The 2018 World Cup: Blue Sunday
As noted on social media on several occasions over the last week or so, the last week of any World Cup can be a curious time. Just a couple of weeks earlier, we’d been planning our days around ensuring that we were stationed in front of a functioning screen of some description, not matter how mundane the scheduled match might be. By the last week of matches, however, something has changed. It all feels less urgent. Almost… less important, even though we’re headed towards what is purported to be the climax of the tournament. By the day of the final itself, it can feel as though we’ve almost forgotten that this is the most globally important football match of the last four years. Perhaps the growing gaps between matches throws us off our rhythm. Perhaps it’s just fatigue borne of fifty-something matches being fired at us with the rhythm of a machine gun. Whatever the reason, by the end of a World Cup, it often feels as though it’s time for it to be the end of a World Cup.
This, of course, isn’t a reflection upon the standard or otherwise of the final itself, although it’s fair to say that recent World Cup finals have been lacklustre, on the whole. This year, however, the World Cup final was a match worthy of the name, worthy of the showpiece occasion that it marked. It was also a match that almost eerily provided a snapshot of the tournament of itself as a whole. It featured a lot of goals – this was the first time since 1986 that more than more than three were scored, and that has only happened once in the previous thirty-two years – an own goal, very much in keeping with the record number scored over the course of the finals in general and the first ever in the final itself, a confusing and arguably perturbing VAR decision, and a horrendous goalkeeping error. It almost feels as though, at a time that the game is being pressured towards being more quantifiable than qualifiable, football is fighting back with a human element that feels more accentuated than it has for many years.
France are the new world champions, although Croatia made them work hard for it and when the teams went in for their half-time interval the Croatians may have had grounds for believing that they had been the victims of two acts of larceny that would end up costing them dear. The first came within eighteen minutes, when Antoine Griezmann’s free-kick was flicked past his own goalkeeper by Mario Mandzukic. The grievance in this case came with the decision to award a free-kick to France for a tap on Griezmann’s ankle when the forward already seemed to be falling under his own volition. This might have ended as little more than a footnote had events turned out differently, but when Ivan Perisic clobbered the ball into the bottom corner of the French goal ten minutes later it did feel like Croatia were reclaiming a parity that was the least they deserved for their performance to that point.
Seven minutes from half-time, however, came the critical pivot. A cross from the right hand side bounced up and struck Perisic on the arm and, after extensive consultation with the VAR system, referee Néstor Pitana blew for a penalty kick to France. Griezmann converted the kick, but Croatian anger was real and, according to many, justified. It feels as though this penalty kick decision fell squarely into the grey area between “definitely” and “definitely not” a penalty kick. At first glance, it looked as though there was no way that Perisic could have avoided the ball striking his wrist. Second glance indicated that his hand had moved towards the ball in the first place. As ever, the big takeaway from all of this is that the laws of the game surrounding handball are barely fit for purpose and leave one of the game’s most fundamental principles open to an almost farcical level of subjectivity after years of tinkering from side to side on the spectrum between being more relaxed and stricter in terms of their interpretation of what exactly handball is in the first place. Right now, no-one seems to know for certain, although has everybody has their own definition.
Two goals in seven minutes seemed to have removed most of the debate from these questions. Just shy of the hour mark, Paul Pogba steered in a third French goal, and six minutes after this a long range shot from Kylian Mbappé seemed to put the result beyond doubt and open up the very distinct possibility that France might be able to match or even surpass Brazil’s sixty year old record of being the only team in the history of the World Cup to score five goals in the final. Four minutes after Mbappé’s goal, however, Hugo Lloris continued the recent trend for horrendous goalkeeping errors of judgement in huge matches by attempting to dribble the ball past Mandzukic, only to lose possession and allow a tap-in to reduce the deficit to two goals, making Mandzukic not only the first player to score an own goal in a World Cup final, but also the only person to score for both teams in a World Cup final. Much as it was tempting to think back to France’s capitulation at home against Portugal in the European Championships two years ago, however, there was no route back for Croatia. France closed the game out successfully, and became world champions for the second time, twenty years after their first.
The twenty-four hours since the end of the match have brought about considerable tribulations on the subject of whether France “deserve” to be the champions of this tournament, and it’s difficult to argue that they don’t. They made slightly harder work of their group matches than we might have expected – during the match against Australia, it looked at points as though coach Didier Deschamps didn’t have much of a plan at all – but won all of their knockout matches without even being pushed to extra-time and took their chances in the final as well, when presented with them. The age of their squad – the second youngest in the tournament – and the continued through-flow of talented young players also means that there still may be room for further improvement in the future. For Croatia, though, this is likely the end of an era rather than the beginning of anything. The age of their senior players means that the team will likely have a very different look in four years time, with several already being over thirty years of age or close to it.
This, however, was a day of something approaching pathetic fallacy. Not only were the key incidents of the match itself entirely in keeping with the rest of the tournament, but even the extra-curricular activity seemed inline with the overall tone of Russia 2018, from the intervention of Pussy Riot on the pitch early in the second half (and, let us not forget, the fact that the world’s television cameras were turned away from the protest very, very quickly indeed – wouldn’t want protesters tarnishing the image of “The Beautiful Game™” now, would we? – to Vladimir Putin having his own flunky with an umbrella whilst French president Emmanuel Macron and Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic got soaked during the presentation. Indeed, even this sudden downpour tickles our imagination. A portent of storm clouds ahead? The Beautiful Game™ giving us a welcome sunny break from the dreadfulness of the world at the moment before cloud cover darkened the world again as soon as The Beautiful Game™ ended? It doesn’t take Mary Shelley to make that particular link. It’s been an entertaining and confusing few weeks, but with Qatar and forty-eight teams to come in four years time, it’s possible to believe that we had no option but to enjoy this party, because it might just turn out to be the last we ever had.