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The Goal That Sealed Russia’s Latest Victory on the World Stage

Watching the first game of the World Cup, an entirely lopsided affair between Russia and Saudi Arabia, burdened with the knowledge that the U.S. national team had not qualified for the tournament, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a sports-world reiteration of our country’s broader failures on the international stage. As was recently revealed in a detailed report from The Ringer, America’s absence was the product of factors that, these days, ring familiar: blithe incompetence (especially in the former manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s seeming inability to manage the personalities on his team) and an institution-wide focus on everything but the common good. Now America’s off the field of play, and the void is quickly filling. After Russia’s first goal—one of five, all unanswered—the TV cameras cut to a luxury box where the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, sat between Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. All three, comfortable rulers of morally questionable but nevertheless ascendant regimes, shrugged good-naturedly, their hands open as if in surrender. Despite the contest, they seemed to say, there’s more than enough glory to go around. (“It’s a crucial game,” Adam Serwer, an editor at The Atlantic, joked on Twitter. “The winner gets to run U.S. foreign policy.”)

Politics and patriotic disappointment aside, the Russia-Saudi Arabia match was enjoyable, despite the mostly middling quality on display—if only because it felt like the beginning of fun, and of the summer. In the breeze-swept bar in Brooklyn where I watched, there was a Russian guy, red-faced and bespectacled, who jumped up and yelled out in his own language every time his countrymen found the back or the sides of the net. (I was jealous.) He shouted loudest after the second goal of the game, which came during the forty-third minute and was a real and undeniable beauty, no matter how lacklustre the opposition. A reserve, Denis Cheryshev, received a well-placed pass, just left of the goal. Two Saudi defenders rushed toward him, dropping into twin slides through the grass at his feet. (As my colleague Alan Burdick noted on Twitter, this was a bit of a cautionary tale about the fundamental rule against defenders going to ground.) Cheryshev stopped on a dime and watched the Saudis rush by, then took a purposeful dribble and let fly—nothing but the corner of the net closest to where he stood. The game already seemed done. The


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