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  1. Which current players belong in a different era of the NFL? Blake Bortles can’t keep a starting job in 2019, but he could’ve been MVP in 1969. Trent Richardson was an All-American running back during a prolific career at Alabama, but he’ll probably be best remembered as an NFL Draft bust. Richardson lasted only three seasons in the NFL, despite being drafted third overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry in Cleveland and then 3.1 yards for the Indianapolis Colts after he was traded during the 2013 season. Browns legend Jim Brown turned out to be right when he described Richardson as an “ordinary back” on draft day. But maybe the problem is that Richardson came to the NFL about 50 years too late. If he had been in the NFL in the 1960s, Richardson could’ve had a Jim Brown-esque career. The combination of power and speed that made Richardson a star at Alabama would’ve been significantly more effective in the NFL back when defensive tackles weighed less than 250 pounds. For that matter, there’s probably a long list of NFL busts who would’ve dominated if only they had access to a time machine. The NFL of 2019 is much different than it was in 1969. The emphasis on passing has meant more speed on the field, and the evolution of linemen has produced gigantic players on both lines. There’s a good chance some of the best players from the 1960s would still be productive now, but there’s an even better chance that most players today would be unstoppable then. So which players who aren’t stars in today’s NFL would be MVP if they traveled back, say, 50 years? Let’s take a stab at it: Blake Bortles, QB, Rams Bortles would still be the quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars if he knew how to avoid big mistakes. Since he entered the league five years ago, he’s thrown an NFL-most 75 interceptions. In Jacksonville, Bortles bounced passes off feet and helmets, he didn’t have much regard for the line of scrimmage, and his growing list of bloopers and turnovers eventually got him jettisoned from the team. If Bortles could’ve played a few decades earlier, his turnover issues and 80.6 career passer rating probably wouldn’t be a big deal. Instead, he was born in 1992, which means he plays when interceptions are much more unacceptable. In 2018, no player threw more than 16 picks, and there were 22 starting quarterbacks with a passer rating over 92. Yet Hall of Fame quarterback George Blanda threw 42 (!) interceptions as a member of the Houston Oilers in 1962 and was still an AFL all-star. Bart Starr led the NFL with an 89.9 passer rating in 1969. And during an era when Fran Tarkenton pioneered the idea of a dual-threat quarterback, Bortles would’ve thrived. For all his faults as a passer, Bortles is an excellent runner — his career 6.3 yards per carry average is one of the best a quarterback has ever had. In another time, he’d be a 6’5, 236-pound destroyer capable of running through and over defenders, or passing over them. It’d be the closest thing to a real life CLARENCE BEEFTANK. It hasn’t all been bad for Bortles in today’s NFL. He threw a franchise-record 35 touchdowns for the Jaguars in his second season, and he led the team to the AFC Championship Game in January 2018. Jacksonville was happy enough with his play to give him a three-year, $54 million extension that offseason. One year later, the Jaguars were lousy again and decided — or realized the obvious — that the contract was a mistake and cut ties with Bortles. Now, he’s a backup quarterback for the Rams. Bortles wouldn’t have made the same money in the 1960s, but he’d have a way better chance of having Hall of Fame aspirations. John Ross, WR, Bengals John Ross’ inability to stay healthy would presumably be a problem no matter the decade. But even when the top-10 draft pick has been on the field, he’s been pretty terrible. Knee and shoulder injuries cost him most of his rookie year, and he failed to catch a single pass when he was on the field. While Ross got more playing time in 2018, he only caught 21 passes for 210 yards — despite getting targeted 58 times. No player in the NFL had a lower catch percentage and no receiver got a lower grade from Pro Football Focus. So far his record-breaking speed hasn’t translated into game-breaking plays for Cincinnati, and he was even reportedly on the trading block at one point. Whoowee — he’d be soooo fast 50 years ago, though. It’s hard to judge exactly how much faster Ross would be than everyone else because the NFL Combine didn’t start providing officials times and measurements until relatively recently. Logically, he’d be fast as hell. Players in the NFL are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever. That makes it all the more impressive that Ross is the record holder in the 40-yard dash. Still, his 4.22-second speed might be comparable to Olympic-level speed in another era. Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes was a world-class track athlete who won gold in the 100 meter at the 1964 Olympics with a then-record time of 10.06 seconds. His speed made him a dynamic receiver and punt returner who was so dangerous that teams were forced to develop zone defenses to contain him. Would Ross be faster than that? It almost feels disrespectful to consider it, so let’s just say that even if he weren’t, he’d at least be in a similar tier of uncoverable speed. Hayes led the NFL in touchdowns in his first two seasons with 13 each. If Ross could stay healthy and actually, ya know, catch the ball, he could shred defenses too. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Raiders Not too long ago, Burfict was one of the best linebackers in football. It’s why he got a three-year, $32.5 million contract extension from the Bengals after a spectacular 2016 season. Then his play dropped off a cliff. Burfict struggled through concussions and was one of the worst linebackers when he was on the field in 2018. He was released by Cincinnati after the season and joined the Raiders on a one-year deal. But ask anyone what Burfict is really known for and they’ll talk about his reckless disregard for safety. He’s racked up over $4.5 million in fines over the course of his career and has been accused before of attempting to purposefully injure his opponents. That’s a problem in today’s NFL — especially when the league is trying to combat backlash about the sport’s impact on the human brain. No matter how many times the NFL punishes Burfict with the hope that he’ll dial it back, he just keeps on being a danger. That kind of player used to be celebrated. Even as recently as one decade ago, ESPN would showcase the most violent tackles of the week in a Monday Night Football segment called “Jacked Up!” Rewind another four decades earlier and mean, vicious defenders were some of the most revered players in the sport. Dick Butkus was a 6’3, 245-pound mountain of intimidation for the Bears who went to eight Pro Bowls in his nine seasons in the NFL. His various nicknames listed at Pro Football Reference include “The Animal,” “The Enforcer,” “The Maestro of Mayhem,” and “The Robot of Destruction.” Burfict would be right at home in a time like that when he could knock someone’s head off and get cheered for it. Not to mention the fact that his lackluster pass coverage would matter much less in an era without high-octane offenses led by coaches like Sean McVay and quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes. Unfortunately for him, the best linebackers now can control their aggression and cover from sideline to sideline. Bud Dupree, LB, Steelers The word “sack” didn’t even exist in football vernacular until Rams legend Deacon Jones started using it sometime around the late 1960s or early 1970s. Jones played before sacks became a recorded stat in 1982, but football historians think he accumulated about 173.5 — third all-time — during his career. Jones was a 6’5, 272-pound terror on the field. He made eight Pro Bowls between 1964 and 1972, and was an easy choice for the Hall of Fame. Since then, sacks have become an increasingly vital part of slowing down pass attacks in the NFL. Offensive tackles have had to hone their pass-blocking ability, and rushing the passer has become a refined art. Sacking quarterbacks in the NFL is hard and teams pour resources into finding the few humans capable of pulling it off. For that reason, Bud Dupree only managing 20 sacks in the four seasons puts him dangerously close to bust territory. As a first-round pick, the expectation was that Dupree would have nearly double that sack total by now. Transport a below-average pass rusher like Dupree to a time when offenses were just learning how to deal with scary defensive linemen and you could expect destruction. Dupree is 6’4, 269 pounds — similar in size to Jones — and probably wouldn’t have much trouble putting up Deacon Jones-type numbers back then. Basically any running back In the last 12 years, 11 quarterbacks have been named MVP. The last non-quarterback to win the award was Adrian Peterson when he cracked 2,000 rushing yards in 2012. When the Associated Press first started awarding the MVP award in 1957, running backs won five times in the first nine years. Considering the way offenses continue to phase out rushing attacks, you can probably expect quarterbacks to monopolize the award for the foreseeable future. Last season, teams averaged 237.8 passing yards and 114.5 rushing yards per game. In 1969, those averages were 177.5 passing yards and 122 rushing yards per game. That means there are fewer and fewer stars at the running back position today. There aren’t many roster spots to go around and the running backs who can actually earn carries are really, really good. They’re almost always productive members of the passing game, too. Remember when I said Richardson might’ve been amazing if he played 50 years ago? All the guys in the NFL now are way better than he is. LeGarrette Blount averaged only 2.7 yards for the Lions during the 2018 season. But put him against defensive tackles who don’t even outweigh him and he’d go on a rampage. So would other bruising types like Leonard Fournette, Latavius Murray, and Chris Ivory. Every running back in present day probably would.
