FIFA World Cup

A cupful of surprises

Print edition :

France's goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, lifts the trophy as the team celebrates winning the World Cup. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Croatia’s midfielder Luka Modric (right) in a tussle with France’s midfielder Blaise Matuidi in the final. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe (centre) vies with Croatia’s Ivan Strinic (right) and Ivan Perisic. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scores an own goal and the first for France. Photo: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

The 2018 edition of the football World Cup was unforgettable chiefly because of the thrilling unpredictability right from the start.

“The Championship is something you either believe in or you don’t, like God,” wrote Nick Hornby in his seminal book on football, Fever Pitch. Though the Championship he refers to is the First Division Championship of England, the sentiment can easily be applied to the FIFA World Cup. A football fan—whether in the stadium or in front of the television—is as much a participant in the game as the players. The fans’ passion for the game is unwavering and their faith in their team’s ability to win the cup is beyond question. It is almost as though they can take the team to victory through sheer will when the players falter.

From June 14 onward, for one whole month, the world seemed to turn on “hope” and “belief” until the hour of the final truth on July 15, when the favourites France beat the surprise finalist Croatia 4-2 in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup. This was the second time that France lifted the World Cup, having won it for the first time in 1998.

It seemed as though finally the world could fall back in joyful exhaustion, all passion spent, after a seemingly unending period of frenzied ecstasy and dark despair in a rollercoaster ride of swiftly shifting emotions.

Right from the beginning of the tournament all predictions and expectations on the basis of analysis were thrown out of the window as one of the most unpredictable and thrilling FIFA World Cup tournaments in recent history was played out in Russia. It was a tournament that stunned the world every step of the way, and seemed to have heralded a new era in international football in which the old powerhouses that have held complete sway over the football pitches for the last 88 years were challenged and pushed back to the very brink of their pedestal by a new hungry force. This was the first time in 88 years and 21 Cup finals that none of the titans of the game—Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain—were present.

The Final

The 2018 FIFA World Cup final was one that lived up in every way to its incredible build-up. France, one of the favourites to win the Cup this year, looked unstoppable as it reached the final in an imperious fashion, but Croatia, the underdog, which had to fight hard all the way, seemed capable of scoring a spectacular upset. It was exactly 20 years ago that both the teams had achieved their best performance in the World Cup. In 1998, the French team, with the great Zinedine Zidane, had won the Cup, and Croatia, playing its first World Cup as an independent nation, had come third. The match where the two teams met on July 15 this year turned out to be one of the most fascinating World Cup finals.

An unfortunate own goal by Mario Mandzukic put France ahead in the 18th minute. The Croatian striker, who plays for the Italian football club Juventus, got himself the dubious distinction of being the only player (so far) to score an own goal in a World Cup final match. But the resilient Croats struck back just 10 minutes later with a magnificent goal by midfielder Ivan Perisic.

In the 38th minute, a handball by Perisic in front of the Croatian goal gave France a penalty, and star French striker Antoine Griezman made no mistake in making full use of the opportunity. The decision by the Argentine referee Nestor Pitana to award a penalty to France has been the topic of endless debate and dispute. It is still not clear to many whether Perisic’s handball was deliberate or accidental. At the insistence of France, Pitana took recourse to VAR (video assistant referee)—another historic first in the history of World Cup finals—and after close scrutiny gave his decision in favour of France. It gave the French a huge advantage just before half-time.

In spite of Croatia’s valiant effort to fight back in the second half, it was France that extended its lead in the 59th minute with a goal from the midfield star Paul Pogba. His first shot at the goal was blocked by the Croatian defence, but he struck hard and true at the rebound and found the back of the net. Six minutes later, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, whose sublime skills and lightning speed captured the attention of the whole world, scored a low-flying beauty from 25 yards, which Croatia’s goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, failed to save. Mbappe became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score a goal in a World Cup final.

