Croatia Stuns England, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup Is Theirs for the Taking

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Mario Mandzukic celebrates after scoring Croatia’s winning goal in their upset, comeback win against England

“Little” Croatia didn’t get the memo. Little Croatia didn’t read the script. And Little Croatia, the little country across the Adriatic Sea from Italy (see, sports and a geography lesson to boot!) that was carved out of former Yugoslavia (and a history lesson), is on its way to its first World Cup Final in only 27 years of existence. And along the way, Team Croatia defeated Argentina and host Russia. Unbelievable.

England was on its way to not just the World Cup Final, but to a victory in the World Cup Final. It was a fait accompli, or so they thought. Until Croatia got in the way with a come from behind, goal in extra time-turnaround win. It was an upset for the ages. England wasn’t supposed to lose. And Croatia wasn’t supposed to win. And that’s how the ball bounces in this summer of surprises.

And here’s the theological twist: what have people, or even you yourself, said that you couldn’t do? What seemingly insurmountable, unachievable, or impossible feat have you been told just can’t happen in your life? Write it down. The Biblical examples are endless. Abraham and Sarah had their promised baby boy late in their retirement years. So did Zacharias and Elizabeth. The woman with the issue of blood was cleansed after being sick for so long, and the widow from Nain had her son raised to life again. It can happen!

So write it down. Write what you are believing God for down. Put a magnet on it and stick it on the refrigerator. Write it in on a post it and stick it on your mirror. This way, every day, you can remind yourself of what you are believing God for. And then remember Croatia in the FIFA 2018 World Cup. Because if Croatia can pull off the improbable, you can too.

And if “little” Croatia defeats France in the final on Sunday, they will forever be the upstart that pulled off the upset that we will be talking about for ages to come. And, when your miracle comes to pass, we’ll be talking about you too.

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“As Brazil Crashes Out, the Magic Appears to Be Gone, Too”

Brazil Loss in 2018 FIFA

Here’s an absoultely brilliantly written piece by By 

KAZAN, Russia — It is a fine line between respect and deference, and in the days before they came face to face with Brazil, Belgium’s players and staff did all they could to navigate it.

A World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil was a challenge, defender Vincent Kompany said, but he and his teammates would not be “losing sleep” over the identity of their opponents. There was “no weakness” in Brazil’s team, according to striker Romelu Lukaku, although “defensively, they can be taken” on.

Belgium’s coach, Roberto Martínez, would concede only one advantage to his opponent before his team beat Brazil, 2-1, on Friday. “The difference is, we have not won the World Cup, and they have won it five times,” he said. “Brazil has got that psychological barrier out of the way.”

That weight of history, of course, is what lends Brazil its magic. It is what makes Brazil the world’s most prestigious national team, a byword not just for taste and style but for success, too. That ultimate marriage of style and substance is what makes the sight of those canary yellow jerseys, blue shorts and white socks so enchanting, what makes the colors gleam just a little brighter.

To see them is to remember Pelé and Jairzinho, Romário and Ronaldo, all of the single-name stars who emerged, every four years, to light up a tournament and so many childhoods. It is to recall the goals they scored and the World Cups they won, the stories of their indelible greatness the world was told when it was young.

It is the same whether you are a fan or a player: Brazil is different; Brazil is special. Martínez is quite right — that effect must count for something, at some level, however deep in the subconscious. It must bewitch those who find themselves tasked with stopping the thing that so inspired them.

And yet if those jerseys are intimidating to see, they are surely no less daunting to wear. All those greats, all those ghosts, on your shoulders and on your back, reminding you of what you are supposed to achieve, who you are supposed to be, that only victory counts as success and everything else is failure.

But Martínez was also quite wrong. Brazil might have won five World Cups, but this Brazil team — this Brazil generation — has not won any, and it will be painfully, crushingly aware of it.

There are five stars on Brazil’s jersey representing those championships, but the last one was added in 2002. After this defeat, the soonest a sixth can join it is in 2022, a wait of two long decades for a nation that — for all the romance of jogo bonito — values only victory. This team, like the three that have gone before it, has failed.

There has not even been a succession of near misses. Brazil fell in the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010, just as it has in Russia. It went one step further on home soil in 2014, but found only humiliation, the sort that can scar a nation, waiting there.

Every time, the rhythm of the country’s reaction has been the same. There is a bout of soul-searching; the manager is sacked; a new coach promises to make the team more resilient, more tenacious. He does this by playing with more defensive midfielders. It does not work. The cycle begins again.

This time, it is even harder to believe such a response would be proportionate. Brazil was not embarrassed by Belgium: Tite’s team created more than enough chances to have forced extra time, at the very least. It can regard itself unfortunate not to have been awarded a penalty for a foul on Gabriel Jesus. It can believe itself cursed that, in the first half in particular, Belgium defended so effectively by accident, rather than by design.