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  2. Cameroon is allowed to get upset without having to answer to your kids Not every negative incident is a referendum on the women’s game or a bad example for little girls. Cameroon came into its women’s World Cup round of 16 match against England as serious underdogs. The Indomitable Lionesses knew that they’d need to play their absolute best, and have a couple of lucky breaks go their way, to advance in the tournament. Instead, several big refereeing decisions went against them — a questionable backpass and two VAR reviews. The Cameroonians felt hard done by the referees, visibly showed their frustration, and appeared to lose their composure completely by the end of the match, when they put in a series of overzealous and dangerous tackles. England are headed to the quarterfinals after getting the job done against Cameroon.Watch the full game highlights with our 90' in 90" ⬇️ #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/NFrzYQIyiE— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 23, 2019 Lost in all of this is that England is through to the World Cup quarterfinals. That’s not something you would know from a glance at the English press, though. An entire country’s worth of journalists and media outlets had little time for celebration of its team’s 3–0 victory, opting instead to devote all their energy to shaming Cameroon for being upset. Monday 24th June 2019Newspaper back pages feature SHAMEFULDISGRACEFUL #Cameroon #FWWC #England #WomensWorldCup2019 pic.twitter.com/HdAdwCh9ue— ⓒⓕ (@cfbcity) June 23, 2019 The full headlines on the game stories may be even more sensational, from the Guardian’s: Cameroon’s shameful performance descends into playground farce To the Telegraph’s: The Cameroon team’s disgraceful VAR protests have damaged the reputation of women’s football English journalists also ranted at Cameroon manager Alain Djeumfa at his press conference. Rather than ask questions, they took the opportunity to berate Djeumfa, telling him that his team shamed the sport of football and that his players were bad role models for children, while also accusing him of ordering his players not to give interviews. It seems that footballers getting pissed off at a match not going their way can’t be simply left at that. Not when there are women to shame for failing to uphold the high ideals of sport, and more importantly, failing to be good role models for little girls. After the match, England manager Phil Neville — who is apparently incapable of having a 30-second conversation with his daughter — wondered aloud if Cameroon might have ruined the sport for millions of young women. “This is going out worldwide. I didn’t enjoy it, the players didn’t enjoy it. My players kept their concentration fantastically, but those images are going out worldwide about how to act, the young girls playing all over the world that are seeing that behaviour. For me, it’s not right. My daughter wants to be a footballer and if she watches that she will think: ‘No, I want to play netball.’” The men’s game is, of course, not held to this standard. Dirty tackles, abuse of the referee, and general disrespect for the laws of the game are fairly standard at all levels of men’s soccer across the world. But don’t take my word for it, take it from ... Phil Neville! Apparently it did not bring the entire sport of football into disrepute when he intentionally fouled players hard. In the 2018 documentary The Feud — Ferguson vs. Wenger, Neville recalled a match in which him and his brother Gary played dirty to intimidate an Arsenal player. “They had a young Spanish winger called Jose Antonio Reyes and we literally kicked him off the park,” Neville said. Men’s football also found a way to go on after “The Battle Of Nürnburg,” a 2006 World Cup match in which 16 yellow cards and 4 reds were shown. Later in that tournament, French midfielder and current Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane delivered a headbutt to Marco Materazzi after the Italy defender muttered a few unpleasant words about Zidane’s family. Rather than chastise Zidane for disgracing the sport, we’ve decided to memorialize this moment. Literally. Where have I been? Had no clue there was a Zidane headbutt statue pic.twitter.com/vLlNP2npKu— Roger Gonzalez (@RGonzalezCBS) January 4, 2016 Men do catch criticism for misbehaving on the pitch. Luis Suárez, for instance, was rightfully taken to task for biting opponents on three separate occasions. But Suárez was never accused of damaging the reputation of the entirety of men’s football, nor was he ever told to think of all the little boys who might go play cricket instead after seeing his disgusting display. Leaving aside this double standard for a moment, the circumstances that might have led to Cameroon becoming so emotional about calls going against them should also be explored and placed in the proper context. Most of Cameroon’s players are not full-time professional footballers, and this was the biggest match almost all of them will ever play in. The team was completely inactive in 2017, and the federation scheduled just one friendly match in 2018. Cameroon has gotten to this point despite many of its players having little to no opportunities to improve as footballers or advance to the professional level. If England had lost this match, its players would have returned to a league growing in both quality and financial muscle. Each member of the squad is a full-time professional making a living wage playing the game, and most will receive significant raises in the immediate future. Cameroon’s players are not as lucky. Many will go home to, as Cameroonian journalist Njie Enow describes it, an “underfunded domestic championship staged in appalling conditions.” In such a context, the emotions of the Cameroon players are perfectly understandable, but it should still be noted that the Indomitable Lionesses were not actually hard done by. Given that the VAR decisions appeared correct and the referee let a few big transgressions go mostly unpunished, the Cameroonians weren’t justified in their indignation. If they believe the game was officiated in a manner that was unfair to them, they are wildly incorrect. And as Nigerian-English-American footballer Chioma Ubogagu noted, while Cameroon deserves more empathetic coverage, most of the players’ actions on the pitch were inexcusable. But the problems with the discussion around Cameroon aren’t the criticisms of their behavior. One major issue is the complete failure to contextualize why Cameroon might be more emotional than the English press would consider “normal” or “acceptable.” The other is assigning Cameroon more responsibility to act a certain way than we’d ever burden a misbehaving men’s team with. They did not, as Neville and a half-dozen papers put it, damage the reputation of women’s soccer as a whole. The women’s game will move on past this one match and continue to grow, even while players behave in ways that self-appointed arbiters of morality deem distasteful. Women are allowed to get pissed off at times. They shouldn’t be forced to first consider the message it might send to children. The Cameroon women’s national team does not have a responsibility to you, A Father Of Daughters, to raise your kids for you. And if, for god knows what reason, you do feel compelled to criticize women for getting pissed off, it’s probably worthwhile to consider why they might be so angry.
