The Cup runneth over

The French won, so did the Russians. But, more importantly, football won

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH64-FRA-CRO Allez les bleus: french players celebrate after winning the world cup | AFP

ON THE DAY of the World Cup final, Russian President Vladimir Putin was beaming throughout. This World Cup was everything he wanted it to be. Entertainment? Check. Break the myths about Russian society? Check. Establish himself as a propagator of soft power? You bet. By the end of the tournament, everybody who had visited Russia was in love with the country. The stereotypical Russian bogeyman turned out to be quite the warm host after all.

And, what of the football? The consensus among journalists was that this was the best edition ever. Not just in terms of organisation, but also in terms of the quality of play and the excitement it brought even to the seasoned reporter.

In many ways, Russia 2018 was supposed to be like Argentina 1978. The Cup had taken place two years after a military coup in the South American country, and politics had heavily affected the tournament, taking the focus away from the pitch. Reporters used it as an opportunity to show the world the hidden, ugly side of the Argentine dictatorship. Mercifully, the tournament in Russia was only about football.

The hooligans and the racists were missing, the action on the pitch was insulated from political tension, the local people turned out to be a content lot and the host team made it to the quarterfinals. The only major controversies revolved around the video assistant referee.

The French triumph meant that coach Didier Deschamps joined an elite club. He became only the third man in history to win the World Cup as player and coach, after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbaur. Derided by most for not having a tactical philosophy of his own ahead of the tournament, Deschamps proved that he was more than just a fancy name. Ten minutes into the second half in the final, Deschamps pulled off one of his lynchpins, N’Golo Kante. The diminutive french midfielder had been one of the best obstructive players at the World Cup. But he was not his usual self in the final. Kante, who was reportedly fighting a stomach bug, had committed three fouls in the 55 minutes he played and had picked up a yellow card. Deschamps, a defensive midfielder himself in his playing days, knew the importance of that position. So, he made the brave decision to replace Kante with Steven N’Zonzi. It turned out to be a masterstroke, as N’Zonzi took up the mantle well.

Global fraternity: French President Emmanuel Macron hugs Croatia’s Luka Modric as Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic look on | AFP Global fraternity: French President Emmanuel Macron hugs Croatia’s Luka Modric as Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic look on | AFP

France were far from aesthetically pleasing, but Deschamps couldn’t give two hoots about aesthetics. It was more important to him that they win, rather than entertain. France had fewer passes, a lower pass success rate and a minority share of possession in five of their seven games. In fact, Argentina, Belgium and Croatia had more than 60 per cent of the possession when they were beaten by France. Deschamps relied on a counterattacking game. The side depended on its defenders and the two defensive midfielders to deny space to attackers, while the rest of the team were always ready to charge at the goal at any given time. Key to those movements up and down the pitch were the presence of Kante and Paul Pogba in the middle. Alongside Kante’s defensive performance, Pogba was one of the most incisive midfielders in the tournament. This was literally the perfect combo. Pogba’s maturity at this tournament was one of the highlights of this French side. At Euro 2016, he was impulsive and flashy. One of the team’s coaching staff had commented that his head was not in the right place. This time, he showed incredible leadership qualities. Pogba was so lethal in instigating attacks that Deschamps was praising him at almost every news conference.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez gained many admirers through his tactics at the World Cup. Martinez is a man who made his way from lower leagues to the top of the world on the basis of his tactical nous and the ability to turn things in his favour with tweaks during games. After beating Brazil in the quarterfinal, he credited the players saying that there was only so much tactics could do, but what was important ultimately was the execution of those plans by the players.

But despite his claim that he has “never lost a game on the tactics board”, his team failed to cope with the individual brilliance of the French players. Belgium were one of the more entertaining sides at this World Cup. Their thunderous counter-attacks were a sight to behold. But, their golden generation failed to go all the way and it might be long before the country gets another shot at World Cup glory.

