They pop up on the television, from different cities. Slava Bilic and Laurent Blanc could theoretically meet in the quarterfinals, although not the way they met in 1998 – with one of them reeling in faked mortal pain.
Bilic and Blanc are two of the most charismatic figures in the European soccer championships, even though they do their work on the sidelines. In their respective first games, the camera lingered on them, as if doing a favor for those of us who remember 1998.
Coaching Croatia in the first match against Ireland, Bilic resembled a roguish literature professor, played by a younger Donald Sutherland, with a blue blazer and blue ski cap perched on his head, red tie askew. He looked like a teacher who gives his best seminars in a smoky pub.
Blanc, who coaches France, was wearing a shirt and tie, his glasses making him look like a chemistry teacher, who doesn’t talk much in or out of the laboratory. But his bounce when the referee makes an unfavorable call gives him away as an athlete, inside the Clark Kent outfit.
They have met before – in the semifinals of the World Cup in 1998, tangling in a scrum before a free kick. Blanc gave Bilic a mild push high on the chest and Bilic went sprawling backward, clutching his face, as if he had been hit by a tire iron. The referee sent Blanc off with a red card, the only one of his career, and he had to miss the final match after France held on to defeat Croatia.
At the time, Bilic was generally vilified for his blatant faking. The replays were quite clear – a modest push, nowhere near the face, maybe worth a yellow card, but more likely just the normal close-order combat in the box. Bilic was mortified at costing Blanc a place in the final (France beat Brazil) but never backed off his assertion that he had been fouled, and reacted the way footballers react – with improvised death throes.
To this day, Blanc says the contact was his fault, but he knows he did not deserve a red card. In this Euro tournament, the sons-of-Bilic continue their flopping. It’s hard to justify diving to Americans who are not soccer fans, but most of us who love the sport accept it as gamesmanship, working the ref to dig out his card, as an impulse.
There is even the suspicion that some players practice their dives the way others practice their free kicks. To be a soccer fan, one has to be a combination drama critic and gymnastics judge.
Bilic was guilty of bad acting. The ref deserved a red card for not checking with his associates on the sideline. The game goes on.
Bilic is leaving his post after this tournament; he has given six years to coaching his homeland, as a patriotic gesture, he has said. Blanc is not even two years into his chore of trying to resurrect the fallen power of France. They are World Cup-level players, the best and brightest of their time. Croatia and France could both qualify for the quarterfinals on June 23 or 24. It would be fun to see them shake hands, this time with nobody staggering backward in feigned agony.
(Your comments-replies-critiques are more than welcome right here. GV.)
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.