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  3. Reqieum for NBA free agency’s midnight start We have that and more in Monday’s NBA newsletter. One of the NBA’s least consequential reforms of recent years is perhaps its saddest. The league declared that free agency will no longer begin at midnight ET on July 1, when the new basketball season officially starts. Instead, free agency is moved up to 6 p.m. ET on June 30. That means that instead of spending all of Sunday night awake chasing Ron Baker scoops, the basketball world will be glued to the internet all Sunday evening (and then probably all Sunday night too). This is a travesty. Free agency at midnight (or at 9 p.m. PT, which is how I have always experienced it) was a tradition that nodded toward the off-kilter obsession of the NBA’s most ardent fans. Staying up until 1 a.m. for a playoff game? Child’s play. Staying up until 2 a.m. to find out whether the Jazz will re-sign Joe Ingles? Divine. Reading bleary-eyed leaks about which teams got on the phone with which players right at 12:01 a.m. -- never at 12:00 a.m., that would be crazy, always 12:01! -- and which players had focused their list and will only take meetings with which teams ... this was all so rich with information and mood. Some of that will remain with legitimate dinner meetings possible with the 6 p.m. ET. I expect to have a complete understanding of high-end L.A., Vegas, and New York restaurants by the end of 2021 free agency. But it just won’t be the same in daylight. I get why the NBA went this direction for the sake of its team officials, the journalist class, the TV partners who will no doubt leverage the new start time to produce a TV special or three. But I don’t have to like it. Let’s light a candle at 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday to mourn our lost way of life. Paul George’d Are the Clippers getting Paul George’d? With the caveat that no one really knows what’s going on with Kawhi Leonard, Yahoo!’s Chris Haynes carefully reports that rival GMs think the Raptors are the frontrunner to sign Leonard to a multi-year deal this summer. Haynes also reports that there are a handful of teams that could secure meetings with him once free agency begins. If Kawhi re-signs in Toronto a year after Paul George, supposedly dead set on joining the Lakers as a free agent, decided instead to stay with the Thunder, this is officially A Thing that teams will absolutely have to consider when weighing whether to trade for disgruntled, noncommital superstars. Arguably, the PG-13 situation already influenced the Raptors to make the leap for Kawhi. This would kick it into overdrive. The question, though, is which superstar is next in line to request a trade. No, no -- let’s not shave that KAT I mean cat right now. Links Nine winners and five losers from the 2019 NBA Draft. Harry Lyles, Jr. wrote about my favorite basketball team, the future superpower Atlanta Hawks. Ricky O’Donnell sings the League Pass praises of the new Grizzlies. I wrote about how David Griffin is already building the Pelicans differently around Zion Williamson than how his predecessor built around Anthony Davis. The Suns are Up To Something, and it can’t be good. I wrote about the Serbian teenager the Warriors hid in Santa Cruz for a year before drafting in the second round. The five best undrafted free agents of the year. Most of them have picked up deals. Jontay Porter remains conspicuously unsigned. SB Nation intern Kennedi Landry hands down a judgment in the Damian Lillard vs. Marvin Bagley rap battle. Singing the praises of an emotionally mature draft class. The case of the Bay Area sheriff who accused Masai Ujiri of concussing him to get on the court appears to be falling apart. Sarcastic Nick Nurse open mouth dot gif. The draft picks who overcame their recruit rankings. What makes Matisse Thybulle such a good fit for the Sixers. Be excellent to each other.
