DOHA, Qatar — Hello and welcome to the first World Cup edition of the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, coming to you from Qatar. Today we’ll look at the host nation’s historic opener; the growing injury report that already has claimed some of the game’s biggest names; why Ali Daei is staying home in Iran; and some tips from prospective parents hoping to raise a World Cup player.
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But we start with the first World Cup game for the U.S. in eight years, one that started well and ended …. well, not so well, with Wales rallying for a 1-1 draw that probably felt like a loss to the Americans.
For 45 minutes the Americans dominated, pressing the disorganized Welsh, putting them under pressure and basically taking them out of their game. Through 60 minutes, the U.S. was comfortably in control. But then Wales got desperate and everything changed.
“We knew there was going to be a moment where Wales was going to change their tactics and throw caution to the wind,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We knew that was going to be part of it.”
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They had no choice. Although the game was the group-play opener for both — as well as Wales’ first World Cup game in 64 years — it was almost a playoff match. With powerful England and a suddenly unraveling Iran ahead for both in group play, a loss Monday would have left Wales with a steep climb to get out of the group. The draw, on the other hand, keeps both teams equal, which is where Gareth Bale comes in.
With the U.S. minutes away from a 1-0 win, a smart move by Bale forced American defender Walker Zimmerman into a clumsy foul in the box, leading to the penalty kick that tied the score.
“When we got the penalty we knew who was taking it, one million percent. He’s never let us down, has he?” Welsh manager Rob Page said. “Once again it’s all about Bale and rightly so.”
Zimmerman said he was tracking the ball as it went toward the end line before being sent back toward the top of the box.
“I don’t see Bale come across. I think it was one of those where he probably just puts his leg [out], not for the ball, but to try to get in the way of me hitting the ball,” he said. “So I kind of went through him and still got the ball. Clever move. I wish I would have seen him out of the corner of my eye on trying to clear the ball. But it was instinctive. It was quick.”
Zimmerman went to the ground waging his index finger and shouting “no, no” at Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim, but the official wasn’t buying it.
The U.S. goal came in the 36th minute and was set up on a long broken-field run from Christian Pulisic, who found Tim Weah with a perfectly weighted through ball. Weah split two defenders as he ran to the pass near the top of the box, then beat goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey with a right-footed shot from about 12 yards.
That, however, was the only shot on target the Americans managed in the first half despite piling up massive advantages in time of possession and passing. The young Americans didn’t get any more in the second half either, when opening-night jitters and fatigue caught up with them.
“I think we dialed it down a bit in the second half,” Weah said. “Fatigue set in. Definitely it was much harder. But you know, that’s football, there’s a lot of ups and downs. And as a team, we learn from our mistakes and know we’ve got to bounce back.”
“In a World Cup,” he added, “the most important thing is that we didn’t lose.”
And because it didn’t the U.S. will go into Friday’s game with No. 5 England with a chance to go atop the four-team group with a win. But even a loss would keep the Americans alive for a spot in the knockout stage if they can win their final first-round game with Iran next week.
So though the U.S. lost two points in the draw, it didn’t lose hope.
“It’s up to us, And it made it tough for us,” Pulisic said. “A point in the first game, it’s better than none. We have to move on. Learn from this. It’s a lot of our first World Cup game. Now it’s just time to focus on the next one.
“There’s a lot of positives to the game in general.”
Qatar wins while losing
Qatar was supposed to open the World Cup on Monday, part of a schedule of four games that would have forced the home team to compete for attention with U.S.-Wales, England-Iran and the Netherlands vs. Senegal. But like so many other things in this tournament (looking at you, beer sales), those plans were always subject to change.
So in August FIFA moved Qatar’s game with Ecuador up a day to give the host nation the spotlight. It was a wise decision since the country is making so much history in this tournament as the first Middle Eastern nation and first majority-Muslim nation to stage a World Cup or Olympics. It’s also the smallest country, in terms of size and population, and youngest country, having declared independence in 1971, to host the world’s most prestigious sporting event.
