By J Hutcherson (Oct 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – As big moments go, Sunday’s UEFA Nations League final produced a major one. With the score tied 1-1 at the San Siro, France’s Kylian Mbappe put on a display of skill to slot the ball past Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon. It was the kind of goal made for the big stage, starting with Theo Hernandez finding Mbappe with a pass that took multiple defenders out of the play. That left Mbappe way too much space, with the announcers quick to point out a reason for that.
Mbappe looked offside, with the expectation that the score would stay 1-1 once VAR did its job. Instead, the game resumed from the center spot with France leading 2-1 and ten minutes left in regulation. The message was clear. Once again, the promise of instant replay correcting obvious problems ran into instant replay perhaps not doing enough. The eventual explanation centering on Spain defender Eric Garcia getting his foot on the ball only raised questions about that interpretation of the rule. The simple answer was not so simple.
Spain coach Luis Enrique opted to focus on the earlier sequence where his team scored only to almost immediately see France equalize. “Irrespective of who we play against, or what situation, we always try to play our way – with bravery, attacking with ambition,” he said. “So tonight it’s not so much about the pain of defeat, it’s also about a tinge of sadness because we competed very well. The unfairness of football is that we had the chance to put a knockout move on France when we went 1-0 up, but Benzema did something superb.”
He did, changing the scope of the game with his goal and showing how quickly teams of this caliber can act and react. That’s the memorable moment from the final, Karim Benzema canceling out Mikel Oyarzabal’s goal.
“It was a dream night from a personal and a team standpoint,” Benzema said. “It wasn’t easy and we showed the strength of character of this team. We never give up. It’s the sign of great teams to never panic and be patient. When you score a goal like that, there’s always an element of luck. I knew from the moment it left my boot that it was going in, but not that it would find the top corner.”
So instant replay alongside a rule interpretation doesn’t quite overshadow the final. Credit the teams involved and the level of play, but it’s still a familiar story in the era of VAR. Getting that right most of the time continues to be an ongoing process. Still, it’s not the final that gave us what should be the moment that resonates from the last day of the Nations League. It’s not even something that happened on the field.
Immediately following Belgium’s 2-1 loss to Italy earlier on Sunday in Turin, Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois took issue with the concept of a 3rd-place game in his postgame comments. “This game is just a money game, and we have to be honest about it,” he said. “We just play it because for UEFA it’s extra money and it’s an extra game on TV.”
Courtois also criticized the November World Cup, the ongoing revamp of the European club competitions, and the biennial World Cup proposal. “You hear that they want to put a European Championship and a World Cup every year,” he said. “When will we get a rest? Never. So in the end, only top players will get injured and injured and injured and that’s the end of it…. We are not robots. It’s just more and more games, and less rest for us, and nobody cares about us.”
To say he’s got a point almost downplays the structural maneuvering currently going on at the highest levels of soccer. FIFA’s plans to push all international matchdays into one or two months as part of a calendar revamp grabbed enough attention to have people asking why. Get injured in October, and that could be it for an entire season’s worth of international duty. A player emerging late in the season now competes with whatever happened on the field in October.
It’s not just that, of course. As Courtois described, it’s what happens every summer should that plan go ahead. It’s confederations adding games to the club calendar. It’s leagues deciding that the standard format isn’t enough and opting for what MLS and Liga MX plan to eventually do with the Leagues Cup. Simply put, it’s more when more may not be the better choice.
Soccer has an overarching issue right now that will end up addressed one way or another. It’s that very few seem to want to treat their own ideas the same way they openly criticize the ideas of others. Courtois addressed that as well. “They’re against The Super League, but they just do the same. They put extra games, they made an extra trophy, the Conference Cup or whatever the name is…. It’s always the same.”
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Logo courtesy of UEFA