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  4. The 14 best names of the NHL Draft From Hunter Skinner to Anttoni Honka ... I don’t know what it is about hockey names, but they’re always special. The 2017 WHL Draft was a sight to behold, and now it’s time to apply the same sweet science to the 2019 NHL Draft class. No. 1: Kaapo Kakko There’s a lot of reasons to love Kaapo Kakko. Chances are the Rangers’ forward is going to be a star, and this means we’re going to hear his glorious name a lot over the next decade. Personally, I’m looking for him to do a series of national insurance commercials. Who could resist Kaapo Kakko and the Geico Gecko palling around? No. 2: Anttoni Honka ANTTONI HONKA. This is a “business in the front, party in the back” kind of name. When you hear “Anttoni” you assume this is going to be followed by something like “Sinclair IV,” or “DeBeaumarche” — not Honka. No. 3: Peyton Krebs I’m a sucker for young people with old person names, and NOTHING is older sounding in this class than “Peyton Krebs.” Peyton Krebs is not the name of an 18-year-old phenom heading to Las Vegas, it’s that of a lonely recluse who collects cans to fund his HAM radio hobby. No. 4: Mads Sogaard This name is just awesome. It has a tinge of radical 80s to it, while also reminding me of Mads Mikellsen. As an aside, Finnish names are just all so dope. I love them all so much and they are legitimately perfect. No. 5: Daniil Misyul What did Drogon say to John Snow before flying away? Dani’l miss yul. Sorry. No. 6: Brayden Tracey This is a hockey-ass hockey name and it’s beautiful. No. 7: Nils Hoglander In New York City, a battle between immortals is happened, away from the watchful eye of the police. There can only be one Hoglander, and the fate of the future of swine is at stake. No. 8: Hunter Skinner I like it when your first name is an action that naturally leads into your second name. That’s an economy of language I can get behind. No. 9: Elmer Soderblom Like Peyton Krebs, I’m obsessed with knowing the story behind how parents name their baby “Elmer” in 2001. Was it Fudd inspired? Glue inspired? Did they just like the name? I need to know more. This is everything I desire to know in this world. No. 10: Philip Broberg Not many people know, but Broberg is a European city foundered entirely by frat boys in 2005. Now, each year, Natty Ice-loving college students make a pilgrimage to Broberg to kiss the feet of “Le Grande Bro,” a life-size statue of Rob Gronkowski. No. 11: Albin Grewe “Huh, Albrin looks really different. Did he get a haircut?”“Nah, Albrin grew.” No. 12: Roddy Ross If Rowdy Roddy Piper and Rick Ross had a child and they could play hockey we’d get Roddy Ross. I hope he celebrated everything just by screaming his name as loud as he can, and hearing “RODDY ROSS!” echo through hockey arenas around the country. No. 13: Martin Has Have you been to the Czech Republic? Martin has. No. 14: Gianni Fairbrother Not to be confused with his kin, Gianni Evilbrother.
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  5. Wilkin Castillo is the hero in his first MLB game in 10 years Marlins catcher has a 3-game hitting streak, spanning a decade Wilkin Castillo hit a two-run double for the Marlins on Saturday, driving home the go-ahead run for Miami against the Phillies. But what made Castillo’s feat special was that it was his first major league game in a decade. Wilkin Castillo last played a MLB game on June 20th, 2009.He now has a hit streak that spans 10 years. #JuntosMiami pic.twitter.com/vE08LgMv5f— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) June 22, 2019 Castillo signed a minor league deal in spring training with Miami, his seventh major league organization in the last 10 years. He was called up to the Marlins on Friday and started at catcher on Saturday, his first major league game in 10 years and two days. Castillo’s last two MLB games: June 20, 2009: pinch-hit RBI single for the Reds against the White Sox in the seventh inning June 22, 2019: 1-for-3, two-run double for Miami in the seventh inning He actually has a three-game hitting streak, dating back to June 1, 2009. It’s the longest-running active hit streak in the majors. In between those major league games, when he went from a 25-year-old prospect to a grizzled 35-year-old veteran, Castillo played 390 games in Triple-A, 55 more in Double-A, as well as 84 games for three Mexican League teams and 20 games in the independent Atlantic League. That’s 549 total minor league games in between time in the bigs, plus another 265 games in the Dominican Winter League, where he has played in each of the last 13 offseasons. Not a bad way to stay sharp over the last decade. After all, that next major league stint could come at any time.
