19 July 2018


I read previews to get educated, and I even tolerate the predictions of the learned to help set the scene, but (with due admiration for those experts) it is with glee that I see such attempts to give shape to the future confounded by each World Cup. It's in there every time, the mysterious element just beyond your ability to identify or to understand how it got there: the strange light outside in the night, someone else's bloody tooth in your drink.

This edition, more than most, careened from certainty to new certainty contradicting the previous one.

After their opening game against Portugal, it looked as though Spain might be emerging from their post-golden era slump, and that their performance might match the talent they collected, imposing as it yet again was. But it turned out they were just the bad old Spain in the good old Spain's too-big suit. Their performance against Russia was a fascinatingly grim self-parody, a sublime monument to mental paralysis: a vast blank slab.

Germany — as constant for the last dozen years as the old West Germany had been, but more fun — were outeverythinged by Mexico, then knocked on their backsides again by Sweden before getting up and showing, in a desperate flash of pride, that they were still Germany. Their tame surrender to South Korea and their management's offloading of blame onto Mesut Özil exposed a rotten heart and showed that they were in fact the new France (and not in a good way).

Mexico made their standard exit in the last sixteen, but the joy and hope they sparked with some of their performances at least ensured that had been promoted to the rank of this year's Chile.

Colombia's goals against Poland, and their outstanding centre-half pairing of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sánchez, made you optimistic to the point of stupidity. Against Senegal, Colombia were nervous, and then Jamesless, but finally victorious. Against England, they seemed terrified. (Why? Jameslessness?) The terror manifested itself first as destructive cynicism, and then, as it dawned on them that they would actually have to play football to win, in a thrilling urgency that almost won them the match. England had looked composed (if blunt as an attacking force); now it was they who looked scared, misplacing simple passes and resorting to the soothing hoof. Yet they paced their way back into the game like a cyclist dropped on a climb, and given a second chance, they kept their heads when it mattered.

Japan were so frightened of elimination in their last group match against Poland that they ceased to play altogether. Against Belgium, they were courage itself.

"...and at the end of what was an intriguing first half..." is usually the most professional way a commentator can plead with a viewer to watch the rest of a dull game, but the first half of Belgium-Japan really did load the second with possibility. The game was the best of the tournament because it was a complete piece, the first minute tied to the last.

The favourites were struggling to impose their desire on the game, while constantly being undercut by the underdogs. Belgium had most of the ball, but couldn't threaten. Japan attacked with quick, smart passing through midfield, then worked the ball around the Belgian half until, almost invariably, a space opened up on the flank (either one), into which a Japanese player was making a run. The ball would find him, and Belgium would be stretched. In the second half, Genki Haraguchi scored following just such a run.

Then Takashi Inui scored with a long-range shot struck with such apparently maximal transference of energy that he made the ball seem at one leaden and weightless. It was a goal experienced more viscerally than euphorically.

Japan harried Belgium into error after error, but a fluke goal (albeit a pretty one) triggered a torrential comeback from Belgium, finished off with a hurricane of a counter-attack goal to win in stoppage time.

In the next round against Brazil, Romelu Lukaku would snake his way through midfield at high speed before setting up Kevin De Bruyne for Belgium's second, in a virtuosic combination of control over his own body, over the ball and over his own mind (picking his path, laying it off to De Bruyne at just the right time before he himself got clattered). He made the winner against Japan without even touching the ball. His outside-in run drew his marker away from the wing down which Thomas Meunier would run to cross for Nacer Chadli to score, the ball having been dummied on the way by Lukaku. He exhibited so many facets of his game in those two moves that without showing it, the striker Lukaku reminded you what a great goalscorer he is too.

Much of the World Cup is about defeat: teams being beaten by teams soon to be beaten. To watch the World Cup is to become a connoisseur of pain. You get an education in the many ways of the knockout. Japan felt the exquisite agony of giving everything of themselves in almost breaking the order, only to find it twisting violently back into place. Peru sang beautifully, but kept missing the high note. England's consolation for elimination was to step straight into a honeymoon period and to break a cycle of negativity (although we've heard that one before). Poland's defeat to Colombia furthered their Sisyphean run of qualifying and flopping. (Would that Ireland could do that.) Senegal were eliminated on a fair-play tiebreaker: death by bureaucracy.

The exits of Germany and Spain were those of a privileged class being confronted with failings they can't decide whether they want to acknowledge. That of Argentina was the inevitable fate of a broken team. (For the neutral, though — if being a Lionel Messi fan counts as neutral in this fractured age — the whole weird mess was worth it just for his goal against Nigeria. With some players, you slow the video to understand their tricks. With Messi, you do so to understand his simple touches. An image to go along with those of Lukaku is that of Kenneth Omeruo putting his weight on his left foot as he prepared to make a tackle with his right, because he didn't expect Messi's second touch to be taken before the ball had hit the ground from his first, because who would expect that? We are all Kenneth Omeruo.)

