. It means stronger lower leagues with a better system to loan out players. Without the single entity structure, independent clubs can invest more money in their squads, making them better able to compete in CONCACAF Champions League and hopefully soon the Copa Libertadores as well.

US Soccer will also gain more respect from the rest of the world by implementing the system that is the norm everywhere else. More top players will be willing to come to MLS if they have the freedom to choose their team, and their movement is not restricted by the league owning their contract. If a team gets big enough, the American league could eventually become an attractive destination for world class players in their prime. An owner could decide to pay a large transfer fee and high wages that would otherwise burden MLS if the league as a whole had to pay it.

Most leagues around the world have a cup competition which gives clubs in the lower divisions the chance to win a trophy competing against the best. It is the same in the United States, where the US Open Cup has 100 years of tradition. Fans of clubs in the second or third tier will still have a chance to see their team play the best every year in the US Open Cup. But with the change in system, lower division clubs could aspire to another thing, much more beneficial in the long term: promotion to the top flight.

This is part of the most basic and maybe most significant argument, which has been stated a few times already: with pro/rel all teams would have equal opportunities. This is important because there are enough markets in this country to support many more first division teams than any league could handle. Chris Jones listed 44 teams in his hypothetical three divisions, not accounting for any of the new expansion teams. At least 10 clubs will join the various levels of the pyramid in the next few years, bringing the total count of teams in the top three tiers above 50.  Mike Firpo of Soccer Newsday recently wrote a very interesting article about MLS expansion and how the league should focus on what he calls “rivalry bubbles” by expanding to different cities close to current franchises. Of course his ideas are purely hypothetical, but his complete map of rivalry bubbles includes a total of 60 teams. It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, of these teams would ideally like to compete in the top division if possible.

I think even the most ardent MLS expansionists would agree that 50-60 teams is far too many for the top division, so what happens to all the teams on the outside looking in? Is it fair for them to be permanently stuck in the lower divisions with no possibility of promotion? Should we as US Soccer fans accept only the teams MLS gives us as the top flight teams, and write off other clubs and cities as ones that simply didn’t make the cut?

I personally don’t think that’s fair, and I think there are many that would agree. The only way to give equal opportunities to all clubs in this country is to adopt pro/rel in some form. The question then becomes how, and when?

The plan

With MLS announcing 4 more teams by 2020, we now have a time frame we can work with for the implementation of pro/rel.  When MLS reaches 24 teams it will be the largest first division in the world. It does not make sense to go beyond that number for many reasons. After 2020 or 24 teams, whichever comes first, if the league wants to expand further it should do so by implementing promotion and relegation. Three nationwide divisions are already established, and they all continue to look towards expansion. There is no reason why, after a bit more development at the lower levels, these divisions cannot be unified with promotion and relegation between the three of them. NASL commissioner Peterson has indicated that his league will look to expand to 16 teams over the next few years and then reevaluate. With MLS now working towards 24 teams, it could soon be the perfect time for a merger.

Depending on the state of the NASL and USL Pro by 2020, MLS should look to have between 18-24 teams in each division, with 2-3 teams going up and down from each division every season. The NASL could keep its name and remain the second tier with pro/rel, but for the purposes of this article we will call it MLS-2. Assuming pro/rel does not cause the financial implosion of franchises as some claim it might, the new MLS could wait a few years and then integrate USL Pro as MLS-3. These divisions could even go up to 20-24 teams with future expansion when clubs are ready for it.

Ideally, MLS-1 would be organized as a 20 team single table, with all teams playing each other twice. Due to the size of this country, it may make sense to have a top division that’s a bit larger, but 24 should definitely be the limit. One divisive issue with MLS at the moment is the playoffs. Currently, 10 of 19 teams make the playoffs, which is definitely too many, and seriously devalues the regular season. With a 20-24 team top flight, no more than 8 teams should make the playoffs. I would prefer to see the top 6 teams qualifying for the playoffs, with the top 2 seeds receive a first round bye. This makes the regular season much more important than it is under the current format. Many American fans want to keep playoffs as they find it a more exciting way to determine the champion. I’m fine with keeping playoffs, but wouldn’t mind if a single table round robin determined the champion. MLS needs to find a balance between a meaningful regular season and exciting playoffs.