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  6. I could just live in France after the World Cup (lol no I can’t) About a 40-minute drive from the site of the United States’ 2-0 triumph over Sweden in Le Havre lies Deauville, a charming little hamlet with a couple of resort-style hotels and a large but old athletic facility. The US media were housed there for the last game of Group F, in a hotel where breakfast was served inside a modest glass Louvre-style pyramid. En route to this hotel after the game, the USSF media bus wound through narrow country lanes in near-total darkness, broken only by the headlights the driver would flick from regular to hi-beam for long stretches. These were roads with no streetlights, lined by fields and forests, interrupted here and there by modest, rustic houses. Of course, I’m working this World Cup, but vacation brain periodically takes over nevertheless. How can it not, when I’m living here for over a month? The World Cup article churn is intense, but I’m also in France, often traveling through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world as the US press corps follows the USWNT around like a pack of U-5 soccer players chasing the ball en masse. Rolling green fields alternate with copses of trees and verdant pastures, the hillsides studded with clusters of country homes and small barns and paddocks. The clouds here have a particular quality in summer, always seeming to bunch into enormous white puffs against a pure and luminous blue. This is the trap that city dwellers all-too-often fall into when they get away from the traffic and the gentrification and the overbearing corporate office buildings: I could live like this. I could live a bucolic, thoughtfully-paced life, waking with the sun, tending to chickens, growing seasonal vegetables, and fixing all my machinery on my own because calling a specialist out would take days. I could saunter, whistling, hands in pockets, five miles down the lane to talk to my nearest neighbors and arrange to breed our herding dogs and enter my courgettes in the annual agricultural fair only to be bitterly disappointed when Cécile beats me, again, with her massive 45-kilo entry. “She’s breaking the rules somehow,” I would mutter to my partner, who would console me absentmindedly, as this is the third year running I have said the same thing without doing anything about it except become more obsessed with my courgettes. I would answer periodic emails from friends back in the States, checking that I’m okay out there in the sticks, by telling them they should come visit and we’d take the train into the city, but only for a day, as I need to look after the chickens in the morning and the dog gets anxious without me. It’s not a good trait in a working dog, this anxiety, and we’re trying to train it out of her, but as it turns out I am a terribly indulgent dog owner. Anyway, yes, of course you’re welcome to visit. It’s just a six-hour flight, then a two-hour train ride, then another hour on a bus, and then we’ll come get you at the station in the truck we bought used from a retiring farmer in the next valley over. Twenty years old, that truck, but it still runs like a dream, and may in fact outlive the both of us. At this point I’ll get an email or a push alert about the next media thing; the time for the bus to the press conference has changed, my game credentials are pending, my bank has approved a foreign transaction to buy medicinal eyedrops because somehow, I got a cut on my eyelid while watching Scotland play Argentina. Vacation brain fades out quickly. What the hell would I do for money on my quaint French holding? I’d miss the city too much, and Lyft, and Indian buffets. And I love what I do as a soccer writer, even more so now, in the midst of this hectic, frustrating, absurd, intense, jubilant, moving tournament. How can you not want to gorge yourself on the feast of human emotion the World Cup serves up? I am perpetually tired, my stomach is confused by its sudden all-baguette diet, and I’m congested all the time from whatever new and exciting plant life my allergies encounter here. I love it all. I could never leave this for a quiet life under a country roof. There’s too much soccer in my blood, in how I think of my life, in how I form my community. Check back in with me in four years if Australia, land of “snakes are crawling into people’s bathrooms because it’s too hot and there’s no water outside,” wins the World Cup 2023 bid.
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  7. Sam Kerr won’t get the recognition she deserves unless she wins the Golden Boot Kerr shouldn’t need to carry a flawed Australia team deep into the World Cup to be recognized as the world’s best striker. But that’s exactly what she has to do. Sam Kerr is supposed to win the World Cup Golden Boot. Australia is depending on her to do so. And — completely unfairly! — she won’t get the international recognition she deserves unless she claims the prize. No individual player is under more pressure to deliver big performances at this World Cup. So far, Kerr is on pace to capture that Golden Boot. She’s tied with Alex Morgan with five goals in the tournament after her four-goal performance against Jamaica. Sam Kerr is the 3rd player in #FIFAWWC history to score 4+ goals in 1 game! She joins Alex Morgan and Michelle Akers, who both scored 5. pic.twitter.com/d8QUDR4Ndr— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2019 Kerr’s goals moved Australia up into second in its group, setting up a Round of 16 match against Norway. And the goals were very much needed — a one or two-goal victory over Jamaica could have set up a match against powerhouses Germany or France, against whom the Matildas would’ve been considered huge underdogs. But considering Australia’s group stage performance, it’s unlikely its match against Norway will be a cakewalk. The patchwork Matildas defense was embarrassed by Italy, seriously tested by Brazil, and gave up a goal to Jamaica, who had been shut out in its previous two matches. The only way Kerr is going to win the Golden Boot is if Australia goes far in this World Cup, and the only way Australia is going to go far is if Kerr carries them. Given what we’ve seen from her thus far in the tournament, and her previous displays for both club and country, it seems she’s capable of just that. Watching her now, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Kerr seemed as though she’d not live up to her potential. She made her Australia debut at age fifteen, but scored just eight goals