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Analyzing the World Cup draw

in Sports by

On Dec. 1st, soccer fans from all corners of the globe gathered around their televisions to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup draw, held at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia. For many, the World Cup is more than just a soccer tournament. Because it is the most watched sporting event in the world, the tournament provides a platform for cultural expression, and for a nation to represent itself in front of the entire world.

“The tournament has a way of enabling citizens to puff out their chest; of giving them license to say ‘this is our team’ and having some pride in their nation, and no other sporting event does that because no other sport truly embraces so many people from every corner of the globe,” explains Nigel Reed, a soccer journalist for CBC Sports.

During the selection show for the 2018 edition of the World Cup, the 32 qualified teams were drawn into eight groups of four teams. The teams were chosen from four pots based on their October 2017 FIFA rankings. Pot one contained the seven highest ranked teams in the tournament, plus the tournament host, Russia, pot two consisted of the next eight teams in the ranking, and so on. Each group received one team from each pot.

In addition to the mandatory placement of Russia into Pot One, the draw conditions stipulated that no group could include more than two UEFA (European) nations or more than one team from CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean), CONMEBOL (South America), OFC (Oceania), or AFC (Asia).

This year’s draw produced many interesting results but surprisingly no clear “group of death.” A group of death is a group in which the number of strong teams is greater than the number of qualifying places, meaning at least one strong competitor will be eliminated. In the 2014 World Cup, the United States was drawn into the group of death along with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Below is a breakdown of the eight groups from this year’s draw.

Group A: Russia (#65 in the FIFA rankings), Uruguay (17), Egypt (30), Saudi Arabia (63)

The 2018 World Cup will kick off June 14th with an uninspiring matchup between the two lowest ranked teams in the tournament, Russia and Saudi Arabia. In the tournament’s weakest group, a strong Uruguay attack featuring world-class strikers, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, is expected to lead La Celeste to the Round of 16. The second spot in the knockout stages will likely be determined in a three-way battle between the host nation, Russia, playing for the pride of an entire nation, an underrated Egyptian team starring, Mohamed Salah, one of the world’s most in-form players who currently plays for Premier League giant, Liverpool FC, and the little known Saudi Arabia squad.

Prediction: 1st place: Uruguay, 2nd place: Egypt, 3rd place: Russia, 4th place: Saudi Arabia

Group B: Portugal (3), Spain (8), Iran (34), Morocco (48)

Group B will likely come down to a battle between the reigning European Champions, Portugal, and the 2010 World Cup Champions, Spain, although Morocco should not be underestimated having gone undefeated in its qualifying group. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s 32-year-old star striker and one of the best players in soccer history, will be especially motivated as this could be his final chance to take home the World Cup crown. However, I believe Spain’s balanced attack and strong defending will propel the La Roja over the Seleção.  

Prediction: 1st place: Spain, 2nd place: Portugal, 3rd place: Morocco, 4th place: Iran

Group C: France (7), Peru (10), Denmark (19), Australia (43)

France will be licking their chops with this favorable draw. Peru, although highly ranked, lacks the star quality to compete with France, and Denmark is too reliant on star Christian Eriksen. However, expect a strong battle for second place between Peru and Denmark, two nations that play with a lot of heart and grit. Australia, already the weakest team in the group, is currently without a coach and will find it hard to adapt to a new system before the tournament begins.

Prediction: 1st place: France, 2nd place: Denmark, 3rd place: Peru, 4th place: Australia

Group D: Argentina (4), Croatia (18), Iceland (21), Nigeria (41)

The closest group to a “group of death,” Group D features four highly competitive teams. Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, leads an Argentina team that should claim the group. Croatia, Iceland (the smallest nation to ever play in the World Cup with a population size of around 330,000), and the best pot four team in the tournament, Nigeria, will duke it out for the second place in the knockout round.

Prediction: 1st place: Argentina, 2nd place: Croatia, 3rd place: Nigeria, 4th place: Iceland

Group E: Brazil (2), Switzerland (11), Costa Rica (22), Serbia (38)

Neymar and Brazil will roll through this group in an attempt to recover from their 7-1 loss to Germany on home turf in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup. The Switzerland – Costa Rica match will likely determine the second team through to the Round of 16. Will the creativity of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri propel the Swiss through to the next stage, or will the strong goalkeeping and leadership of Real Madrid star Keylor Navas lead Costa Rica to yet another World Cup upset?

