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On Soccer With Rory Smith

World Cup Dreams, Gone in an Instant

For hundreds of the world’s best players, injury is the fear shadowing every step, every turn, every tackle as the World Cup looms.

Diogo Jota’s World Cup ended in Liverpool two weeks ago.
Credit...Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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LEEDS, England — For a second, Aleksandar Mitrovic looked panicked. He slumped onto his back on the Elland Road turf, his face a grimace, his hands covering his eyes. It was not immediately apparent what had happened: Perhaps his ankle had jarred, or his knee twisted, or a hamstring popped.

Fulham’s medical team rushed onto the field. Marco Silva, the club’s coach, has been “managing” his striker’s fitness for weeks, ever since Mitrovic picked up an injury while away on international duty with Serbia. He was taken off early in a defeat against Newcastle. He missed a game with Bournemouth altogether. He has admitted to playing in “a lot of pain.”

Now Mitrovic lay prone for no more than a minute, patiently acquiescing, as the doctors rotated his foot and gingerly stretched his knee. Cautiously, he stood up, doing all he could to put as little weight as possible on his left leg. Watch enough soccer and, after a while, it becomes easier to tell when a player is exaggerating for effect. Mitrovic’s eyes, fretful and wide, made it clear that he was sincere.

He would not, it is fair to say, just have been worrying about missing the rest of Fulham’s victory over Leeds, or the frustration of the possibility of a couple of weeks on the sidelines.

His thoughts would, instead, have rushed — unbidden and irresistible — to the worst-case scenario. The opening game of the World Cup is barely three weeks away. Coaches will start to name squads, even preliminary ones, in the next two weeks. Any setback now, any pull or strain or tear or crack, might cost a player their place.

Mitrovic, like a few hundred others, would have wondered immediately if this was the moment he lost his World Cup.

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Credit...Craig Brough/Reuters

In the end, there was no reason to worry. The 28-year-old Mitrovic — who will, all being well, act as the spearhead of Serbia’s attack in Qatar — took a little while to satisfy himself that he was not taking any risks, and then threw himself back into the fray. Late on, conscious of the striker’s value, Silva withdrew him, just in case.

Others have not been so fortunate. Qatar 2022’s absentee list is already a substantial one. France will not be able to call on N’Golo Kanté. Lucas Hernández, Paul Pogba and Raphaël Varane may yet miss out, too. Argentina will be without Paulo Dybala. Portugal will not have Diogo Jota in its ranks. Uruguay will have to cope without Ronald Aráujo.

There are doubts, too, over many more: Marcelo Brozovic and Ángel Di María and so many English right backs that Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Liverpool ingénue so inexperienced that he has apparently yet to learn crucial skills like “tackling,” might even get to play.

There is nothing unusual about that, of course. True, the World Cup has never before happened in the middle of the European season; FIFA, in a rare example of what might, in another organization, be called wisdom, has never previously thought to ask players to go straight from the blood and thunder of the domestic schedule into an era-defining international tournament with only six days to acclimatize.

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Credit...Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But playing the World Cup in its traditional July slot did not make players immune from injury; the three-week firewall between the end of the European season and the start of the tournament did not possess any curative power. In World Cup years, those players aspiring to represent their nations have always had to weigh the risks and rewards as the club campaign reached its climax. Few previous tournaments, if any, have been played with a full contingent of stars.

There are, though, a couple of differences this year. The most obvious is the sheer number of games. Ordinarily, by April and May, most teams are only playing once a week; it is only the select few, competing not only in their domestic tournaments but in the late stages of European competitions, that face the prospect of matches every three days.

This time around, because of the squeeze on the calendar created by the looming hulk of Qatar, everyone appears to be playing constantly. That means players not only have more chances to get injured, but find themselves more susceptible to it. There is no time to rest, to recuperate, to rehabilitate. Sinews are permanently strained, bodies forever on the edge.

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Credit...Daniel Hambury/EPA, via Shutterstock

The second difference is a little less easily quantified. Few players would admit that, as the season reaches its conclusion, they dial back their intensity just a little, conserving their energies for a tournament still a couple of months away. That, after all, sounds troublingly close to confessing to coasting.

And yet it seems impossible that the majority — those not competing for trophies or jostling for European positions or to avoid relegation — would not do just that. It is too easy to overestimate the margins in elite soccer, to assume that everything can be measured in substantial, chunky percentage blocks.

In reality, of course, the differences are so slender as to be barely perceptible. A player with the World Cup at the back of their mind does not run at half-speed, or refuse to tackle; they simply do not burn further into the red when their body is at the limit. They do not shirk a tackle, but they may not go in with quite as much force, or to quite the same extent. They shave the edges.

That is not quite so easily done when the season is still taking shape, and ambition remains more potent than reality. Fulham sits seventh in the Premier League, after all, and is in the tick of the battle for a place in the Europa League. The consequences of not making that sprint, of not going for that tackle, could yet be considerable. This is a time when taking risks still comes with a reward.

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Credit...Fabio Frustaci/EPA, via Shutterstock

That may not be how everyone sees it, of course. This season is developing to be a reasonably curious one, to say the least. It is not just that Fulham sits seventh in the Premier League. It is that Liverpool appears to be playing while mired in treacle, and Tottenham seems underpowered, and Chelsea and Manchester United have both come across as somehow inhibited at various times.

