The 2018 World Cup: A Near-Extinction Event
End times, end times. This morning’s newspapers are obsessing over the departure from this summer’s World Cup finals of probably the two defining footballers of the last decade and the possibility – some would now argue probability – that this is the last time that the competition will ever see them. That this should be the case is, of course, no great surprise. Professional football has increasingly become part of the light entertainment world over the last two decades or so and it’s considerably easier to position an individual as a celebrity in the public eye than it is a team.
On the first of the days during which their contribution was really required, though, never Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo really turned up for their respective teams. There were ten goals scored in yesterday’s two matches, but neither scored and, whilst it is undoubtedly unfair to drop the expectations of an entire nation on the shoulders of any one individual, they are both forward players for their teams and might have been expected to score at least one goal between them yesterday. What happened instead was that both were overshadowed by players who, despite their own levels of celebrity, live their lives very much in the shadow of the binary star system that has come to overshadow professional football in recent years.
Let’s be clear on the fact that neither Kylian Mbappé nor Edinson Cavani are unknown quantities that we didn’t know anything about before this tournament started. Mbappé transferred from Monaco to Paris St Germain in the summer of 2015, making him the second most expensive player in the world after his team-mate Neymar, whilst Cavani might be approaching the twilight years of his career at thirty-one, and has been a PSG player for the last five years. It does, however, feel rather as though the achievements and abilities of just about any other player have in recent years been rendered close to invisible by the glare emanating from Messi and Ronaldo, and all the more so for the fact that their week in week out performances for PSG in Ligue Un are never going to get the same levels of attention as Real Madrid or Barcelona players would receive.
None of this is to suggest, however, that either Messi or Ronaldo have it easy, and we saw the extent of this within fifteen minutes of kick-off during the match between France and Argentina yesterday afternoon. An impressively ambitious rapier of a run from halfway through the centre of their defence should still have been comfortable for Argentina to deal with, but Marcos Rojo – the hero of last week’s group qualification win against Nigeria – could only manage an ugly and mistimed tackle to bring about a penalty which Antoine Griezmann duly converted. If the Argentina of 2018 have been anything, however, they’ve been a team of false hope. In the space of seven minutes either side of half-time, Angel di Maria brought them level before Gabriel Mercado gave them the lead, the first goal a wonderful strike from a player who often resembles football’s equivalent to Jekyll & Hyde, whilst Mercado’s was a fluke, a huge deflection off Messi’s underpowered shot which completely wrongfooted the French goalkeeper Lloris.
The axle upon which this game pivoted, however, came shortly afterwards in the space of eleven minutes. For all the talk of celebrity players during this tournament, it is unlikely that we will see a better goal scored from now on than Benjamin Pavard’s spinning, curling, outside of the foot effort that swerved beautifully inside the post to bring France level again, and this was followed with two goals in five minutes from Mbappé, the first of which was as much about the bad decision-making of the Argentinian goalkeeper Armani, who chose to try and block the low shot with his hand rather than his feet, whilst the second was a routine low shot from Olivier Giroud’s throughball. Even then, there was time for a tense ninety seconds when Messi’s long ball was glanced over the line by Sergio Aguero, but this time Argentina’s luck ran out. There simply wasn’t the time for them to claw it back and force extra-time.
Moving on to the evening, Portugal and Uruguay played out a match that was just as entertaining as the France vs Argentina match, but for completely different reasons. Whereas the day’s first match had carried the air of an office Christmas party held in a custard pie factory, the evening’s match was intense, tactical and tight, with the moments that decided it being of the absolute highest quality. Again, an early goal proved to set the tone, a remarkable long-distance one-two between Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez which ended with Cavani catching the ball full in the face to send the ball into the roof of the goal to give Uruguay the lead. Ten minutes into the second half, however, this good work was undone when Uruguay’s hitherto impregnable defence fell asleep from a corner and Pepe leapt to bring Portugal level.
Again, though, this parity didn’t last for very long, and seven minutes later Cavani swept the ball into the bottom corner of Rui Patricio’s goal with a first touch curler that wrapped itself around the goalkeeper and just inside the far post. Portugal had chances to bring themselves back into the game, most notably when Bernardo Silva blazed the ball over after the Uruguay goalkeeper Muslera spilled at cross into his path, but their exertions were in vain, even after Cavani was replaced after picking up an injury. Portugal, the champions of Europe, are out of the World Cup, and Cristiano Ronaldo continues his run of never having scored in the knockout stages of the finals of the competition, an unwanted record which is matched by one Lionel Messi.
Have we seen the last of these two, though? Well, it’s looking as likely as not, really. Messi is thirty-one and Ronaldo is thirty-three, but Messi has “retired” from international football once before whilst Ronaldo, it often feels, will simply keep going until he does win the World Cup. Although he’s older, it would feeel less surprising to see him turn up on Qatar in four years time at thirty-seven years of age than it would be to see Messi there at thirty-five. These two players have defined the modern football era, but they’ve never done this through the World Cup. Indeed, if anything they’ve become a symbol of the extent to which club football – and in turn an increasingly diminishing number of clubs – dominate the game in the twenty-first century. And given the quality of football that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to suggest that they will miss the World Cup more than the World Cup will miss them.
With Edinson Cavani being only four months older than Lionel Messi, it would obviously be ridiculous to say that yesterday was in itself a passing of some sort of baton, but it was equally difficult not to look at Kylian Mbappé and not think that the match between France and Argentina and wonder whether this is the point at which he moved from being the future of the game to its present whilst Messi moved from being its present to being its past. No player can go on forever, and to watch Mbappé’s pace, invention and skill at play was to get the feeling that this is another new generation of professional footballer at work.
Ultimately, though, Argentina weren’t good enough. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. They laboured their way through the qualifiers and were rescued – perhaps for the last time – by Messi in their final qualifying match against Ecuador. Nothing much had changed since then. It was still a tournament too far for Javier Mascherano, Marcos Rojo was still Marcos Rojo, they still had effectively no goalkeeper, and that was before we moved on to the attempted coup d’etat after their first two matches, which saw Sampaoli rejected by the players in favour of Messi and a group of senior players apparently picking and running the team for their last two matches. And for all that some dared to dream that Argentina could some through this situation because Argentina were ultimately fooling only themselves. They played two decent teams – Croatia and France – in this tournament and conceded seven goals.
Like Argentina, Portugal had plenty of experience to back up their captain and talisman, but not a great deal of quality. To a point, their draw was tough. It was straightforward enough to get past Iran and Morocco in the group stage, but a second round draw which left them facing either the hosts or probably the most obdurate defence in the tournament wasn’t as kind as perhaps we thought it was at first. Either way around, by the end of the first day of the second round of the 2018 World Cup finals, both of the finalists from the last time around, the current European champions, and the two defining footballers of the current era have all been eliminated from the competition. At least, we might consider, this summer’s World Cup isn’t turning out to be predictable.