Prediction: 1st place: Brazil, 2nd place: Costa Rica, 3rd place: Switzerland, 4th place: Serbia

Group F: Germany (1), Mexico (16), Sweden (25), South Korea (62)

Group F is a strong group, but one that the reigning World Cup champions and current top ranked, Germany, should have no trouble navigating. Mexico cruised through qualifying using a rotating squad, but will face a difficult test in Sweden, which defeated 2006 World Cup Champions, Italy, in a playoff without their star striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who retired from international soccer in 2016.

Prediction: 1st place: Germany, 2nd place: Mexico, 3rd place: Sweden, 4th place: South Korea

Group G: Belgium (5), England (12), Tunisia (28), Panama (49)

Group G should be a two-way shootout between Belgium and England. Belgium has put together its best squad in history, but will have its hands full with a strong England team trying to put past World Cup failures behind it. Expect Tunisia and Panama to put up good efforts, but the two nations will likely be relegated to fighting it out for third place.

Prediction: 1st place: England, 2nd place: Belgium, 3rd place: Tunisia, 4th place: Panama

Group H: Poland (6), Colombia (13), Senegal (32), Japan (44)

Group H is the most open group of the draw. Despite being a top seed, Poland lacks technical quality outside of striker Robert Lewandowski. Colombia will hope to repeat its 2014 World Cup heroics on the back of Radamel Falcao, and Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich teammate, James Rodriguez. Senegal’s hopes rely on raw talent and the extreme athleticism of Liverpool star Sadio Mane. Even Japan, featuring Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, is a threat to move on to the next round.

Prediction: 1st place: Colombia, 2nd place: Senegal, 3rd place: Poland, 4th place: Japa

Group L (not an official group): Chile (9), Italy (15), Netherlands (20), USA (27)

This group of nations will be extremely disappointed to have missed out on the 2018 World Cup. Italy is a 4-time World Cup champion and has not missed a World Cup final since 1958, Chile is a 2-time defending Copa America champion, the Netherlands were World Cup runner-ups in 2010, and the United States missed the finals for the first time since 1986 despite the rapid emergence of 19-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic.

Regardless of how the groups pan out, the 2018 World Cup will without a doubt be full of upsets and emotion. Some stars will emerge, others will crumble, and nations will battle for one of the most coveted titles in the world

Stephen Walt: Foreign policy-wise, Trump is much of the same

in News by

Phi Beta Kappa lecturer and foreign policy expert Stephen Walt offered harsh criticism of the American foreign policy establishment last Thursday, Oct. 26. In his talk, titled “Where is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?” Walt argued that foreign policy under president Trump is still commandeered by the pre-existing bipartisan foreign policy establishment; the administration now pursues long-standing, already flawed policies in an erratic and incompetent manner pursued by Trump.

Walt is a professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He authored three books, including The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which created a media storm. The New York Times called it “ruthlessly realistic,” while others accused it of anti-semitism.  

In his talk, Walt argued that the foreign policy establishment — or the ‘blob,’ as he refers to it — is to blame for decades of failure in global affairs. He referenced the US policy of ‘liberal hegemony,’ defining it as a foreign policy that actively tries to promote the basic principles and ideals of liberal democracy. The policy assumes the US is an indispensable nation, and that it should try to use its power to spread democracy, whether peacefully or by force.

Walt outlined changes in international power dynamics over the past thirty years. China’s power has steadily increased, the relationship between the US and Russia is at its worst since the Cold War, and the Middle East is in turmoil largely due to US efforts at regime change.

According to Walt, the election of Donald Trump, whose policies represent a repudiation of the grand strategy pursued since the Cold War, proves that the American people want change. However, the change in his foreign policy is in how Trump himself acts, not in policy.

Walt blames the establishment for the state of US foreign policy. Although Trump ran on the premise that foreign policy in the US is “a complete and total disaster,” he doesn’t follow through on the policies he supported during the election. McMaster replaced Flynn, Trump said in an interview that NATO is no longer obsolete, he ordered a cruise missile strike in Syria After Assad uses chemical weapons, and he announced 5,000 more troops will be deployed to Afghanistan. According to Walt, these are many of the same actions Hillary Clinton would have taken if she was president.

“In a competition between Donald and the establishment, the establishment is winning,” he said.

Apart from criticizing the policies in place, Walt also listed the policies the US should pursue. The US should reduce or eliminate its military role in Eastern Europe, since Russia isn’t an existential threat to either the EU or the US. Trump should take a harder line with China to prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon and let Russia take the lead in Syria. The US shouldn’t have special relationships with any Middle Eastern powers, and should refrain from pursuing nation-building experiments.

Student reactions to these ideas were mixed.

“[Walt] underestimates Russia’s willingness to take risks given the threat it perceives from NATO and its declining global influence,” said Irina Bukharin ’18. “Although Professor Walt’s views most likely differed from the average Swattie’s, it was really encouraging to see so many people come out to hear his views.”

