See? I told you it would be fun to cheer against Germany!
I still hate Greatest Of All Time discussions. Nine times out of eight the nominees turn out to be either Thing That Just Happened or Thing From Nominator's Formative Years.
But MAN, wasn't this the Greatest First Round of All Time?! I'm almost prepared to be immensely tedious, and come up with some cockamamie grading scale. I could go back all the way to 1930, and recapitulate each one, and rank them in order - despite the fact that I would have only been alive for half of them, and watched about a third of them.
Yeah, a few of those games in the past looked great. Yeah, I'll bet watching North Korea school Italy in 1966 was amazing. But I just know in my tiny little heart that we just watched the very best. Certainly, the most fun.
In every tournament we fall in love with minnows. In some cases, we fall in love with teams that are eliminated in the first round through misfortune or injustice. Usually, though, the minnows just quietly lose. Not this year! They weren't minnows, they were mermaids. For whatever reason, teams that were already eliminated played not merely for pride - any idiot team can kick with anger on the way to the airport. Iran was wonderful, Morocco was wonderful, Peru! Peru made so many friends this tournament. You just couldn't help but pull for them. Only the most market-oriented Barcelona executive preferred Argentina over Nigeria, and I say this as someone who kinda hated Nigeria's jerseys.
And then there was Group F. F for FUN!
Mexico fans in 2002: How can you be proud of backing in to the next round like that? If it weren't for Korea, you'd be going home.
Mexico fans in 2018: Korea is so awesome.
US fans in 2018: I KNOW, RIGHT?
You were right, Landon. You told us to support Mexico, and it paid off. To this hour, when I read stories of the Korea fans in Russia, Mexico and Los Angeles who were feted and hailed as honorary citizens, I just can't help but smile. Korea, Mexico, the World Cup, soccer - this is why we became fans! This is what we all saw in this sport in the first place.
Look, there's always going to be a lot of crap, nonsense, and evil around the game. We can go back to hating Mexico the minute they're out - I plan to, at least, nothing personal. And as far as what happens off the field - well, down the road we've got our own house to tidy up, and we have to make sure Qatar stops being an evil, ugly disaster as far as human rights go. There's also a lot of love and beauty, and I'm glad we're all here to appreciate it.
And the World Cup champion went out in the first round! That hasn't happened since five times in a row and counting! Wait, what?
Every year we get haughty pronunciations that the Champions League is the best that the sport has to offer. Sure, fine, whatever. When the Champions League comes up with a group stage anywhere near this compelling - and remember, the Champions League has a chance to do so every year - then we'll talk. The World Cup is supreme.
Now watch every game going forward make the France-Denmark game look like Italy-Brazil 1982.
My bracket is a smoking ruin, but yours might not be. Only two top seeds went out, and Poland might have been the shakiest non-host top seed in the history of the tournament. The only team you'd call an underdog remaining is probably Japan, and I don't think we'll need to worry about them very long.
I flipped the finishers, which I guess is another way of saying I blew the group predictions, but I did call Uruguay v. Portugal and Russia v. Spain for the next round. I came to that conclusion using insane conspiracy theories, and I'm going to go ahead and keep my chips on that number. Either Uruguay-Portugal is going to be an all-time classic, or a two hour exhibition of Whack-a-Mole starring Cristiano Ronaldo's ankles in the title role. Maybe both, depending on how you feel about Chris Ron Seven.
And explain to me why Belgium is supposed to be heartbroken about winning the group and getting in the "tough" bracket. The idea that Belgium and England were supposed to throw the game for the privilege of playing Colombia instead of Japan seems insane to me. Yeah, it wasn't a great match. And yeah, once Belgium beats Japan, Brazil might be on deck. Pop quiz, who would you rather face with a semifinal spot on the line, Brazil or Croatia? You sure? I'd take my chances with Neymar rather than Modric.
I've been trashing Japan, but I can't be mad at them for advancing on a tiebreaker. Senegal should have made sure it didn't get down to that tiebreaker. Belgium would have thumped them, too.
As for the games I didn't see coming:
Argentina...does this sort of thing. Stink up qualifying, stink up the group, then go on a nice, long, hideous-looking run that offends polite souls everywhere. The snake-goddess Narrative is also shrieking for her Messi-Ronaldo quarterfinal. But France is damn good, and their group cooperated to give them a restful third game. I'm going to predict this is going to be one of those weird times in sports when a good team beats a bad one. Look at my wacky picks, everyone! Be sure to pound that Like button!
Brazil made no friends in their uninspired group win. Mexico emerged from Group F looking like Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa" after finally cracking the Kitnerboy Redoubt. I picked Brazil to win the tournament, but as I've already said, I'd be fine with fun Mexico going far for a change. Mexico is so fun to follow once they get out of CONCACAF. But I don't think Juan Carlos Osorio has stopped being Juan Carlos Osorio.
Croatia-Denmark and Sweden-Switzerland sound like games to fill half of a stadium to - at least, before this tournament started. I still am not sold on Switzerland, certainly not as sold as I am by the strip-mining that Sweden performed on Mexico to win the group, so I'm expecting less than you probably are. And I might be expecting too much from Denmark. They bored the planet against France, and didn't deserve all three against Peru.
Don't get me wrong, I'm hopping on the Croatia bandwagon too, but being an easier out than France does not make you an easy out. Maybe I'm nuts, but I see good things coming from this game. Modric has Golden Ball finalist written all over him.
I'm not going to project beyond this, because within hours these predictions will be as useful as plans to fortify the Maginot Line.