Not every defeat is proof of some spiritual failing. Not every defeat means everything is wrong. Certainly, there is no shortage of talent on this Brazilian squad, just as there was no shortage of talent in any of the squads since 2002. Neymar is not a mirage, and neither are Jesus, Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and the others.

There are some aging legs in the back line, and something of a dearth of young, dynamic fullbacks, but this is a country that exports thousands of players every year. It is a place where players will continue to grow.

That is what has allowed Brazil to build its history, that endless flowering of talent, one star replaced smoothly by another, year after year, cycle after cycle, decade after decade.

What has happened since 2002, though, suggests this is no longer the advantage it once was. The playing field has been leveled: Brazil is no longer pre-eminent in the way it once was, possessed of enough raw brilliance to carry it through. The explanation for that does not lie in Brazil’s shortcomings, but in someone else’s strengths.

It is not a coincidence that all four of this year’s World Cup semifinalists, whatever happens in the second set of quarterfinals, are from Europe. This is, increasingly, a European competition. All four of the most recent world champions have been European. Since 1990, what might be broadly termed soccer’s modern era, there have been eight World Cups. Brazil has won two. Europe will have picked up the rest.

At least one manager here has confided privately that Europe’s power — in terms of finance, influence, and physicality — has become almost impossible to compete with, certainly for Africa, Asia and North America, and increasingly for South America, the game’s other traditional stronghold.

The major nations of the Old World have industrialized youth development so effectively that France, Germany and Spain can now rival Brazil and Argentina as a source of players. Its smaller countries have such easy access to best practices that their size is no longer an issue.

Their players and coaches can be exported easily to the best leagues in the world. The latest developments in coaching, sports science, nutrition and the rest can be imported rapidly. It is that process that allowed Iceland to draw with Argentina, and be a little disappointed it did not win. It is that process that has left Belgium in the World Cup semifinals, and Croatia and Sweden with hopes of joining them.

And it is that process that has seen Brazil come and go from four World Cups, all without success. Each one, each failing, simply adds to the pressure that awaits the next team to try to end the wait, to try to overcome all of the advantages that Europe can call on.

The players in those yellow jerseys know as well as anyone that Brazil has won five World Cups. They know more than everyone that they have not contributed to any of them. Increasingly, those victories are not a psychological barrier that lies broken at their feet, but one that towers above them, standing in their way, casting them into shadow.

Coach Jimmy V: Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds

UCT Cover

Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds: get your copy TODAY!

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth a thousand pictures. The image is that powerful. 

Every time I look at the cover photo for Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds, a book about God and sports, I get goose bumps. It’s a photo that you almost want to jump into. It’s the party that we all want to crash. It’s the celebration that we all want to be a part of. It’s a picture of pure, unbridled and unapologetic joy. There’s nothing in the world like it. That’s why we need Heaven’s help to get it. It’s unspeakable joy.

Coach Jimmy Valvano experienced this kind of indescribable joy when his team pulled off the upset of the ages and won the 1982 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. The picture speaks volumes. After the big win, Coach Jimmy V is being carried off of the court by the fans. The FANS!  It’s not that this doesn’t happen often, it’s that it NEVER happens. Being carried off the court or the field by the players? Yes, that’s happened. But to be carried off by fans is unheard of. After this historic win, the excitement and ecstasy of victory was so moving that it moved the fans close to the winning coach to the point that they undertook this unprecedented uprising.

The North Carolina State Wolfpack defeated the heavily favored University of Houston Phi Slamma Jamma team in a NCAA Men’s Basketball Final that will never be forgotten.  Coach Jimmy V’s arms and hands are stretched wide, as the hands and arms of his fans are stretched high to lift him and laud him and raise him and rally around him for the great victory he’d won. And great victories deserve and even demand great celebrations. And that’s what we witness here in this iconic photo.

Joy is great delight, and only comes from something exceptional and unusual. And the 1982 Wolfpack win was truly exceptional. It was a stroke of coaching genius on the part of Coach Jimmy V. The theological tie in is this: isn’t our spiritual victory over sin and Satan by the power of the Cross even more exceptional and extraordinary and moving and marvelous? I believe that Jimmy V’s sports victory is God’s way of giving us a glance and a glimpse of the glorious celebration we will have in Heaven with Him at the end of time.  It’s pure, unspeakable joy, and we don’t have to wait till the end of time to get it.

 We can have this joy in Jesus right now. 

Can LeBron and the Lakers Make Magic? (look like a genius?)

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LeBron James just signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now Magic Johnson and the team from Tinsel town seems to be one free agent away from building the talent that can contest and wage war with Warriors for supremacy in the NBA’s Western Conference. Wow.