Frank Kenny ’20 was also unsure about one of Walt’s stances.

“I was surprised to hear him argue for a more interventionist approach when it comes to foreign policy dealing with China,” Kenny said.

Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney offered a different analysis of post-Cold War US policy. He questioned Walt’s harsh criticism of the establishment, considering the failure of Trump’s anti-establishment agenda. The Trump administration and all its missteps don’t seem to endear Walt to the establishment, like they do with many Americans.

“Instead, [Walt] seems to be sticking to his guns,” said Tierney. “While I think a lot of people look at the Trump administration and think that the establishment is looking better every day, by comparison to some of the blunders that we’ve seen.”

The failure of US foreign policy over the past thirty years, said Tierney, doesn’t have it’s roots in the establishment, although they have blundered.

“If you look at the bigger story of American foreign policy, it’s actually been fairly successful over the centuries and even since WWII, so I’m not sure that the American establishment is the fundamental problem here … that suspicion has been reinforced by the trump administration because it is explicitly anti-establishment and has made very serious mistakes,” he said.

According to Tierney, the deeper reason for these foreign policy gaffes is that America has no one to challenge its power like it did during the Cold War.

“Countries the with kind of power that the US has had since the end of the Cold War in history have rarely acted in restrained and measured ways,” he said.

Despite having controversial views, Walt filled the room with students engaged in

meaningful deliberation, and encouraged reexamining widely-accepted points of view.

Why is the Ukrainian soccer team still playing matches?

in Out of Left Field/Sports by

Originally I was going to write this week’s article on the controversy surrounding the World Cup given that it is just under 100 days away from starting. Given the amount of trouble that the Brazilian Football Association (FA) is in to get all the stadiums finished, which are mostly still suffering the labors of construction work and the feuding between FIFA and the Brazilian government over getting the work done safely and without the supposed slave labor that the BBC has spent the past six months reporting on. I was going to write about all of that, but then something else distracted me. The Ukrainian National Football Team played the US on Tuesday night in Cyprus. And I ended up trying to figure out why that was happening at all.

Since the uprisings in the Ukraine began last year and since the incursion by Russia into Crimea last week, it does not seem like a good time for Ukraine to be playing any international matches. Currently the country is engaged in a state of emergency with no clear outcome visible at the moment. Crimea could reasonably split off or become a part of Russia; Ukraine could end up becoming a new Georgia. There are many possibilities and it could go in any direction. But Ukrainian FA was desperate for this match with the United States to go ahead despite the country being in turmoil.

The most important thing to take away from this is that soccer goes on. For the Ukrainian FA was desperate to play this match because it signaled that everything was okay. Playing international soccer matches is what stable, independent countries do. After the invasion of Iraq, it was key that the Iraqi FA kept going and played competitive matches against other countries. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Iraqi government decided to build a new 65,000 seat national stadium in Basra called “Basra Sports City.” The country spent $550 million on the complex and it hosted the Gulf Cup there last year. In Afghanistan, soccer became something to rally around because it was a symbol of peace. The Afghan National Team was banned from 1984 until 2002 because of war and Taliban control, but as soon as the country claimed that it had been liberated, it started competing in international competitions again. In the 2003 SAFF Gold Cup (South Asian Football Federation), Afghanistan played India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Last year Afghanistan won their first SAFF cup and beat India 2-0 in the final. Afghanistan is now the highest ranked SAFF team and is 138th in the world. The Afghan FA has also started building a new national stadium for its soccer team to replace the old Ghazi stadium, which was just renovated in 2011.

Soccer is seen as a thing that stable states do, and it is a way of showing to the world that you are an independent nation. Having a Football Association in your country is seen as part of the process of being recognised internationally as a country. Palestine has a Football Association, as does Kosovo. Tibetan exiles in India have tried to form their own Football Association, but it has not been accepted by FIFA. It is foolish to think that having a national soccer team is what makes a country exist. However, it is a good indicator that a country is functional and has a sense of national identity. These are the reasons that Ukraine was so desperate  to proceed with its match against the US. The match is currently going ahead under the slogan ‘Peace for Ukraine’ and is showing the world that the Ukrainian team is playing under one flag while the country is split between two.

‘Little Failure’ a huge success

in Arts/Campus Journal/Columns by

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Near the beginning of Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir, “Little Failure,” Gary shares an emotionally charged moment with his father. “The past is haunting us,” Shteyngart writes. “In Queens, in Manhattan, it is shadowing us, punching us in the stomach. I am small, and my father is big. But the Past – it is the biggest.”