in her first seven years with the team. She didn’t have a double-digit scoring season in her first four NWSL campaigns. Kerr was an outstanding athlete, but an average striker. And then something happened in 2017. Kerr started scoring, scoring in almost every game, for club and for country. On July 9, 2017, Kerr did this. She scored in her next two NWSL games too. Then, at the end of the month, she suited up for Australia and scored this hat trick against Japan. At that moment, it was clear that Sam Kerr had arrived, and she’s been on a constant upward trajectory since. Kerr is now NWSL’s all-time leading scorer, and has scored twenty-eight goals in the last three years for the Matildas. It seemed like Kerr had, with little warning, flipped a switch, finally becoming an elite striker nearly eight years into her professional career, but her late bloom makes sense given that she only came into the sport three years before making her professional debut. Kerr didn’t start playing soccer until she was 12, having previously played Australian football. She told the Telegraph: “The change from AFL to football was really hard. I remember I struggled a lot. I had acquired so many skills from playing during my whole childhood and all of a sudden it was like the ground had been ripped out from underneath me and I went from being one of the best players in the team to not even starting on the field. I was struggling to control the ball and learning a whole new skill set. It was a difficult change, but I guess as the years went on, I realized how beautiful the game of football is.” Kerr also grew up and turned a corner professionally at a time a lot of people in many fields do, when she was 23. After winning the 2017 Asian Women’s Footballer of the Year award, Kerr said, “Honestly, I’ve just grown up and I think I’m at that age now where I realize that this is my life, this is my job, and I’ve taken that completely seriously.” That breakout 2017 season, when she carried a poor Sky Blue FC team to respectability and playoff contention, prepared her for what she now faces at the World Cup. Injuries to Laura Alleway and Clare Polkinghorne have left the Australia defense in shambles. The Matildas took six points from three games, but committed serious defensive errors leading directly to goals in all three matches, and will likely have their errors punished more harshly when they face top teams in the knockout stages. With the Australian defense showing no signs of improving, the pressure is on Kerr to guide her team to wins in wild shootouts. And while it’s unfair to her, if she fails to score in an Australia loss, she’s the one likely to catch the blame for not stepping up when her team needed her most. The tournament is also Kerr’s only chance to finally gain the international recognition she deserves. She won’t be thinking about individual awards while she’s trying to win a World Cup, but this is a vital opportunity for her to finally be considered a serious contender for FIFA’s Women’s Player of the Year award. A few goals and wins at the World Cup shouldn’t matter more than the rest of her resume, but it always does with awards voters. Scoring nearly a goal per game for her clubs and country hasn’t been good enough for Kerr to collect enough votes to be a finalist over the past two years. Astonishingly, she hasn’t been close, finishing 10th in 2017 and 9th in 2018. Lieke Martens won the 2017 award after winning the Golden Ball at the UEFA Women’s Championship, and with no international tournament to lean on in 2018, voters went for previous winner Marta. Saturday’s match against Norway shouldn’t be very important to Kerr’s career. She is not responsible for the mismanagement of Australia’s defense. She arguably plays at a higher level than the World Cup on a weekly basis in NWSL. And this small sample of World Cup games shouldn’t define her more than the hundreds of goals she’s scored in other competitions. But it does. This one tournament, over just one month, is what sponsors, media executives, and awards voters focus on. As far as they’re concerned, Kerr’s entire body of work is irrelevant. The last four years, and the trophies Kerr competed for, might as well have just been practice for this moment. So, here it is. One knockout stage of one tournament to define what most people think about when they think of Sam Kerr for the next four years.
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  8. Les Dégommeuses are trying to do the work for women’s soccer that FIFA and FFF won’t With women’s soccer underpromoted by the people in charge of it, fans and independent organizations are trying their best to fill the gap. When France played Norway on June 12, I was in a little brasserie in the 18th arrondissement,watching with a group of friends, most from the United States with one Canadian added to the mix. Four of us were wearing Les Bleues jerseys, the distinctive blue hexagon print on white standing out against the dark wooden décor. We had to crane our heads to watch the TV positioned on a post high and to our left, but as far as we could tell, ours were the only heads swiveling as France defeated Norway 2–1, that one against coming from an almost unthinkable Wendie Renard own goal. We howled in disbelief at that moment — particularly me, sitting there in my custom Renard jersey — and gasped and cheered our way through the rest of the game. Eventually, a group of young French people in front of us howled back in irritation, our noise a distraction from their conversation, which did not include watching France play. The Canadian amongst us — Shireen Ahmed, for the record, who can walk into any situation and come out of it with a new friend — quickly convinced one of the young men to explain why no one in the restaurant seemed as into seeing France compete as we were. Amidst a couple of shrugs they said they did care; “It’s cool that everyone cares,” our young Frenchman told us in English, and they joined in some of the scattered clapping when the whistle blew and France took all three points. But like the rest of the diners, they clearly considered the game playing on the TVs behind them background noise. There does seem to be a noticeable lack of engagement with the Women’s World Cup here in Paris. I spoke to Veronica Noseda, one of the co-founders of Les Dégommeuses, a French group that promotes women’s football and fights discrimination, particularly sexism and homophobia. They’ve been active since 2012, when one of their first projects was collaborating on a week-long event