LeBron James chose LA for obvious reasons. One, he lives there. Two, he wants to stay there. Three, and this is the one most of us question, he thinks he can win another championship there.  We’ll see.  The Lakers were not good last season, but now the fans are dancing in the streets. And now they must go from not so good to great overnight if the Lakers are to return to their former glory.

And that’s where we all want to be; back to the glory days of our youth and our better days when we were at our peak and played at our finest. LeBron’s no spring chicken, but he’s also proven that he, like fine wine, is just getting better with age. And that’s the other lesson. Can we all get better instead of getting worse? Can we improve our game and not stay the same but instead progress and proceed in spite of the wear and tear of everyday life? 

LeBron showed us that it can be done, because he did it in Cleveland. Now, we’ll see if he can stage a comeback and turn the Lakers franchise around. Now, we’ll see if he can play with Lonzo Ball and Brandam Ingram and Kyle Kuzma and make them better players.

Now, we’ll see if LeBron can pull a rabbit out of Magic’s hat in LA.

From Repeat to Three-peat? Who is Going to Stop the Golden State Warriors?

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 Houston said they would. They had Chris Paul teamed with James Harden, and they were up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. Then Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury, and he DNPed in Games 6 and 7. No matter, the Rockets couldn’t hit the side of a barn, and missed twenty-seven three pointers in a row in the Game 7 loss at home.

LeBron said he could. King James once again carried a team of nobodies and no accounts to the NBA Finals only to find out once again that you can’t beat the Warriors without balanced scoring and more than a little luck on your side. What’s that? We don’t believe in luck? Well then it must have been Providence, right?

The Cavaliers were leading the Warriors in Game 1 ON THE ROAD at the Oracle in Oakland when a charge call was reversed and LeBron was called for a block. Durant hit both free throws and gave Golden State back the lead. But don’t blame the loss on the referees. The Cavs had a chance to win in regulation when JR Smith inexplicably dribbled out the final 4.7 seconds of the clock, forcing overtime. George Hill missed the free throw that would have given Cleveland the lead. But JR grabbed the offensive rebound and could have made a point blank layup to win the game. Say it aint so.  

So Houston couldn’t. And LeBron and the Cavaliers couldn’t.

Now the Golden State Warriors are, once again, the NBA champions after they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in a clean four-game sweep of the 2018 NBA Finals. The series was far closer than the series outcome would suggest, as the Cavaliers took Game 1 at Oracle Arena to overtime and led for much of Game 3 in Cleveland, but Golden State’s overwhelming talent behind Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was just too much for the Cavaliers to handle. This is the third championship in four years for the Warriors, and it leaves not only the Cavaliers, but the rest of the league with plenty of question marks.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three
CLEVELAND, OH – JUNE 6: Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 yell and celebrate with Kevin Durant #35 after Durant scored 43 points in Game Three of the 2018 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers  at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Warriors appear primed for a run of dominance that should span for at least another few years, potentially bringing their championship total into the range of Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers or Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The rest of the NBA’s players will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening, and it all starts with LeBron James. His free agency will dictate who Golden State’s greatest rival is next season, and he likely has already formed his own ideas on how to beat this Warriors juggernaut. https://origin-assets.247sports.com/ContentGallery/Golden-State-Warriors-defeat-Cleveland-Cavaliers-to-win-NBA-championship-and-players-respond-on-Twitter-118908129So who’s going to stop Golden State? No one. They can only beat themselves. And no one can stop you when you make up your mind that you’re going to get the job done and you lean on Heaven for help.

SPORTS360 Podcast

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Hey Everybody! 

My book Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds is now available on Amazon.com!  Please check it out and let me know what you think.   If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. AND a dear friend featured me on his new, insightful and thought provoking Podcast, SPORTS360.  Jeff and I discuss the book, how we connect with God through sports, my Philly teams, and the intersection of sports and spirituality. Check it out on YouTube.com.

Cinderella vs. Cinderella!

I called it! I’m not bragging or anything but I absolutely called it. The Washington Capitals just defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 ON THE ROAD, and for the first time in franchise history, mind you, they’ve reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

Now it’s the Las Vegas Golden Knights versus the Washington Capitals for the championship – Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s a unique matchup. It’s unprecedented and almost unheard of.

These two teams were not picked to go this far or to fair this well. But they have overcome the odds and come over the obstacles laid out against them. The Caps and Golden Knights have recovered their own fumbles and debunked the doubters and jeared the court jesters to reach the threshold of the summit of their sport. These two teams now make it almost impossible for the casual observer to choose a fair-haired favorite or pick the one most popular.

Sports fans now have a “Sophia’s Choice.” In other words, the NHL now has a peculiar problem. We now have two Cinderella teams going head – to – head, playing for all the marbles. But only one team can win. Because no participation trophies will be given out here. The lone winner takes home the Stanley Cup Trophy!

So who ya got?