How the NFL and NBA are shaping the 2018 World Cup
MOSCOW -- The World Cup is a glorious, global event, a gathering of sport infused with diversity and cultural flair. Depending on where you are and what teams are around you, it can feel like you are in Mexico City or Buenos Aires, Lima or Paris, Seoul or Sydney.
And yet, watching this tournament over the past few weeks, it has been impossible to escape the feeling that at this World Cup -- yes, even without a team from the United States involved -- there is underlying American feel.
Maybe it is the off-the-ball moving screens being used during set pieces or the fact that "clear and obvious error" has become the new "Did he survive the ground?" or perhaps even just the new pregame musical routine that has swapped out the stodgy, orchestral FIFA anthem in favor of stadium classics like AC/DC and The White Stripes.
Actually, it was probably Antoine Griezmann's version of "The Decision," when the France star did a fairly poor LeBron James impression and announced his intention to stay at Atletico Madrid, instead of joining Barcelona, via a personal documentary -- which even included footage of him shooting hoops -- that he released just days before his team's opening match.
Regardless, it has combined to give this World Cup in Russia -- in Russia! -- an underbelly that is straight from the NBA or NFL.
Think that sounds crazy? Consider:
About matchups and mentality
England, which eliminated Colombia on Tuesday, was roundly praised for the revival of its national team in Russia, and many of the changes made were a result of manager Gareth Southgate's reconnaissance trips to the United States.
On the field, England's focus on dominating set plays was a direct result of their coach's focus on how NBA players find space in tight quarters around the rim.
When Southgate was in the U.S. last winter, he attended a Minnesota Timberwolves game specifically to learn more about the techniques involved, and the results were clear to see. As one example, during the group-stage game vs. Panama, Ashley Young set a textbook screen on the opponent, marking John Stones and allowing Stones the freedom to head in a corner kick that started off a 6-1 win.
But finding those static moments -- and controlling them -- amid the chaos of a dynamic game is only part of it. Southgate also visited the Seattle Seahawks, and he has infused many of the technical aspects he saw into his team's training. He also improved its approach to media, which is historically a combative relationship. Before the tournament, Southgate set up a Super Bowl-style media day where every one of his squad faced the press, creating a more open feeling that also increased the players' personal accountability.
"One of the reasons some of our guys have travelled is to see how the NFL operate, because we don't have to do things the way they've always been done," Southgate said earlier this year. "We can try different things that work."
England is not the only one looking at the U.S., either. Uruguay, which plays Friday in a quarterfinal vs. France, is coached by Oscar Tabarez, who has made no secret of his opinion that the NBA can be instructive to his own players.
In particular, Tabarez believes that defense in the NBA, specifically the way players have to quickly transition from attacking on one end to defending on the other, is critical for a country like Uruguay, where the depth of talent may not run as deep as bigger soccer powers.
"In that league, what is most worked is the defense," Tabarez said. "The one who works best at [limiting the opponent] in basketball is usually the one who wins, and we want to take that role to football."
And Mexico, which stunned Germany in the group stage but lost to Brazil on Monday in the round of 16, has also used the NFL approach to mental conditioning. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who is Colombian but moved to the United States as a teenager, is known as a tinkerer who constantly looks at other teams in other sports (including New Zealand's rugby union team) for ideas.
In the run-up to this competition, Osorio added a mental coach to focus on his player's psychology. Imanol Ibarrondo worked to keep the players focused more on winning and less on trying to avoid losing.
"I can't imagine a young person anywhere that doesn't dream about winning and it is fair, it's legitimate," Ibarrondo said. "I would say it is necessary, it's essential."
"After further review..."
The introduction of video assistant referees at this World Cup does not yet include the referee giving public explanations of his decisions -- sadly, we've been spared an Ed Hochuli-like monologue -- but NFL fans inured by the ever-changing rules about what constitutes a catch may be shivering from déjà vu anyway.
FIFA claimed that "99.3 percent" of decisions taken by VAR in the group stage were correct, but replay hasn't quite proven to be a panacea for controversy, and the main reason for that concerns differing views upon what constitutes a "clear and obvious" error.
To wit: How come Harry Kane being wrestled to the ground by Tunisia wasn't noticed? Why was Portugal's Cedric Soares penalised when the ball struck his arm from point-blank range? Further, if the penalty given to Brazil vs. Costa Rica was reversed, why wasn't Neymar cautioned for diving?
It is a question so nuanced that it falls into the same category of endless philosophical waxing as "Was his arm going forward?" and "Did he make a football move?" And the endless debate that has followed VAR decisions only speaks to the idea that human referees will interpret debatable incidents differently.
Perhaps a "clear and obvious" example of this came when the referee in Belgium-Tunisia, who happens to be an American official named Jair Marrufo, whistled for a foul that either happened just inside or just outside the penalty area.
The referee said it was inside. On replay, it might have seemed outside. But VAR wouldn't intervene either way. Why? NFL fans can recite it from memory: It was too close to overturn, so the call on the field -- whatever it was -- would have to stand.
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Confusion about concussion
During Morocco's group-stage game with Portugal, Nordin Amrabat, a Moroccan player, fell to the ground after banging heads with an opponent. The Moroccan doctor came on to the field and, while examining Amrabat, threw water in the player's face and slapped him lightly.
Then, despite Amrabat leaving the match and admitting later that he had no memory of it, he played in Morocco's next game anyway.
Sound familiar? Amrabat is hardly the only player to sustain a head injury at this World Cup, and FIFA, which has struggled to install any kind of coherent concussion policy, is still lagging behind on this issue.
The governing body did write a letter to the Moroccan federation, reminding them of its protocols for the treatment of head injuries, but, much like the NFL's work in this area -- the response to Cam Newton's injury in January comes to mind -- the governing body's actions do not always match up with its words.
Even the reactions afterward sound the same. The treatment of Amrabat did "raise concerns," a FIFA spokesperson said, "but the assessment and case management of concussion incidents falls under the responsibility of the respective team doctors." The spokesperson added, "FIFA will continue to monitor closely this matter throughout the competition."
Music gets 'modern'
For years, the players in a World Cup game would walk onto the field to the dulcet tones of the "FIFA Anthem," a classically composed tune that smacked of pomp and diplomacy, with a bit of cheesy middle school graduation mixed in.
Here, that anthem has been replaced by a newer orchestral version that plays only when the oversized flags of each country are unfurled. Then, when the players see the crowd for the first time, the soundtrack changes to something you might hear at Staples Center or Madison Square Garden: "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC, followed by The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army."
A FIFA spokesperson said it was unclear whether the old "FIFA Anthem" had been officially retired but praised the new musical presentation as more "modern."
The use of "Seven Nation Army" at every game, in particular, only further cements the song's legacy as the top single on this generation's soccer soundtrack. First sung by supporters in Belgium, it is now ubiquitous -- with fans singing the "Ohhhh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhh" refrain en masse -- everywhere.
Ben Blackwell, who is the archivist for The White Stripes (and the nephew of lead singer Jack White), said at this point he isn't surprised to see the song taking center stage at the World Cup. After all, it is heard all over at basketball games and football games and college games and high school games and ...
"It kind of makes sense -- you don't have to speak any language to do it," he said. "It's a remarkable song that way -- the melody is doing the work."
"Jack is definitely aware of it all," Blackwell added. "He has always said that the song has taken on life he could have never imagined, and as a songwriter, that's just the greatest thing you could possibly hope for."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.