The 2018 World Cup, far more enjoyable than folks were expecting, was similar to a three-course meal that you spoiled by eating too much of the excellent starter (the Group Stage), leading you to a less spectacular but occasionally tasty main meal (knock-out stage), but a decent enough dessert to end the evening. Without wishing to stretch the metaphor any further, the best team won despite the dubious nature of their first two goals, in a game where both sides stuck to the guns that had seen them reach the final. France playing a waiting game, watching for the moments when their opponents began to tire then striking with stealth and speed, whilst Croatia preferred a high-tempo pressure game, looking to wear their rivals down with a mixture of Modric-Rakitic probing, Mandukic-roaming and Perisic- foaming. A country of 4 million against 67 million, but in the end size mattered.
We knew from the outset that France had the most complete squad – strong in all areas and able to leave out players of the quality of Benzema and Rabiot, whilst Croatia, if they were to reach the final, would most probably do so with their tongues hanging out. Modric and Rakitic were aided and abetted, but in the end they themselves were the ignition, the spark, the fuel and the traction. Rebic, Mandukic and Perisic did their bits, along with the excellent Vrsaljko, but such a support structure could never really compete with the all-surface 4 x 4 French side, strong at the back, strong in the middle and enthusiastic if goal-shy (I refer to Giroud) up top. If Croatia made a mistake, it was maybe to confine Real Madrid’s Kovacic to the bench for every game. He could have taken some of the pressure off Modric and Rakitic, helped to spread the burden and got them to the final in a slightly fresher state.
To say that Croatia deserved to win is to overlook the general sway of the second half, and to hide the fact that they simply could not cope with Mbappé, whenever he received the ball in space. Pogba, whilst never as hyper-active as Modric, was nevertheless effective throughout the tournament, scored a fine 4th goal and looked far freer for the presence of Kanté in neighbouring zones. Mourinho will have taken note. Lloris’ blunder briefly re-kindled the fire, but the dying embers couldn’t last. France thus took the title for the second time in their history, and thrust the trophy into the sodden skies of Moscow in a downpour, the first time (I think) a winning team has ever received the cup in such meteorological conditions. World Cup finals tend to be sunny (unsurprisingly given the time of year) and although for hemispheric reasons there have been some darker ones, the default image is of sun and balmy late evenings, of Nobby Stiles dancing toothless under the July sun.
The Russian weather was generally good, but reserved its grumpier face for the overlong post-finale celebrations. And efficient though the tournament organisation has been, it was interesting that the admin could only manage two umbrellas to shelter Putin and Macron, whilst Croatia’s beaming and shirt-clad first lady, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was left to the fury of the rain. Putin, the first to be offered shelter, wasted a massive opportunity to show the world what a big softie he really is by steadfastly forgetting to tell his minders to shelter the fair Kolinda. Then Macron went and did the same. Ah – a good World Cup and a praiseworthy non-violent one to boot, spoiled at the death by a lack of good old-fashioned chivalry. Meanwhile, the ladies from Qatar Airways in the background retained their stoical smiles, as the fat raindrops bounced off their neat little mauve bonnets. In four years’ time, one was forced to reflect, a similar scene will be somewhat unlikely.
Time plays tricks with your mental clock during a World Cup. It seems aeons ago since that electric 3-3 draw was played out between Portugal and Spain in June, in some ways setting the tone for the tournament to come. Nobody apart from Panama was really stuffed, and the overriding feeling of the tournament was that it is possible to survive, even topple the giants, by virtue of good organisation, fitness and a monothematic game-plan.
Some sides unashamedly parked the bus (Iran, Tunisia, Iceland, Saudi) meted out some physical, and almost progressed whilst others (Mexico, Japan, Australia) just went for it, and were in general rewarded. Sides like Colombia and Serbia couldn’t quite decide whether to join the forces of light or darkness, whilst Poland were just rubbish. But they remained the exception.
Most sides gave a decent account of themselves, and Switzerland were unfortunate not to progress even further. The refereeing was good, the VAR system was more or less vindicated (despite Amrabat’s famous ‘bullshit’ outburst), and the hooligans were nowhere to be seen, presumably fearing the wrath of the KGB and the ever-watchful eyes of the President . Then again, since the Russians who traditionally mete out the aggro on foreign soil appear to be paramilitary chappies anyway, one assumes the levels of violence were low for the tournament because these philosophers were all at work, or confined to their boot-camps. Pussy Riot made a late appearance, but are now confined to a Gulag somewhere in the vicinity of Vladivostok.
Spain showed us that their capacity for self-immolation remains unaffected by the recent years of success, and reminded us that the delusional spirit of Quixote is still alive and well. Lopetegui and Pérez should indeed have waited for a more opportune time for contractual niceties, but Spain’s new kid on the block, Luis Rubiales, acted with all the restraint of a bull on amphetamines. He may live to regret his action, seemingly fuelled by the blow to his ego/authority three days before the opening day of the tournament, because he is now considered to have put his personal interests before those of the country, compounding the action by recruiting the Madrid-hater Luis Enrique to the national job. It’ll end in tears, because wherever Enrique goes the tears eventually flow. The Asturian thrives off conflict, and is a poor choice – mark Liga Fever’s words. And the appointment is clearly a finger in the direction of the Bernabéu, ensuring short-term relief but medium-term chaos. Just wait and see. Luis Enrique is to self-criticism what Kim Kardashian is to monasticism. The twains won’t meet, certainly not in this dimension of the universe. The only positive note for Spain was that Sunday’s final had seven La Liga incumbents in the initial 22, with another 4 on the benches.
The Russian team turned out to be half-decent, and there were no obvious favours shown. This was rather a relief and indeed, the general good nature of the tournament and subsequent western surprise at the friendliness and goodwill of the Russians will have shifted the geo-political view of the country and its leader a wee way down the continuum towards approval. This was always the intention, of course, but whilst his opponents continue to stumble, Mr Putin has emerged quite well from the month in the spotlight.
But anyway, France are back on the podium, last occupied back in the 1998-2002 period. Zidane, Thuram, Deschamps, Desailly, Petit, Henry, Blanc, Viera…..legendary names, but was it a better team? I’m not sure that one can ever satisfactorily answer such questions, but potentially perhaps, the relative youth of this present squad and its strength in all areas suggests that it might be more difficult to dethrone than the previous champions. There seems no reason to dispute the fact that they can only get better. They are nowhere near as attractive as the European Championship winners of 1984 – perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of all French sides, but they are more robust, and equipped with a clearer tactical approach. Deschamps is not to everyone’s taste, but this trophy will cement his position, if he chooses to remain. And despite the impression that at times this side just thought they could win without really breaking sweat, it’s hard to deny them their hands on the trophy. Belgium and Croatia were real candidates, but in the end fell short. France were just too powerful. Let’s see how long they reign.