To Croatia’s everlasting credit, even in the face of such an apparently insurmountable lead, it did not for a second stop trying to even the score. The players ran their hearts out on the field that day and continued their relentless attack on the solid French defence right until the final heartbreaking moment. In the 69th minute, a horrible mistake by the French goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris gave Croatia its second goal. Instead of collecting the ball, an overconfident Lloris tried to dribble past the predatory Mandzukic, who effortlessly took the ball off the goalkeeper and scored. It reminded one of the time when the iconic Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita, in a 1990 World Cup match against Cameroon, lost the ball to Roger Milla, who scored one of the cheekiest goals in World Cup football.

Superior tactics may have played a significant role in France’s victory, but it was Croatia’s game that won the hearts. It had 66 per cent of possession and a passing accuracy rate of 88 per cent against France’s 68 per cent. France’s coach, the legendary Didier Deschamps, himself admitted: “We did not play a great match, but we showed a strong mental quality. We also scored four goals.”

Deschamps became only the third man in history to have won the World Cup both as a player and as a coach. The first was Mario Zagallo, who was part of the winning Brazilian team in 1958 and 1962 as a player, and then again in 1970 as the manager. The second was Franz Beckenbauer, ‘Der Kaiser’, who led his side to victory in the 1974 World Cup, and again won it from the sidelines as manager in 1990. Deschamps was the captain of the ‘Rainbow Team’ of France that won the World Cup in 1998.

Croatia 20 years later

For Croatia, it was a dream run. For the last 20 years, it has been languishing in obscurity, crashing out of the World Cup in group stages and even failing to qualify in 2010. When it qualified for the finals, Croatia was ranked 20 in the world, but it had a most formidable side—its “golden generation” as it is now being referred to. Led by captain Luka Modric, one of the greatest midfielders in the game, Croatia had a galaxy of superstars playing in top clubs all over the world. Modric played for Real Madrid, Dejan Lovren for Liverpool, Sime Vrsaljko for Atletico Madrid, Ivan Rakitic for Barcelona, Mateo Kovacic for Real Madrid, Mario Mandzukic for Juventus and Ivan Perisic for Inter Milan.

Not one of these players had even reached their teens when Davor Suker created history by guiding Croatia to the semifinals in its debut World Cup appearance in 1998. It took 20 years for the next generation to come of age to stun the world again. For a while the world did believe that an underdog had every chance of shaking the establishment and emerging champion. It was not to be, but Croatia’s story in World Cup 2018 will always be told. “We have no regrets because we were the better team for much of the game. Some clumsy goals swung it their way, but we can hold our heads high,” said Modric.

The great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, an ardent football fan and die-hard supporter of the Zenit club, apparently once said: “Football is the ballet of the masses.” It was perhaps not just the choreographed unfolding of a game and the beauty of movement in which Shostakovich would lose himself but also in the high drama that takes place in the span of just 90 minutes. He had even composed a ballet in three acts and six scenes titled The Golden Age (1930), based on the story of a football team. There is no stage in this world bigger than the FIFA World Cup and no performance that can elicit the more powerful and diverse emotions than the matches played out here. It transcends the tag of being just a sporting event, as its ripples can be felt in the cultural and political spheres as well.

During the second half of the 2018 final, play had to be suddenly stopped as intruders in the garb of security personnel rushed into the field. It was a well-planned move by the Russian female punk band Pussy Riot—a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin—to use the biggest event of the world to protest against the violation of human rights in Russia. One of the enduring images of this World Cup would undoubtedly be young Mbappe, whose style of playing betrays his romantic spirit, high-fiving one of the protesters.

The French victory itself was a political statement of racial unity prevailing in the face of rising intolerance and fascism. The ethnically diverse French team, with key players such as Mbappe, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Blaise Matuidi, Corentin Tolisso, and Steven Nzonzi, who hail from poor African immigrant families, has been an example of how immigrants, more often than not, ultimately prove to be beneficial for a country. Mbappe, who was adjudged the ‘Best Young Player’ of the World Cup, is of Cameroonian-Algerian descent. The teenage French pledged his entire World Cup earnings to various charities.

As Europe turns increasingly right-wing, ace Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku’s words in a recent article he had written titled “I’ve got some things to say” become poignantly relevant:

“When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.

“When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.

“If you don’t like the way I play, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liege and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht. I dreamed of being Vincent Kompany. I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in.”