All that drew a crowd of more than 67,000 to Al Khor, at the edge of the Qatari desert, for a game that was played in a massive replica of a Bedouin tent. The brisk 30-minute opening ceremony was a celebration of …. well, I’m not sure what it celebrated. There were camels, giant headless soccer jerseys bouncing about, World Cup mascots dating to 1966, dancers dressed as Imperial troops from “Star Wars” carrying lightsabers, and Morgan Freeman.
An oversized version of La’eeb, the 2022 World Cup mascot based on a ghutra headdress but in fact more reminiscent of Casper the Friendly Ghost, was also there, floating over the stadium floor. More than one observer suggested the La’eeb appearance represented the risen spirit of the migrant workers who died while building the infrastructure for this tournament.
Next came a soccer match, which was far easier to understand the opening festivities though it, too, was awash in history.
With two goals in the first 31 minutes of his team’s 2-0 win, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia became the first player to score a brace in a World Cup opener. He would have had a hat trick but his score on a header in the third minute was erased after a video review that apparently used a microscope to determine Ecuador was offside.
Qatar, meanwhile, became the first host nation to lose a World Cup opener and the first host nation since 1994 to play a game in which it failed to put a shot on goal. By early in the second half many of the Qatari fans, who were festive at kickoff, had grown despondent and headed off into the mild summer night, leaving the half-empty stadium to Ecuadoran supporters who, at one point, chanted “we want beer,” a taunt directed at FIFA officials who caved to Qatari pressure last Friday and banned beer sales in and around the eight World Cup stadiums.
“There’s no excuse,” Qatar coach Félix Sánchez said of the game, not the beer ban. “There is a lot of room for improvement. Maybe the responsibility and nerves got the best of us. We didn’t start well. It was a terrible start actually.
“The atmosphere was great, people were very much looking forward to this game. The result can sometimes be difficult.”
But results on the field weren’t what concerned most Qataris. The country’s deep reserves of oil and natural gas have made it a major player in the global economy, but tiny Qatar wants a bigger seat at the table. This World Cup, which cost more than $220 billion in infrastructure investment, is supposed to prove the country is worthy of that.
“It’s the beginning of the future,” said Mohammed Boinin, the senior news-gathering and operations coordinator at Al Jazeera, the government-owned news network. “This is to show people what we can do.”
In that light, the soccer game meant little.
“The win,” Al-Boinin said, “was just making this happen.”
This week’s World Cup schedule
(all times Pacific)
Friday: Qatar vs. Senegal, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 5 a.m.; Ecuador vs. The Netherlands, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 8 a.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 29: Qatar vs. the Netherlands, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 7 a.m.; Ecuador vs. Senegal, Fox, Universo, Peacock Premium, 7 a.m.
Friday: Wales vs. Iran, FS1, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; U.S. vs. England, Fox, Universo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Tuesday, Nov 29: Wales vs. England, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.; Iran vs. U.S., Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Today: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock, 2 a.m.; Mexico vs. Poland, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock, 8 a.m.
Saturday: Poland vs. Saudi Arabia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 5 a.m.; Argentina vs. Mexico, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Today: Denmark vs. Tunisia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock, 5 a.m.; France vs. Australia, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock, 11 a.m.
Saturday: Tunisia vs. Australia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; France vs. Denmark, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 8 a.m.
Wednesday: Germany vs. Japan, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 5 a.m.; Spain vs. Costa Rica, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 8 a.m.
Sunday: Japan vs. Costas Rica, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; Spain vs. Germany, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Wednesday: Morocco vs. Croatia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; Belgium vs. Canada, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Sunday: Belgium vs. Morocco, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 5 a.m.; Croatia vs. Canada, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock, 8 a.m.
Thursday: Switzerland vs. Cameroon, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; Brazil vs. Serbia, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 11 a.m.
Monday: Cameroon vs. Serbia, FS1, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 2 a.m.; Brazil vs. Switzerland, Fox, Telemundo, Peacock Premium, 8 a.m.
Missing persons report
FIFA’s decision to award the World Cup to Qatar 12 years ago was criticized from the start, and one of the reasons was the oppressive summer heat in the Arab gulf. No problem, soccer’s world governing body said, we’ll just move the tournament to the fall and winter.
