One of the best world cups of the modern era, if not the best. Why? Because there were few games that appeared cynical or dour. Few games that seemed to be foregone conclusions. Because the winner could not be predicted until the last few matches and very few of the great footballing cultures seemed to be working within their own historical narratives. Because there were surprises, regularly, almost daily. Because the most considerable teams often went out, early. Because there was drama, daily. And because the character of the footballers, as individuals, and their actions, under unbelievable pressure, most often at an age where most men can’t even function in society, showed and allowed human qualities to shine out. Qualities that superseded the jaded eye of those who lament the hyper-wealth those players possess. Sure there was dirty play (cough Colombia cough), Neymar’s embarrassing melodrama and plenty of dodgy refereeing. But a world cup is like a drama, and one or two bum lines from the actors do not a bad play make . And all this, this wholesome theatre, took place in an autocratic, overtly nationalist country which seemed to get out of its own way, to allow the decency of its people to show through.
We each of us have our own images of such a global spectacle that represent our own identities, even beyond a slightly banal sense of national pride and fan fervour. I think of Xherdan Shaqiri, whom the German’s nicknamed Powercube, and Granit Xhaka throwing up the Albanian eagle after scoring against Serbia. I think of Messi walking straight down the tunnel after his nation’s exit, the greatest player ever to live knowing he’d never hold Jules Reme’s trophy aloft. I think of Ronaldo’s opening day hattrick against Spain. Spain sacking their manager before the competition even began. Cavani and Suarez terrorising defences. Belgium’s golden generation knocking out an overrated Brazil, revealing their tiny nation’s extraordinary strength in depth. Russia going far enough to shock their own people but not too far to truly break hearts. Modric and Rakitic showing the power of a dominant midfield and making themselves legendary in the process. Iran winning a World Cup fixture for the first time in 24 years. Japan’s energy and spirit. Germany’s pleasing capitulation and mental wobbles. Penalties, again. A winning team who are likeable, buoyant, youthful, vivid.
This was a World Cup of immense energy, it felt new, almost as though there had been a structural or cultural change. Something about the games felt fresh, without pessimism or predictability. It felt as though it belonged to young players over the old, that it made new stars and built upon reputations rather than enshrining those who were already universally regarded. It went beyond VAR and the endless debates about new tech, which, when all is said and done, was clearly a good thing, moving football into the 21st century, lifting some of the onus from human error within immediate decisions and sightlines, to the human error of more careful analysis. VAR spreads blame, if nothing else, and it did, often, delete injustices that were unfolding, the final notwithstanding. No, the freshness of the World Cup had to find its root in expectations being overcome. That it didn’t seem completely commercial, a soulless coca cola sponsored exercise in shifting units and making money in markets from Nigeria and Senegal to South Korea and Saudi Arabia. That it didn’t entirely become a nationalistic enterprise for Russian propaganda, despite the tasteless, mawkish cringefests that were the opening and closing ceremonies and the accidentally hilarious image of Putin during the trophy giving final ceremony being shielded by a lackey’s umbrella while Macron and Grabar-Kitarović were getting happily doused by the rainfall. And more than this, and perhaps most liminal but powerful, enjoined with the generally excellent standard of football and sporting theatre on the pitch, that expectations, in the West, that Russia would prove inhospitable, were confounded.
It’s hard to escape, in England, surrounded by our rabid press, the sensation we were supposed to not enjoy the world cup because it was held in Russia. The gradual revelation that no single incident of violence or repression, against a travelling British football fan, or otherwise, would allow the mechanism of the tabloids to be validated has been slowly submerged in the fact of England’s relative, unexpected success at the world cup. Russia, an enemy of England’s in political, social, spiritual terms – a nation who sends its billionaires to us but poisons our citizens and annexes our former battlegrounds. This quagmire of perception was reluctantly but absolutely submerged by Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Dele Alli. Such was the expectation of failure that Russia as an idea became lost and football took over. That in and of itself, from a British perspective, shows the truly remarkable power of this World Cup, actually fulfilling what sounds like PR pablum, changing minds, bringing people together. In real terms, and while coming fourth is impressive enough, all this mind altering was based on an England performance that has been somewhat exaggerated - losing twice to Belgium, just beating Colombia, Sweden, losing to Croatia when in front. But it has been enough to nudge aside Putin’s spectre and ongoing saga of the Novichok poisoning. This kind of pleasing cognitive dissonance was evident throughout the UK when the front page of the paper revealed England’s footballing vitality and the second showed the death of Dawn Sturgess from the nerve agent in Salisbury. What the World Cup achieved was to force a wedge between the perception that the actions of a nation’s government represent its people in fine detail and print. That the average person in Russia is not the idea or ideal of Russia, nor the alleged actions of its government. Slowly but surely the British press started to reveal grudging stories of the goodness of these people, and most of whom visited that massive nation for the first time, from around the world. The secondary effect of football which this World Cup brought boldly into focus, doing good in what one hopes is a lasting and subtle manner.
All in all we can lay out that banal maxim, that the best team won. It seems they did. It seems just, despite the controversy of the penalty that marred the final somewhat, that Mbappé (a Francophone friend told me a recent French meme has been rather popular - Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Mbappé) and co, the swaggering Griezmann, the haughty Pogba, would prove out to the world audience that they deserved their second title. Nothing disturbing there. Not as inspiring as a Croatian victory, a nation of four million crowned world champions, but still, a satisfactory end to a World Cup that was more than satisfactory. One that exceeded expectations by maintaining our attention, daily, relentlessly, by being something more than it might’ve and by, without glibness, often evoking the better part of our collective nature in individual and communal circumstance, despite the fundamental fact that this is a competition that pits nation against nation.