The 2018 World Cup: In The Presence of Greatness
Many, if not most, tournaments have one match which is subsequently labelled as the match which should have been the final of the competition but wasn’t. Such was the draw for the 2018 World Cup finals that this turned out to be last night’s match between France and Belgium, a taut and tense encounter, but a match which seemed to only cement in the mind the possibility that the two teams competing might just be playing something approaching a different sport to the rest of those involved.
France’s one-nil victory was an appropriate result. On the night they were defensively immaculate and terrifying on the break, set up in a way that almost entirely nullified the plethora of attacking options at Roberto Martinez’s disposal. Romelu Lukaku, who had previously been a brilliantly marauding figure packed with footballing intelligence, was reduced to the position of a relative bit part figure. Eden Hazard flitted and poked without ever running out of ideas, only to find himself shut down whenever he started to look like too much of a problem.
For all the beauty on display last night, though (and there was so much at times that it was difficult to know where to focus one’s eyes), this has been the World Cup of the set piece, and the match was decided by a moment of power, control and simplicity when Samuel Umtiti headed down into the bottom corner of the goal from a corner kick. It was a decisive moment in a match that had previously felt like a chess match too complex for anybody to be able to make a power move in, and there was a striking irony to the fact that these two teams, the greatest concentrations of international players on the planet, could only be separated by a goal that would likely have been derided as “inferior” had it been scored by anybody else.
On the night, France were the superior team. Kylian Mbappe, who will surely be remembered with the benefit of hindsight as the most brightly shining star of this entire tournament, was inventive without being showy. Paul Pogba was quietly industrious rather than sinking into the anonymity that clouded some of his last domestic league season for Manchester United. Blaise Matuidi was a rock in their defensive midfield, shutting down options that had been available to Belgium in previous matches. Benjamin Parvard, unknown to many at the start of the tournament but already the scorer of one of its finest goals, sparkled in his full-back position. They glittered.
But life isn’t always fair and, however much France should surely win the World Cup no matter who they play in Sunday’s final, they don’t quite tug at the heartstrings in the way that Belgium do. Their opponents’ elimination from the tournament last night was a genuine moment of sadness, because so many of this summer’s most poetically beautiful moments had emanated from this team. Indeed, it looks as likely as not that Belgium 2016 will be remembered within a very specific strata of World Cup teams. Every team that wins the World Cup is a Great Team. Their place in the story of the competition is assured by their place on the honours list.
There is also, however, another strata of footballing greatness which is less definite, more difficult to pin down, more… subjective. Great Teams don’t have to be winners. Indeed, it might even be argued that there is a form of footballing greatness which has fragility and misfortune at its heart. This group of teams is often talked about in the same exalted terms as previous winners of the competition, if not greater still. The Hungarian team of 1954. The Dutch team of 1974. The Brazilian team of 1982. These are the teams that – where we can remember them or have grainy television footage of them available – capture our imagination. They’re teams for the heart rather than the brain.
And they’re usually flawed, in some way or other. The Hungary team of the early 1950s was hamstrung at the 1954 World Cup finals by arguably the game’s first media scrum regarding a player. An over-dependence on getting Ferenc Puskas fit to play in the final contributed towards them losing a two-goal lead against West Germany. The Dutch team of 1974 was football as a cultural revolution, but were also so complex in their inner fragility that entire books have been written about their inability to take the final step of beating West Germany in that year’s final. The Brazil team of 1982 proved to be the death of a dream, that the spirit of different eras could be channelled and repurposed to batter through the cynicism of the early 1980s. They couldn’t, and Brazil have never quite been the same since.
The essence of these Great Teams rests in their vulnerability. Belgium blew through their group stage with the absolute minimum of fuss. Against Japan in the second round, they demonstrated both their greatest strengths and their fundamental flaw, a force of nature in coming back from a position in which they had arguably put themselves. Against Brazil in the quarter-final they raced into a two goal lead and briefly threatened a similar mauling to that which Germany delivered upon them four years earlier before Brazil forced their way back into the game. Their excellence got them through these two matches, but ultimately it couldn’t get them past France last night.
None of this, of course, is meant as a slight upon the French team. They are hitting heights that feel close to them being a team of all talents, but they haven’t really shown that vulnerability yet in this tournament. Perhaps they will in the final. And it’s difficult to imagine that the French players wouldn’t desire with the whole of their hearts to be a Great Team With World Cup Winners Medals rather than a Great Team Who Elicit Sympathy. Last night, France were the team who blended better, who linked defence and midfield that iota more effectively, who – critically, as it turned out – could take advantage of that one set piece opportunity whilst maintaining a perfect record at their own end of the pitch.
Belgium, however, will not be quickly forgotten at this tournament, and the sadness at their exit this year might well stem from the fact that, given the age of so many of their senior players, this tournament might have been their final chance to turn their “Golden Generation” label into something more tangible. They can, however, rest assured that they have played their way into a lot of hearts over the last four weeks. One of football’s greatest achievements is its capacity for love in the face of defeat, and this team will not be forgotten. It’s probably not much of a consolation the morning after you’ve lost a World Cup semi-final, but it’s something.