Cal Poly Men’s Soccer head coach Steve Sampson brought his expert analysis as a Spanish-language broadcaster for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
This is not Sampson’s first time covering the world’s largest sporting event, let alone partaking in one. Sampson was the head coach for the United States at the 1998 World Cup in France and also covered the 2002 and 2014 editions of the tournament, held in South Korea, Japan and Brazil, for the Spanish language broadcaster Fútbol de Primera Radio.
Along with the likes of Andres Cantor, world-renowned for his iconic goal call, Sampson was off to Russia to cover the World Cup
Mustang News: As a host country, how was Russia? What about hospitality? How was your experience in Russia?
Steve Sampson: When I arrived in Moscow, you saw nothing in respect to the World Cup. No billboards, no advertisements on the streets, nobody walking the streets wearing Russian national team jerseys and a lot of that was because the Russian public didn’t believe that their national team was going to fare very well. They felt, actually, that they were going to be embarrassed by their national team. And so, there was an enormous amount of hesitation within the country as far as their even wanting a World Cup to be there.
However, when the Russian team beat Saudi Arabia in the opening match 5-0, it sent the level of enthusiasm for not only the Russian national team, but also for the World Cup in general, by the Russian public through the roof. That in itself made so much of a difference. And then, the World Cup took on this life of its own of what I feel was probably the most entertaining World Cup that I’ve seen.
The World Cup’s “life of its own” Sampson described had smaller, less traditional powerhouse nations make names for themselves at the tournament. Sampson lauded Croatia and Belgium for their team cohesiveness, which led both teams to the semifinals and a second place finish for Croatia.
MN: What would you attribute Croatia’s surprise run to the World Cup final? There’s Luka Modric, who was recognized as the tournament’s best player, but what other factors are there to Croatia making it that far in the tournament?
SS: Well, the fact of the fact that Modric is [Croatia’s] captain and played exceptionally well and I think showed his qualities game in and game out for [his club] Real Madrid. [Ivan] Rakitic was also a complimenting player for Modric and I think that they had such great depth within the team and on the bench. No matter which player was brought into the game, there was no drop in level in their efficiency on the field. In fact, they added to the efficiency on the field.
One of the most discussed topics leading up to the tournament was the introduction of a video assistant referee (VAR), and whether it would help or hurt the game. Sampson saw VARs as a significant improvement, allowing for the video referee to help make the correct decision in match-changing situations. However, VARs were only applicable in four scenarios: goals, penalty kicks, red cards and mistaken identity cases. This applicability raises the question of what the next step for VARs is.
MN: There are only four scenarios in which VAR applied. Do you believe that VAR should be expanded?
SS: I think it is something that is going to be looked at over the next couple of years. I think the natural evolution of VAR will be to allow each head coach at least one opportunity to inform the fourth official that they would like to have VAR used, much like what is used in the NFL when they throw out the red flag and allow for a video review. On an experimental basis, they might evolve to allowing the coach from each team one opportunity during a 90-minute game to request a video review.
Many fans were also surprised by the 2018 World Cup’s lack of traditional powerhouse nations, such as the Netherlands, Chile and Italy. For Americans, the biggest talking point was the U.S.’ absence from the tournament, as the last World Cup the U.S. did not qualify for was in 1986. In an October 2017 interview with Mustang News, Sampson expressed his disappointment and gave further insight on how U.S. soccer can prevent this from happening again.
MN: In an earlier interview with Mustang News, you suggested a need to change the system itself with a focus on youth player development. What other areas do you think the U.S. can improve on?
SS: I think [the U.S.] have to identify the special players at ages 13, 14 and 15. They have to put them in environments that are of the highest level of coaching, the highest level of competition and training environments. We have to put those individuals in environments where they’re being tested week-in and week-out with the highest level of competition. We have to encourage our very best players to do just that: play for the best clubs in the best leagues in the world and not worry about whether or not those players are playing in [Major League Soccer].
Despite the absence of the U.S., Sampson spoke highly of the 2018 World Cup and its legacy. Sampson pointed out that any country had an opportunity to win the World Cup, since country size matters less when compared to a team’s coach-player relationships. This emphasis, Sampson said, will make the 2026 World Cup, to be hosted in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, more exciting when the tournament expands to 48 teams.
Even while covering the best teams in the world, Sampson noted that he still remembered the Cal Poly community and the Central Coast.
MN: You have represented Cal Poly as a commentator at the largest sporting event in the world. What does it personally mean to take a piece of Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo with you to Russia?
SS: I was very proud to be a Cal Poly coach and to state that on the air. I made comments about the Central Coast and how beautiful it is and what a great institution Cal Poly is and how thankful I am that the people of the Central Coast support Cal Poly in all of its sports and in particular the men’s soccer team. I said on air how proud I was to be working here, having coached at the highest levels in the world.
This opportunity allowed Sampson to promote Cal Poly and bring in promising talent while also giving him a chance to promote some of his players in an effort to have them play at the professional and international levels.
“There’s a rich tradition of players that have played here and have gone on and done great things at the professional level. The next step is to get Cal Poly players representing our country and other countries,” Sampson said. “I would love to be a part of that process.”
Correction: Andres Cantor was mistakenly identified as Nico Cantor in a photo with Steve Sampson.