Introducing FP's World Cup Blog, Midfield General

The stadiums might not be ready, the workers may be on strike, and Brazilians might not be all that excited about it, but Thursday marks the beginning of the World Cup. While sports usually fall outside the purview of our work here at FP, the World Cup isn't just about the game of soccer. This year's tournament will offer a wealth of subplots - from Brazil's effort to brand the games as the country's arrival on the world stage to the corruption and missteps that have made the run-up to the games a political nightmare for Dilma Rousseff.

And to cover it all, we are immensely excited to be launching a dedicated blog for our World Cup coverage, Midfield General. Helmed by our economics columnist Dan Altman -- turns out he's something of an ace soccer sabermetrician -- the blog will be investigating the myriad political, economic, social, and cultural issues that swirl around the world's biggest sporting event. The blog's contributors include a poet, Musa Okwonga, an Emmy-winning television writer, Kevin Bleyer, and a motley crew of reporters and editors. FP's executive editor, Ben Pauker, has pledged to make a cameo.

You can expect the blog to cover all the geopolitical angles of this year's games -- recall, perhaps, the 1974 showdown between East and West Germany -- and also examine the less than obvious ways that the tournament reflects a continent on the move, but still beset by its own set of challenges and obstacles. This year's Colombian side, for example, not only boasts a strong lineup but carries the hopes and dreams of a country that has recently emerged from decades of drug-fueled violence. This year's tournament will mark 20 years since Andres Escobar scored an own goal against the United States and was gunned down in retaliation upon his return to Medellin.

The blog's name, Midfield General, is not only a nod to FP's long history of covering conflict but to the essential playmaker in modern soccer: someone who can foresee the passage of play and direct a team's strategy. We hope to do something similar, taking you on an unexpected exploration of the beautiful game.



The Beginning of a Caliphate: The Spread of ISIS, in Five Maps

With Tuesday's seizure of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria notched a major victory in its campaign to create a new country containing parts of what had part of both Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, the insurgents continued their march south, taking control of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

Between the territory ISIS controls in Syria and its growing gains in Iraq, ISIS has managed to secure a significant swath of territory stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo in the west, to towns in Iraq's east that are about a two-hour drive from the Iranian border. In Mosul, the insurgents grabbed a cache of largely American-supplied weaponry and equipment, and may even have seized $400 million dollars from the city's central bank. What was once best described as an insurgent fighting force might now be more accurately described as an army.

Central to the notion of ISIS transforming itself into a bona fide army is its ability to hold and control territory, and as the maps below point out, that appears to increasingly be the case. ISIS may in fact be nearing its dream: The creation of a caliphate governing the land from the Mediterranean to Iran's Zagros mountains.

Here, in a map assembled by the Institute for the Study of War, you can see where in Iraq ISIS operates. The map distinguishes between zones of control and zones of attack. The former, in block, are strongholds of the group, the latter, in red, are areas where they are able to carry out attacks. The areas in light red denote areas where ISIS has an operational presence. (Click the map for a larger version.)

As you can see, the map above is somewhat conservative in its estimates of where ISIS has a presence. According to ISW, its operational presence is largely limited to transportation corridors and doesn't extend particularly far into the countryside. Rather, the group is focused on population centers. For a more granular look at what cities ISIS controls, have a look at the map below, assembled by the Long War Journal and which documents the cities under ISIS's authority:

View Iraqi and Syrian Towns and Cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham in a larger map

But the story of ISIS's spread -- and its influence -- is one that begins in Syria, where the group has been waging a brutal insurgency against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and, increasingly, other more moderate and secular rebel groups. The map below depicts the areas of Syria under its control. The group's influence is bounded by the Free Syrian Army in the west, the Kurds in the north, and pockets of government influence.

Meanwhile, if you want to understand the significance of ISIS's most recent territorial gains, just have a look at the map below, which shows those gains relative to Iraq and Syria's major oil fields.

And as ISIS continues its march south, it is only likely to worsen the region's refugee crisis. The map below depicts the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, which has displaced some 2.8 million people to flee the country. Of those, about 200,000 have come to Iraq. On Wednesday, it was reported that some 500,000 have fled Mosul. And as you can see below, many of the country's refugee camps for Syrians are in areas threatened by ISIS.