Viktor Gusev, one of the most recognisable voices in Russian sports, said in the seven World Cups that he had been to before, nothing came close to what was witnessed in Russia. The unpredictability, the organisation, the speed of the game, suddenly everything looked different. “These days, there is a lot of insistence on technique and tactical accuracy,” the veteran commentator told THE WEEK. “The likes of Pele and Garrincha could easily run past defenders. When you watch videos of old games, you wonder how the defenders gave players so much space. It would be almost criminal to do such things today. That is why individual performances like Ronaldo against Spain stand out, because these come across as superhuman efforts in an era where defences are much more organised.”

Gusev, who had expected Germany to win the tournament, said the tournament taught purists that even the World Cup is not free from unexpected outcomes. “It will make teams approach the tournament in a different way in the years to come.” He was not surprised about Croatia’s run to the final, not only because of the depth in the squad, but also because of the easy draw they got in the knockout rounds.

Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic is more or less like Deschamps, who was often denied the credit for preparing the team for the tournament. His defence may have failed him in the final, but he made his midfielders and forwards work together. Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Ante Rebic are far from the best attackers in the world, but under Dalic, who gave them much freedom to roam in the frontline, they shone. Croatia’s historic final appearance was the story of the tournament, but their defeat to France was perhaps reflective of the imbalanced draw in the knockout rounds.

As interesting as it was from the start, the tournament lost a bit of its life after the Latin Americans exited. None of the supporters from the European sides could bring the kind of atmosphere the Latinos brought on match days. It was a phased continental exit: The African teams were out by the group stage, the Asians by the round of 16 and the Latin Americans by the quarterfinals. The last time this happened was in 2006. When asked about why the European teams were outdoing others, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez first dismissed it, but later hinted at the gap in the financial conditions.

Gusev, though, did not agree. “Argentina’s was a systemic failure, while Brazil’s was just one bad game,” he said of the big two. “The Europeans are not superior to the Latins, tactically or skill-wise. There are coaches who go both ways and cultures are merged because players play in Europe, too. Each country is different, there is no Latin American approach or European approach to the game. Each team has its own reasons for failing and it cannot be generalised as a continental failure. The last three World Cups were won by Europeans because of the strength of individual teams.”

Unlike club football, riches can only do so much on the international stage. The national head coach is left with limited choices in weak positions and has to make do with what the domestic circuit gives him. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli, who had proved himself at Sevilla and Chile, could not bolster the country’s ailing defence line. A few days before the World Cup ended, it was announced that he was sacked.

Nikita Osokin, deputy director at the Centre of Sectoral Research and Consulting, Financial University, Moscow, said that in terms of consumer spending and subsequent economic impact, Russia could surely have benefited more if more South American teams progressed into the later stages of the tournament. “In terms of the economics of the tournament, there is a bigger impact caused by the size of the team’s fan base rather than the teams themselves,” he said. “According to reports by Visa, the top spending nations in Russia during the World Cup were from South America, and the USA, most of whom also supported Latin American teams.”

The 21st edition of the World Cup leaves a rich legacy for the much maligned host country. “In the context of Russia, the tangible and intangible legacies of the 2018 World Cup are interdependent,” said Osokin. “Russia’s historical run at the tournament brought an unprecedented amount of positive exposure to the team. The volunteers made fans feel welcome and eased the trouble of navigation, while the FAN ID system helped ensure security.” All doping tests returned negative. The worst Russia did to try and influence results in their favour was when the mayor of Kazan joked that he relied on a superstition—the creation of murals of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar had resulted in the three players crashing out of the tournament. So he wanted a mural of Luka Modric in his city before the Russia-Croatia game. The mural, however, came up only after the game, and Russia lost to Croatia.

“The international community will realise that there is more to Russia than just the doping and the negative aspects that they portray it to be,” Gusev said. “You have to be wiser in your judgment of people, and they should see what a great World Cup this has turned out to be.” The night before and after the final, Russians partied nonstop and the foreigners, too, joined, reciprocating the warmth shown by the people. France took home the trophy, the others took home the love of a misunderstood people.