Well, turns out that was a problem. The change in dates placed the World Cup in the middle of league seasons around the globe rather than a month or six weeks after club teams have stopped playing. As a result, a number of top players won’t take part in the tournament after sustaining injuries that some might have been able to recover from given a more forgiving schedule.
Then there’s French forward Karim Benzema, who sustained a left quadriceps injury while training in Qatar on Saturday and will miss the tournament. He is the fifth French player to be scratched because of injury.
Here’s a partial list of some of the big names that are missing:
France: Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema (quad), Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba (knee), Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante (hamstring), Aston Villa midfielder Boubacar Kamara (knee) and Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe (Achilles)
Germany: RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner (ankle) and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus (ankle)
England: Chelsea defenders Reece James (knee) and Ben Chilwell (hamstring)
Portugal: Liverpool forward Diogo Jota (calf) and Wolverhampton winger Pedro Neto (ankle)
Brazil: Liverpool midfielder Arthur Melo (thigh)
Canada: SSV Jahn Regensburg defender Scott Kennedy (shoulder) and LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (broken leg)
Mexico: Sevilla winger Jesús “Tecatito” Corona (broken fibula, ruptured ankle ligaments)
Argentina: Villarreal midfielder Giovani lo Celso (hamstring)
Japan: Huddersfield defender Yuta Nakayama (Achilles)
Iran: Al-Wakrah midfielder Omid Ebrahimi (groin)
Senegal: Bayern Munich forward Sadio Mane (leg)
In Iran, there are more important things than the World Cup
Also missing from the World Cup is Ali Daei of Iran, the second-leading scorer in international soccer history. Daei took part in the World Cup draw earlier this year but will not attend the tournament after authorities in Iran confiscated his passport when he voiced support for Iranians who have protested the killing of Mahsa Amini, who died in September after being detained by the country’s morality police.
“I rejected the official invitation of FIFA and Qatar Football Federation to attend the World Cup with my wife and daughters,” Daei, who has been a vocal supporter of the protesters, wrote on Instagram. “I prefer to be next to you in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who lost loved ones over these days.”
Daei, 53, scored 109 goals for Iran between 1993 and 2006, second only to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Iran’s players stood silent, arms across one another’s shoulders, during their national anthem before Monday’s 6-2 loss to England in another show of solidarity with protesters back home. There was loud booing during the anthem from the large group of Iranian supporters at Khalifa International Stadium, some of whom held signs reading “Woman, Life and Freedom.” Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has given his players permission to protest while in Qatar. Monday’s game took place as security forces fired at demonstrators in two predominantly Kurdish cities.
What’s in a name? Possibly a World Cup roster spot
If you want your son to play in a World Cup you might think of naming him Carlos and waiting until January for his birth.
The Spanish website Kelbet.es analyzed more than 7,000 players from the first World Cup in 1930 through the 2018 tournament in Russia and found the most common name was Carlos with 72, and the most common birth month is January, with 761 World Cup players arriving then.
But if you want little Carlitos to win a World Cup, hold off until September. That’s the most common birth month among the 21 tournament champions.
Most common names for World Cup players
1. Carlos, 72
2. José, 59
3. Luis, 56
4. Mario, 48
5. John, 44
6t. David and Peter, 42
8. Roberto, 38
9t. Antonio, Jan and Jorge
Most common birth months for World Cup players
1. January, 761
2. March, 720
3. February, 700
4. September, 682
5. October, 667
So, if those are the stats for birth names and birth dates, how about birthplaces?
Another website, bettingexpert.com, broke that down and found Montevideo, Uruguay, has produced the most World Cup players with 95, ahead of Mexico City with 72. Buenos Aires, Argentina, is third with 66. No U.S. or Canadian city ranks in the top 20 although Tehran, Iran, does, ranking 14th with 34 World Cup players, one ahead of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As for cities with the most World Cup winners, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo share the top spot with five apiece.
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In case you missed it
“As a kid you grow up dreaming about playing in a World Cup. A lot of great names have played in it. Definitely a dream come true.”
Tim Weah on scoring his first World Cup goal, one more than his father, George, scored during a stellar career in which he was the FIFA player of the year and a three-time African player of the year yet never played in a World Cup