It is that Union Berlin is top of the Bundesliga, with even mighty Bayern Munich trailing in its wake, and with Borussia Dortmund nowhere to be seen. It is that Juventus and Inter Milan have fallen by the wayside in Italy already, cast aside by a rampant Napoli. It is that Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are already out of the Champions League, Spain left with just one representative in a tournament it has dominated for a decade.

All of this might just be the curiosities that always come with a new campaign, the vicissitudes of fate, the changing of the seasons. Each of those stories, after all, has its own, deep roots. Perhaps it is all just noise.

Or it might be that, on some level, nobody wants to be Kanté, or Jota, or Dybala. They do not even, if they can help it, want to be Mitrovic. And so the typical strangeness of the new season has become more pronounced.

It might be that, for the last couple of months, what has unfurled has been to some extent a phony war, contested by combatants with a different conflict in mind.


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Credit...Alberto Lingria/Reuters

Andrés Carrasco came to closer summing up the experience of watching Khvicha Kvaratskhelia than anyone else. The head of Dinamo Tbilisi’s youth academy was contemplating whether there are any shared characteristics among Georgian attacking players, whether there is a defined national style, when he hit upon the word.

Yes, he said, there is something. They tend, to his Barcelona-trained mind, to be just a little bit “anarchic.”

Kvaratskhelia has, in his first few weeks at Napoli, become a sensation in both Serie A and the Champions League, not so much for what he does — though his goal return is more than respectable, particularly in a league that prides itself on its parsimony — but for how he does it.

At any given moment, Kvaratskhelia does not do what you expect him to do. He makes strange, faintly unsettling choices. He plows on when he should turn back. He shoots when he should pass. He dances through defenders when the road is very clearly closed. And it is that which makes him so refreshing.

European soccer is a deeply ordered world. Even those teams who seem to play with a reckless abandon, who appear so freewheeling, so maverick, tend to be playing according to set patterns. Those combinations, those movements that come so easily are in most cases the product of hours of work on the training ground. They are learned by rote, not conjured from the imagination.

Kvaratskhelia — for now, at least — stands in opposition to that. He is raw, unfiltered, untamed. Defenders, at first glance, appear to be completely flummoxed by him, as if he is not playing by the established conventions. For much the same reason, many of those who have watched him frequently in Italy are thrilled by him. He is a little dose of anarchy, and European soccer is all the better for it.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a confession in this section, but Dan Andersen provides the prompt for a fairly major one. It is possible that, despite my job title as chief soccer correspondent, I no longer know what offside is any more.

“If Harry Kane is offside,” Dan wrote, referring to the remarkable denouement to Tottenham’s game with Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday, “video technology makes that decision in a nanosecond,” before wondering why, exactly, it took three minutes for someone to work that out.

That is a question that I cannot answer, but far more troubling is that — as far as I can tell — Kane was not offside: sure, he was ahead of the last defender, but he was behind the teammate who headed the ball to him. If the ball travels backward, I was taught, there is no offside. I’m in good company, too: Eric Dier evidently learned the same thing.

We may, as it turns out, both have been misled. Apparently the trajectory of the ball is irrelevant, and always has been irrelevant. This may, of course, be true: Eric and I may have been laboring under a misapprehension for years. Or it may only be true now, another tweak to a law that has been reshaped to the point of vacuousness in recent years, further evidence for my long-held belief that we all need to sit down and come up with the rules again from scratch.

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Credit...Ian Walton/Associated Press

James Waller, meanwhile, wants to take our nostalgia for mud and add to it. “Given drainage systems, the ludicrously waterlogged pitch is largely a disappointing thing of the past,” he wrote. “It may have turned events into a mad lottery but it was undeniably entertaining at times.” Extra points to James for finding that footage on “Bing Video,” rather than YouTube.

And finally, David Moulton is seeking clarity, which is something that can be said for all of us, really. “I am confounded by the long downfield kick by goalkeepers,” he wrote. “It is agony to watch, knowing that at best there is a 50 percent chance of success. I mean, why not pass it directly to your own player, with the expectation that they will control the ball at least somewhere past midfield?”

The most straightforward answer here is tradition: goalkeepers take long goal kicks because goalkeepers have always taken long goal kicks. It is not, primarily, an attacking move, of course. The long goal kick is manifest fear. The logic behind it is that it is much better, all told, for the ball to be a long way from your goal and as close as possible to the opposition’s.

I am, though, intrigued by goal kicks. It is an avowed belief that you can see all of modern soccer in its brilliance and its mania at a goal kick: half of the players clustered around the penalty area, ready to start or resist the press; half a dozen or so more deep inside the other half of the field, awaiting the counter attack; and a great, gaping green space in between, because the one place nobody ever puts a goal kick now is midfield.

That’s all for this week. We have good news and bad news for you. This newsletter will, once the World Cup rolls around, be going on hiatus for a month or so. It will, though, be replaced by a daily — that’s right folks, daily — newsletter during the tournament, hopefully guiding you through all of the stories, the games and our coverage of Qatar 2022. You can decide which one is good news and which one is bad for yourselves.