With the World Cup now beginning the knockout rounds in Qatar, the soccer-loving world (or football-loving, depending where you’re from) is paying even more rapt attention to the tournament of all tournaments.
Among those with a keen interest: Some members of the Utah Jazz.
Argentina native Leandro Bolmaro is naturally invested in the fortunes of “La Albiceleste.” Italy’s Simone Fontecchio and Finland’s Lauri Markkanen didn’t get to see their respective countries qualify this time around, but have nevertheless been following the goings-on.
And rookie wing Ochai Agbaji is something of a soccer junkie, having played the sport through high school, and being selected by multiple teammates as the best footballer on the team.
OK, so perhaps there’s no one on this squad as fanatical as, say, ex-Jazz forward and Real Salt Lake supporter Bojan Bogdanovic. And hardly everyone on the Jazz has football fever — guard Talen Horton-Tucker said outright that it’s not really his thing, and he wasn’t planning on tuning in.
A couple members of the team, though, have spoken animatedly about how their own respective backgrounds in soccer have influenced their World Cup watching habits.
Like coach Will Hardy, for instance.
“Oh, yeah, for sure. For sure,” Hardy replied when asked in the run-up if he was into the World Cup. “I played soccer ’til I was 18. Love it. So fun to watch. I can’t wait. The World Cup’s always really cool. The camaraderie that it can make for the country and all the countries, it’s cool to watch.”
He correctly predicted that the four-nation group which included the United States should leave the Americans a good shot at advancing. He felt like “they’ve got a chance to do pretty well,” and indeed, they’re facing the Netherlands early Saturday morning in the Round of 16.
Perhaps surprisingly, 7-foot-1 rookie center Walker Kessler also has a bit of soccer in his sporting background — albeit a minuscule amount.
And the experience didn’t exactly make him a lifelong aficionado of the beautiful game.
“My foot-eye coordination is not good, man. I played one year of soccer — my mom made me play one year of soccer, in seventh-grade year, because she said I was getting a little too serious about basketball during that time,” Kessler recalled, shaking his head. “And what position do you think I played? Correct — I played goalie, didn’t use my feet at all.”
Still, given his defensive prowess (he is averaging 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes), he naturally had a tale of an epic, standout performance.
“You know, there was one game where I had 37 saves,” he began.
Say what now?
“We lost 10-0,” Kessler continued, laughing. “So my team was … not the best. We got mercy-ruled.”
Asked what he said to the teammates who forced him to face 47 shots in a game, Kessler initially said he kept his frustration to himself, before quickly remembering that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“I can’t say anything. Well, that’s not true. I mean, I’m a competitive person, so … I don’t know terms, so I would just [be] like, ‘Yo, y’all got to play better defense! I’m getting killed out here,’” Kessler said with a smile. “But, you know, that whole year I think we scored two goals. So that was pretty awesome when we scored those goals. We still lost. We had a losing record. There was one play where we had a corner kick, and I sprinted down to go try and get a header, missed it completely, and then I had to beat the ball — I had a footrace with one of the guys with the ball to my own goal. Yeah.”
And how did that turn out?
“They scored. But no, it was it was a fun experience,” he said. “But to answer your question, I’m not a football guy.”
Hardy is, however. While he doesn’t have a specific club team he supports, he did attend the UEFA European Football Championship tournament (aka “Euro Cup”) held in Austria and Switzerland in 2008, and he’s a massive fan of the various “All or Nothing” series that follow various teams from year to year and air on Amazon Prime.
He’s loved gleaning behind-the-scenes insights from the seasons that have followed Premier League teams Manchester City and Arsenal, though he was less a fan of the Tottenham Hotspur series for a very specific reason.
“About halfway through the season, it turned into COVID, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m living the testing life, I don’t need to watch them test on TV,’” he joked.
Still, he absolutely loves the series.
So then, we can expect the Jazz to become the first NBA team to get an “All or Nothing” installment then, right? “All or Nothing: Utah Jazz” — coming to Amazon Prime circa 2024?
“Let’s do it. Yeah! Let’s get behind the curtain,” Hardy replied enthusiastically, before walking it back a bit. “… I should probably ask for permission before I say yes.”