The World Cup is also the stage where the fallen heroes get a final opportunity to redeem themselves and the rising stars are forced to face their mortal reflections. Before the World Cup started, Croatian captain Modric, who went on to win the Golden Ball for being the best player of the tournament, was a beleaguered man. A five-year jail sentence for his involvement in a perjury case loomed over him and the Real Madrid superstar’s popularity in his own country had begun to plummet. Graffiti messages in his own home town of Zadar denounced him and he also became a much-vilified figure on social media. Yet, the same Modric received a hero’s welcome when he returned home after helping his team reach the final. He was in truly sublime form.

The former Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Valdano described Modric’s craft in his inimitable poetic way:

“When the ball passes by his feet, the play flows as if football was the easiest thing in the world. It’s not about adding intensity or danger to the move; it’s about adding sense, clarity, intent.... He does not feel the pull of populism, nor any temptation to play to the gallery. He is too focused on football, submitting his five senses to the game itself.”

One is also reminded of an older case—that of Paolo Rossi, the wily Italian striker, who came back from disgrace to become the hero of the 1982 World Cup. Rossi, who was suspended for his alleged involvement in the notorious match-fixing scandal known as Totonero 1980, was instrumental in Italy’s triumph in FIFA 1982 with a hat-trick against Brazil in the quarterfinals, two goals against Poland in the semis, and the opening goal against West Germany in the final.

The World Cup is also the arena in which the promise of greatness is finally fulfilled, or not. The great Diego Maradona was already on his way to becoming an icon in 1982, but a red card against Brazil meant an ignominious end to his first World Cup. 

However, he returned in 1986 to win the Cup for Argentina and end any doubts about his greatness. Similarly, many expected 2018 to be Neymar’s World Cup. 

The Brazilian star, one of the world’s most expensive players, had to retire hurt after a severe injury in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, and the world was eagerly anticipating his return this year. However, apart from a few flashes of brilliance, Neymar’s performance did not match up to his prodigious talent, as Brazil fell to an inspired Belgium in the quarter finals.

Making way for the young

For many, it is also the last dance with greatness before bowing out of the lights and leaving the stage for the next group of artistes waiting to make their mark. The heroic Argentine defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano, a key figure in taking his country to the final in 2014, was just a shadow of his old self. Clearly, age had caught up with the 34-year-old and he could not keep up with the pace of the game. Soon after Argentina crashed out of the tournament, losing to France 3-4 in the Round of 16, he announced his retirement from football. “From now on, I’m just one more Argentina fan,” he said.

 It was a similar scenario for his former colleague from Barcelona, Andres Iniesta. The Spanish legend could display only glimpses of the magic that had made him one of the greatest midfielders of all time.

But, as the old guards leave, the new heroes burst forth to etch their names on the wall of sporting immortality. Mbappe and Benjamin Pavard from France, the 22-year-old Mexican forward Hirving Lozano, and the sturdy and indefatigable Uruguayan defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira will continue to thrill the world like those before them, until it is their time to bid adieu to the roar and the colours of the stadium.

Every World Cup is a unique experience that lovers of the game cherish and talk about for years to come. What makes the 2018 tournament particularly interesting is the kind of narrative it provided because of its thrilling unpredictability right from the start. While it is true that a pre-tournament favourite and a football elite did ultimately win the tournament, it was not before the longstanding order of things in the world of football was turned topsy-turvy by underdog teams who shattered once and for all the aura of invincibility surrounding the so-called super-teams.

It was a World Cup of stunning upsets, nail-biting finishes and heroic defeats. The connoisseurs may point out that in some cases safe tactics was preferred to flair and playing to win had at times taken precedence over simply playing great; and a few may even justify it. But, overall, this World Cup re-established, if nothing else, the romance of football.

In the words of Jorge Valdano: “The bacillus of efficiency has also attacked football, and some dare to ask what’s the point in playing well. I feel tempted to tell about the time they dared to ask Borges what is poetry for, to which he answered: ‘What is a sunrise for? What are caresses for? What is the smell of coffee for?’ ... they are for pleasure, for emotion, for living.” So is football.

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