Panama's first World Cup appearance was so precious that celebration overcame elimination. Russia and Sweden left the stage contented in their overachievement.

Croatia started the competition looking quite flat, but spent the quarter-final, semi-final and final straining every muscle and wearing away every nerve ending. Their effort was embossed on the latter stages of the tournament. And there in the middle of it was Luka Modrić, whose "gift", as described by Jorge Valdano (a candidate for player of the tournament), "consists [of] filling the game with common sense". He was a still point in a frantic world — but he snapped into tackles as fervently as his teammates did.

And their hopes ran into France, who proved almost casually that they were the best team in the world. Croatia wound up a punch into which they put a lifetime of hope and fury; France bobbed; Croatia whiffed and fell to the canvas. This was the most confounding thing about the whole tournament: that the prize we attach so much importance to should be won at the cost of so little sweat. It made you wonder whether French has a word for 'insouciant'. It was all a bit anti-climactic.

My favourite major tournament, and the one that has therefore become the standard by which I measure others (this is the kind of thing that chooses you; you don't choose it) is the 2000 European Championship. France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and (coming up on the rail) Italy — they, and other teams, fulfilled so many of your expectations of what a championship should have: daring, passion, bitterness, beauty, anguish, surprise, truckloads of drama and, crucially, truly excellent sides putting each other through the ringer. It was, like Belgium-Japan, a total story, but one stretched over three weeks.

If the 2016 European Championship suffered, it was not because the expansion to twenty-four teams allowed more mediocrity to flood in, but because the countries you might expect to be great were not. This World Cup was similar, except that Belgium finally showed much of what they'd been promising for so long, and France showed how great they are by how much they withheld.

But also by how much they gave. There may have been something disturbingly Mourinhoesque about them: a terribly well-organised defence with an attack loosely connected to the front of it. But Kylian Mbappé called to mind the young Ronaldo. Paul Pogba at times looked ten feet tall (his slashing pass to Mbappé in the final to start the move that led to Pogba's goal stands next to Lukaku's finest moments). While everyone else was busy running around looking for the answer, N'Golo Kanté quietly solved the game yet again. And yes, that defence, as a defence should, glorified the art of responsible spoilsporting: Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti were magnificent. Didier Deschamps did, after all, once win a World Cup playing in front of Thuram, Desailly, Blanc and Lizarazu. Maybe he knows a thing or two.

So even if it didn't scream out, the exuberance (the joie de vivre, as we say in English) that uncoiled in their celebrations after winning the trophy could be glimpsed in their play all along.

I wish this year's France could have been serially tested like their counterparts were eighteen years ago by Spain, Portugal and Italy. I've yet to see a World Cup that has lived up to Euro 2000's strengths. But I can hardly say I've ever regretted watching one. Even the bad ones are good. There's too much going on. To add to the above Diego Costa's solo masterpiece of a goal against Portugal, which encapsulated so much about the player (including how he got away with a foul on Pepe to begin with); Nacho and Pavard's twin strikes; the somewhat distressing dominance of European teams; the last half-hour of Switzerland-Serbia; Artem Dzyuba; the flamboyance of Neymar; Iran and Morocco putting the fear of God into Spain and Portugal ... it would barely begin to cover it. So many memorable moments are already forgotten.

And the World Cup has strengths all its own. It's global, and it matters more. We are privileged to see players in such a vulnerable state — to see how much they can bear, in front of the world and the folks back home, to stake on the outcome, which will eventually be defeat for all but that lone escapee.

Pussy Riot's intervention in the final shook you out of your arrogant reverie (before you drift off again) and reminded you that this most important of the least important things is bound up with the most important things and the world's worst people. The paradox is that it's also a relief from those things, and others, to devote a month of intense absorption to what is, at best, a celebration of human creativity and enthusiasm. Even if it is run by FIFA.

In these days after the end of the tournament, when it's now absent, you can think back to before it began, to the blank slate that was the draw and the fixture list, and think about how much has changed, and how little.


Unknown 20/7/18 2:34 PM  

I feel like Kenneth Omeruo, witness to your own brilliance. This is quite simply the best, most insightful recap of our month that I've seen. Your discourse was Modrić-like, rife with the beauty and rarity (ironically enough) of "common" sense. And it was all so superbly written.

I was around when you first started this blog, Fredorrarci, and now see that I should never have stopped reading. Maybe I should make a point of reading through your back catalog, as well as an account of the Euro 2000 tournament that's hazier to me than it should be.

All the best,
Steve H. (Contemplaydoh, back in the day)

Fredorrarci 22/7/18 5:05 PM  

Great to hear from reader #1. Hope things are well with you, Steve. You're far too kind, and I thank you for it. I'm afraid the blog has been dormant for some time now, only occasionally rousing from its slumber, so there won't be much substantial archive to get through (and I dread to think what it's like), but anyway, it's there for the reading. Thanks again.

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