Playoffs should be 2 legged for the quarterfinals and semifinals, with one final game held at a neutral site. At first, the bottom two teams would be relegated from MLS-1 every year. The winner of the second division automatically earns promotion, while the teams finishing 2-5 have a playoff with two legs each round for the second spot. These playoffs could be some of the most exciting games of the year at any level. The league could eventually decide to promote and relegate three at a time, if everything progresses as planned. There would be also be no relegation from the second division at first, to ensure stability while undergoing a drastic change.

Eventually, USL Pro would be integrated as MLS-3 and all the teams contained within this division would be given the opportunity for promotion. Each year they would replace teams being relegated from MLS-2. This would complete the professional setup at the national level. Below MLS-3, we have the regional leagues, where new clubs begin play and less ambitious clubs remain. It would be prudent to delay relegation from MLS-3 for a time period, again to maintain stability. Since relegation from tier 3 really could be disastrous for teams that started at the top, there may need to be some kind of safeguard established. A system like the one in place in Argentina, where teams with the worst three year averages are relegated, could work for MLS-3. One terrible season in the third division wouldn’t guarantee relegation, but if a club is that bad for long enough, it deserves to drop.

Below the third division we currently have the NPSL and USL PDL, which are already regional leagues. There must be some sort of agreement on how to combine and organize the regions amongst the levels below D3. These lower tiers will be where new clubs join the pyramid and begin play. Leagues below regional could be organized by states, with teams first registering in the state leagues and then winning promotion up to regional. The system should allow for the possibility of any club being formed and eventually working its way up the pyramid to the top flight on its own merit.

All clubs must reach certain benchmarks relating to finances, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation in order to progress from the regional leagues to the national divisions and on to the first division. This allows MLS owners to retain some control over the future of the league, while at the same time giving access to any club that earns it, not just the ones willing to pay the expansion fee. It’s a necessary measure to ensure that teams do not get promoted if they cannot handle what promotion brings. It means that any club that does reach Major League Soccer will have a solid ownership group, an executable business plan, an established market of fans, and an appropriate stadium in which to play. Clubs can also decline promotion if they do not feel they have the ambition or resources to one day become a top flight club.

There is also the question of salary cap. MLS currently is pretty restrictive in this area, with the designated player feature the only real way for teams to work around the cap and sign top talent. A solution that could give teams more freedom but also maintain parity is a soft cap with a luxury tax, like the NBA utilizes. This would hopefully guard against having the same teams dominating every year like in Europe, while still allowing teams in bigger markets or with the financial capability to attract the best players in the world.

This is a basic outline for how promotion and relegation could be implemented in the United States. Obviously there are still many more issues to be addressed on the path to making pro/rel a reality, but that is why it is important to start a serious discussion now. A system like the one outlined above may hurt a few current MLS teams in the long run, but it would be greatly beneficial to US Soccer as a whole. Eventually, the league must align with the long-term goals of the sport in this country in order for America to become a true power in the world of soccer.

Notes:

1. I use the terms club, team, and franchise interchangeably to refer to professional soccer organizations in this country.

2. Although I use just pro/rel far more often, the changes I’m proposing include both promotion and relegation and an elimination of the single entity structure. I believe these two things go hand in hand.

3. Although I only mention the United States, everything stated here can be applied to Canada as well, as Canadian teams currently compete in the same pyramid as American teams.

