THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Make It Make Sense

With the Nations League group stages done and very much dusted, it's time to look ahead. Not to the World Cup, a mere distraction. But to the Nations League finals, which will be happening next summer in the Netherlands. Probably in the Netherlands. As far as we can tell that hasn't quite been confirmed yet.
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Still, no rush, it's only three games. The Nations League itself may be a bloated and byzantine thing, as intuitive and easy to look at as its flag, but its finals are so streamlined. Two knock-outs, then a final. It's both a blessing and a surprise that UEFA didn't try to stick an extra six-game round robin on the end, just for science.
But then, it appears that science has been set aside for the occasion. France are not there, despite being the defending World Cup champions and the obvious answer to the question 'Best team in Europe?'. And Italy are, despite having rolled into these games on the back of their abject failure to qualify for the World Cup. This comes despite the fact that a Nations League group is meant to be harder than a World Cup qualifying group, being made up of peers as opposed to being seeded.
Perhaps we might conclude from this that the Nations League, for all that it has a flag and a trophy, is still just a collection of friendlies and should be taken precisely as seriously as that implies. This probably has some truth in it, but any competition that gives us the chance to say 'England have been relegated' will always have a special place in our hearts. And a clump of friendlies just before a World Cup should be a pretty significant clump of friendlies. This is a time of refining and finalising plans, and most of the teams in the A league will be going to Qatar with serious thoughts about winning it.
Except Italy, obviously. Liberated from the need to worry about the winter, they've had a bit of a head start on their rebuild. And in the process, they've delivered a reminder that of all the elite footballing nations, Italy are the one that make the least sense. You think they're good, they're bad. You think they're bad, and then they're good! Or perhaps they're worse than you expected, just to catch you off-guard. This is presumably why Roberto Mancini looks so deep-in-the-bones stressed all the time. Why he stares at his team like a man beset by deep paranoia. Why he looks after his hair so meticulously - if he didn't, it would all fall out.
After the games were all done this week, we started wondering about the finals. Would this resurgent and stylish Netherlands side have enough quality? Could Spain make enough chances out of all their possession? How do Croatia keep doing this? And then we realised that, while all of those questions are important, they're not crucial. The one that really matters is: what will Italy do? And nobody knows the answer to that, least of all the Italians. Miss a World Cup, win a Euros. Miss a World Cup, win the Nations League? You know it makes no sense.

Forget It Jake, It's Fifatown

It's easy to be cynical about almost anything that happens in football, at least at the top level. It's also usually correct to be cynical, given the forces at work. Hummel announced yesterday that their World Cup kits for the Danish national team will lack all the usual chevrons and flourishes, as they "don't wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives". Maybe your first thought was "striking", or "powerful". And maybe it was "marketing".
As Qatar 2022 gets closer, the lines of protest from within the game are starting to become clearer. Harry Kane and a few other captains will wear their OneLove armband, Denmark will wear their muted kits. Perhaps we'll see some messages on t-shirts or boots, or written on flags.
These are gestures. Of course they are gestures. And all gestures are empty at heart; that's what separates them from action. But gestures can be striking: at the very least, the visual experience of this World Cup will be coloured, or in Denmark's case muted, by gestures of one kind or another. Ever since 1970, when Pele invented the colour yellow, the World Cup has been a thing of rapturous colour, to be first eaten with the eyes. Here, those colours will be disrupted. Denmark's glorious run to the final will look different, and we'll all know why.
And gestures is what we are left with when all the actions have been avoided. When the people who carry the material power - the custodians of the game, as governing bodies like to style themselves - have abrogated all responsibility. Hummel make kits. Footballers play football. Here they are, acting like kit manufacturers and footballers. We might be a little disappointed that nobody is barging loudly out of their lane, that no popular boycott has swept through the players and then up into the national associations and sponsors. But the whole world of elite football has been so thoroughly Chinatowned that it's easy to understand. Players can be replaced, so too nations. The circus rolls on.

Denmark release Qatar 'protest' World Cup shirt

Worth A Shot

Somebody tries this every now and then, and it's always funny. But perhaps we should say that, every few years, somebody tries this and gets caught. Who knows how many games have gone ahead with nobody catching it? How many shenanigans we've missed?
It mattered, too. Arsenal won the game 1-0 thanks to a Vivianne Miedema goal that passed just inside the post, and so proceeded through to the Champions League. But we can't help but feel sorry that we were robbed of a much funnier outcome.
Picture it. Miedema picks up the ball. Miedema shoots. Miedema scores… except she doesn't. Instead, the ball comes clanging back off the post. The game goes on around her; she's standing there, hands on hips. Then she jogs over towards the goal. Ajax's goalkeeper has a word; Miedema ignores her. She is concentrating. The ball is up the other end but she's pacing along the line. It looks too small. It feels too small. She waves to the assistant, who ignores her, then the referee, who also ignores her. But a couple more Arsenal players are over there now, wondering why their best player is calling for a trundle wheel, and the game drifts to a halt. Then comes a terrible hush, as the referee unfurls the tape measure… and then comes an explosion of rage and laughter. Too small! They're too small!
Well done to Arsenal for winning the tie, and well done to whichever sharp-eyed staff member noticed that things weren't quite right. But really, your dramatic timing needs a little work. From a law enforcement point of view, it's best to uncover and foil a heist before it starts. Tidy, sensible, boring. From a storytelling point of view, far better to have your criminals caught with their hand in the cookie jar. That's where the drama is.

IN OTHER NEWS

Here's something the Warm-Up can't recall ever seeing before: a pitch invader filming himself as he charges onto to the field, runs up to Lionel Messi, and then gets monstered by security. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of television companies refusing to show all these scenes that we don't want to see. The stars of the scenes have to start making their own content.

RETRO CORNER

It's Andriy Shevchenko's birthday. Happy birthday, Andriy! To celebrate, we're going to watch every single goal he scored in the Champions League, and we choose to believe he's doing the same.
VAR would have chalked that first one off, right?

HAT TIP

England's preparations for the World Cup may not be going to plan, but they're far from alone in that. Group-mates USA are also stumbling their way into the tournament, losing to Japan and then drawing 0-0 with Saudi Arabia earlier this week. But at least the Americas have a team of full-time professionals these days: going into their own World Cup, in 1994, that wasn't the case.
Instead, they had time, and they had Bora Milutinovic. As the BBC's Chris Evans describes, Milutinovic essentially nagged his way into the job, and then "essentially turned the US national team into a club side. With only four professionals playing abroad at the time, they developed an edge that couldn't be matched by any other team going to the World Cup."
And how did they spend all that extra training time? Head tennis, mostly. As Alexei Lalas recalls, "I saw a team-mate make the World Cup team by the way he played a soccer tennis game on one of the last days before cuts. We knew Bora took it seriously because he played it too. For him, the assessment of that soccer tennis was more about how that individual or individuals approached the game in tandem. What are the things they're doing? How competitive are they? How did they take losing? How did you pick a partner?"

COMING UP

A spot of WSL this evening, as Everton, fresh from their victory in the Merseyside derby, welcome Leicester to a sold-out Walton Hall Park.
Assuming he doesn't disgrace himself in the Eurosport head tennis finals today, Andi Thomas will be here again tomorrow.
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