And indeed, the past is the subject, scenery, context and oftentimes the protagonist of this deeply personal book, which feels equal parts memoir and bildungsroman. “Little Failure” tells the story of how Igor, a Soviet Jew born in Leningrad, came to be a kid named Gary in Queens, NY, and how Gary came to be a successful writer. (“But what kind of profession is this, writer,” my mother would ask. “You want to be this?”) The past is the constant source of Gary’s pain and joy, embarrassment and pride, and facing it will finally allow him to grow up.

Shteyngart’s wildly popular novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story” each sampled elements from the author’s experience, but here we see Gary through each stage of boyhood, adolescence, young manhood and adulthood, in excruciating – and somewhat self-indulgent – detail. Shteyngart attacks his own life with his distinctive narrative style, a blend of playful humor, brutal honesty and startlingly profound observations of human life.

Gary, or Igor in Russian, was born in Soviet Leningrad, the only child of determined parents, committed to the survival of their small family. Shteyngart recounts every memory of his difficult early life, from the taste of the food rations his mother waited hours to receive, to the plot of his fantastical first novel, scrawled under the careful watch of a doting grandmother in a tiny, crumbling apartment. Though Igor is but six years old when the family’s passage to America is arranged, his earliest years in the Soviet Union shape his identity in ways that he continues to deal with as an adult. “Every moment I have ever experienced as a child is as important as every moment I am experiencing now, or will experience ever,” Shteyngart writes.

Once in America, the Shteyngart family struggles to gain a foothold in Queens, NY. Baffled by the language and culture around them, they cling tightly to their Russian customs and embrace the Judaism that they could not practice in Leningrad. Igor takes on the name Gary and is enrolled in a Jewish day school, thus beginning his personal quest to fit in with the “native-born” Americans. Shteyngart regales readers with hilarious and slightly redundant tales of the trials and tribulations of hapless young Gary, desperate to be defined by something other than his “Russianness.”

As Gary grows up, and as his family climbs the ladder of middle-class American success, he grows increasingly frustrated with his Russian home and fiercely close-knit family. Gary’s mother and father raise their son with a tough love that is more often rough than affectionate, a way of parenting as foreign as the meals of farmer’s cheese and canned peaches that Gary eats while dreaming of McDonald’s. His family nicknames translate to “little failure,” “weakling” and “snotty,” a reference to his childhood asthma. Gary’s most complicated relationship is with his father, a figure whom he admires, fears, envies, loves and hates.

Shteyngart writes most powerfully on the daily realities of an immigrant family, using the details of his upbringing to shed light the widespread condition of immigrant marginalization. He describes hauntingly the impact that life in the Soviet Union continued to have on his parents in America:

 “My parents don’t spend money, because they live with the idea that disaster is close at hand, that a liver-function test will come back marked with a doctor’s urgent scrawl, that they will be fired from their jobs because their English does not suffice. Seven years in America, and we are still representatives of a shadow society, cowering under a cloud of bad tidings that will never come.”

Gary finally gains tenuous social acceptance through humor, and after attending the highly academic New York high school, Stuyvesant, he veers away from his parents’ plan (a top-ranked university, followed by law school) and attends the artistic Oberlin College. It takes Gary a long time to comprehend the grungy hipster culture of students with wealth and privilege that he only dreams of: “There’s a very popular upperclassman who wears a janitor’s shirt with the name BOB stenciled over his breast. I have also worked as a janitor before coming to Oberlin.”

It also takes Gary time to figure out where his passions lie, how to have a relationship with one of the many women he loves, and how to claim his identity as a Soviet Jew and an immigrant. In between getting stoned and drunk enough to earn the nickname “Scary Gary,” he rediscovers his passion and talent for writing.

The road from college graduate with a manuscript in the works, to published, successful writer is ridden with potholes and ditches, but eventually we come full circle and Gary Shteyngart is an author. The “little failure” finds success in both intellectual and commercial worlds, but still grapples with his past, identity and relationship with his parents. In telling his story, Shteyngart emphasizes the importance of finding peace with oneself and one’s existence, however scarred and warped one may be. The memoir is striking in its meticulous development of one individual by delving into the history and intricacies of a family, of a culture, of a way of life.

During the section about the Oberlin years, Shteyngart makes a comment that speaks to his irreverent, yet poignant style; “People who think literature should be serious – should serve as a blueprint for a rocket that will never take off – are malevolent at best, anti-Semitic at worst.” And while peppered with searing self-deprecating humor, this is fundamentally a serious memoir. Shteyngart lovingly and critically picks apart the past, then reassembles it, piece by piece, until a clear portrait of a man, this author, is rendered.

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