Works Cited:

1. http://www.hasbeensports.com/9/post/2013/07/relegationpromotion-in-the-us.html

2. http://www.nasl.com/index.php?id=3&newsid=5055

3. http://www.empireofsoccer.com/give-them-what-they-want-bill-petersons-vision-for-nasl-us-soccer-centers-on-promotion-relegation/

4. http://www.nashvillefc.net/

5. http://www.soccernewsday.com/usa/a/968/expanding-mls-with-rivalry-bubbles

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U20 World Cup: Croatia 1 – 0 Uruguay

Group F action kicked off today at Bursa Atatürk Stadium and Uruguay took on Croatia in the second match of the day. It was a hard-fought game with chances for both sides, but a goal in the 41st minute from Ante Rebić was enough to earn Croatia all three points.

This is Uruguay’s 12th appearance and Croatia’s third at the U-20 World Cup finals. Neither side have won the tournament, although Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia when the former Balkan nation won in 1987. Uruguay’s best finish was second in 1997.

Despite having populations of less than 5 million, both Uruguay and Croatia are strong footballing countries that put an emphasis on youth development, and a good match was anticipated. It began with energy coming from both sides, and the referee produced a yellow card after just 14 seconds on Croatia’s Marko Livaja. The teams battled for control of the middle and the game went end to end in the opening minutes.

The first quarter of an hour was a bit tentative with no great chances for either side. Uruguay’s Federico Acevedo went wide with the first shot of the game five minutes in. Croatia came back and won a corner in the 11th minute but could do nothing with the chance. The first great opportunity of the match came on a Uruguay free kick from distance in the 17th minute. Playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta launched the ball into the box and it was almost turned home by center back José Giménez’s header, but the ball hit the side netting.

In the 21st minute, Croatia won a penalty after a nice ball over the top from Livaja found Dario Čanađija. Uruguay captain Gastón Silva clipped Čanađija’s ankle and the referee pointed to the spot. Livaja stepped forward to take the penalty, but his shot rocketed off the post, then ricocheted off the back of keeper Guillermo De Amores and Uruguay were able to clear it. The South Americans came right back down the field to win a corner, and Silva almost atoned for the penalty give-away, but his header was tipped over the bar by the Croatian goalkeeper Oliver Zelenika.

Uruguay looked like they had found a second wind after the missed penalty and started to attack the Croatian goal with more energy. De Arrascaeta tried his luck from distance twice and also sent several good-looking free kicks into the box, but Uruguay were unable to convert.

The breakthrough of the game came in the 41st minute, when Rebić scored a brilliant goal. Livaja was again involved with some quick passes in the final third, and the ball came to a streaking Rebić at the edge of the box. The Croatian looked like he took a touch too many to round a defender, but still beat De Amores with a good finish across to the back post. It was perhaps a bit unfortunate for Uruguay, who had looked dangerous, but certainly deserved for Croatia. The Europeans went into halftime up a goal despite relatively even possession and shots numbers.

Uruguay came out determined in the second half and almost went level off a headed shot from Diego Rolán, as Zelenika was forced into a fingertip save to touch the ball over the bar. Croatia were ready for the test, however, and still managed to control a bit more of the possession. Livaja especially continued to be dangerous with the ball at his feet, but was almost sent off for a second yellow card after a bad challenge in the middle of the park. As the game approached the hour mark, it was clear that Croatia were content with their one goal, and they began to employ various time-wasting tactics.

Uruguay made a double substitution after 65 minutes, bringing on Nicolás López and Leonardo Pais. The South Americans showed more attacking intent afterwards as they pressed forward for an equalizer. López was dangerous upon entering the game, and Diego Laxalt and De Arrascaeta created chances but Uruguay could not put the ball into the net. Croatian fullback Ivan Aleksić made several important challenges to deny Uruguay in various attacking positions. The final 20 minutes were nervy, but Croatia held on for a tight 1-0 victory and three important points.

The two teams will be back in action on Wednesday, when Croatia take on Uzbekistan, who also earned three points today. Uruguay will meet fellow losers New Zealand and will certainly need a win to boost their chances of progressing.

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