with Thokozani FC, a football club for South African black lesbians, named after Thokozani Qwabe, murdered in 2007 for being a lesbian (CW: rape, homophobia, hate crime). Noseda thinks the blasé attitude, at least in Paris, stems from a combination of outdated attitudes toward women’s football and the locals simply not knowing that the World Cup is going on under their noses. Currently, Les Dégommeuses is attempting to raise awareness not just about the World Cup, but about the place of women — all types of women — in French football with a series of posters they’ve put up around Paris. According to Noseda, these posters are a response to “a very homogeneous image of female soccer players in France.” “[Football Federation France], they talk about the politics of feminization,” she says, “Which means they want more women on the pitch and in the federation, which is great. But behind [their words] there was also a politic of feminization of the image of the players. They wanted the players to be beautiful, they wanted [them] to be very feminine, to reassure [people] about the fact that they are heterosexual, they are straight, they are one kind of woman. So responding to that, we wanted to have posters representing the multiplicity of women playing football, which means multiplicity in terms of looks.” The posters certainly do show a multiplicity of women, from their gender presentation to their body types to their race. A row is hung on the fences outside the FIFA Fan Zone at Les Halles, although Noseda says there is no official partnership between Les Dégommeuses and FIFA. The organization simply went around Paris and stuck up posters of their own accord. In fact, Noseda thinks FIFA could have done much, much more to promote the tournament in France. The Les Halles fan zone is nice, and in her opinion the French media are actually playing their part in covering the World Cup, but the marketing of the tournament is rather lackluster. The metro advertisements are one of her top criticisms — sure, you can find the odd poster of Les Bleues posing together, and there are a few ads on the backs of buses, but it’s hardly ubiquitous. “There is no sign in the public space that the World Cup is going on,” she says. In smaller cities like Reims and Valenciennes, the World Cup is more significant and takes up more space. “But in Paris, honestly, I’m a little bit disappointed.” “I think there is a growing interest,” she says. “But for me a World Cup means to be in the streets and to be in the cafes and to see the match with someone else.” Noseda compares the degree of attention Paris is giving to the current tournament to the 2016 Euros, when there were televisions playing the game on every corner. “Everything stops, about the men it’s true, but not about the women.” “It’s really a masculine sport,” she says of the less-than-progressive attitudes towards the women’s game. “And if you play football, you are criticized. You are a little bit disqualified. Your soccer is not good on principle.” This attitude ripples out to the way the French women’s league operates. D1 Feminine might have one of — if not the best — women’s clubs in the world in Olympique Lyonnais, but there is a staggering disparity between OL and the clubs at the bottom of the league. Lyon star Ada Hegerberg is reported to make €400,000 a year, while at the bottom of the table, Noseda estimates at least a few players might take home only €800/month or €9,600/year, assuming they get paid for 12 months, which is uncommon. Unlike in NWSL, there are no requirements regarding a minimum or maximum salary, and so Noseda calls it a “scattered situation,” with superstars making dozens of times what other players are paid. Of course, this is not an argument that Hegerberg should be paid less, but that those at the bottom of the league need to be paid more, quite a bit more. “It’s always a little bit like USA and Thailand,” Noseda admits ruefully as she described the gap between top and bottom in D1F. “Closing this gap [will be one] of the major challenges after this World Cup.” Another challenge will be making French women’s football a safe place to be an out queer athlete. Noseda is a big admirer of Megan Rapinoe and other American players who have come out or are simply open about their lives, but their situation is different to that of French female players. “The main obstacle is the national discourse,” she explained. “In the US, the national discourse — I make it simple — is we’re all different but we all come together for the American nation, we’re all together. In France it’s not this.” Noseda describes how the French national identity emphasizes that its citizens are French and nothing else, but notes this idea, ostensibly about affirming that all French citizens are equal, is in practice an erasure of the diversity of France’s population. “You’re French and that’s all,” she says. “We are all French. Races do not count because you’re French, gender does not count because you’re French, sexual orientation doesn’t count because you are French, which is of course an illusion… The fact is that by erasing these differences, they make one particular situation as universal. That means Catholic, white, man. This is the universal and the other people must just shut up.” There’s been progress since Les Dégommeuses began its work seven years ago. Noseda says people are a little more ready now to accept that the discourse around what French national identity should mean and who should get to play football is changing. And she thinks that if Les Bleues advance in the World Cup, it’s almost certain French people will take notice and start to engage. “I think that a victory really would fuel the engine,” she said. “Without a victory...” Noseda made a dubious humming sound at the prospect. And if the French do end up meeting the United States in the quarterfinals and are sent packing — at that Noseda made a distinctly French kind of noise, a distressed exhale that came out as pouffff. “I have a hope and a fear,” says Noseda when asked what she wants the World Cup’s legacy to be for her country. “My hope is that the image of sports changes, that women are not criticized, because it’s still like this in France... The fear is that it’s going to be very temporary and that the progress we’ve been making in terms of media attention, in terms of a little bit of political attention — my fear is that if it’s not encouraged enough, it’s going to be just temporary, just a phase and then we go back.”
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