How possibly to conceptualise the tactical inevitabilities? The scarcity of individual brilliance, and yet the cavity of previously unfancied victors? How to elevate the ecstatic, the unifying, beyond its globally captivating lone presence? To splice the bane, the binary, the ill-informed bureaucracy, while suffocated by such substandard sources, and make sense of this World Cup, of all World Cups, is a task of unknown caveats.
Russia has indeed reconfigured its international perception during what we have yet witnessed of this month-long global cultural exchange. Its hospitable, strong-willed population has taken in its visitors and shared an enhanced understanding of each life, more aligned than ever imagined possible. Those who entered in trepidation, a minority, have allowed inhibitions to be eroded, and as the Winter Olympics served for earlier this calendar year, the sport assumed early precedence over its context, albeit bound and sharing sympathies and ecstasies. Those host cities selected by organisers have far exceeded their capabilities, and Samara, Nizhny Novgorod and Volgograd seem certain to join their cousins in Sochi as eminent geopolitical authorities of a developing superstate after their slick presentation and heartening humanity.
Elsewhere, few have coasted onto the stage – most, indeed, have stuttered. Even those deemed infallible in the preface now haemorrhage breezy dignity with every act; Julen Lopetegui (remember him?), David De Gea and, based alone on their faults in Kaliningrad Messrs Pique and Ramos reinforcing many a Spaniard’s weakened status on this stage, for every skill Brazil still disjointed, France again uninspiring and Germany – well – Germany…
And so, our rundown begins. From A to H, from VAR to no VAR, and from the wallchart to the pitch, has this tournament yet unfurled as one truly of its age, and of its diverse competitors, rather than a rigid, corporate countdown to conclusion? All that it has delivered, all that it has promised and more, heralded, spurned and grasped from the heights of improbability, assessed. Let’s begin as the tournament itself did an entire fortnight ago…
Not since 2002, in Japan and South Korea, had there been such a lull in international anticipation for a host’s performance permeating, particularly, through an opening round. Russia versus Saudi Arabia was never to be aJu match to set alight the fibres of international football, but emboldened by a curtain-drawing responsibility, it entered into the catalogue of initial ties; a lineage of Cameroonian and Senegalese upsets of defending champions difficult to debase, but again a World Cup ignited by an unexpected feat. The West Africans had endeared themselves to an underdog-adoring public in 1990 and 2002, was it possible that, through the beaming smiles of Aleksandr Golovin and the burly, otherwise unlovable Artem Dzyuba, this isolated state had achieved the same? Perhaps not, but they certainly shirked a morose self-image.
Denis Cheryshev, an unequal outsider to our rhetoric of disdain for Russian domestic affairs, emerged from the bench and dispatched a feeble Saudi challenge in their opener, before contributing from a more stable position against Egypt. Both opponents flattered to deceive, the Saudis receding on their, or rather Bert van Marwijk’s, qualifying principles, perhaps understandably misaligned after the Dutchman, for his abrasiveness, had no option but to eject and Juan Antonio Pizzi stepped into the lucrative breach intending to impose passing principles from Chilean exploits, and Héctor Cúper’s lauded North African outfit sadly lacking Mo Salah’s inspirational force in an ultimately conclusive Uruguayan ousting. While this quartet’s meeting may have facilitated insight into the geopolitically irrational – Saudi qualification – and the reconnect with a tournament that has only extended misfortune (Egypt’s third coming), these stories only intertwined when all was lost, and few bared interest. Most gave notice only to Salah’s tribulations and Arabian incompetence; there was more to both, yet underperformance, misfortune and decisions lacking in foresight were owed to premature departures.
Óscar Tabárez, by contrast, entered as an ailing veteran amongst loyal, harmonious apostles answering to the names of Suarez, Cavani, Godin et al., again producing a highly competent outfit from what is, by relativity, a distant and succinct selection pool. Fixated, being the unbridled beasts they are, on absolute efficiency, they were not to take a beating at the hands of three roadblocks with only four past wins at World Cups, and though experiencing some turbulence on their route to José Giménez’s headed winner, they have executed the stage with absolute serenity since. Edinson was unfortunate, Luis was misfiring at times, but their defensive contribution far outweighs that of all other South American counterparts,as captain Diego, set-piece expert Carlos Sánchez and the midfield pairing of Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira, both ominously promoted prior to action, fulfilled all demands behind, safe progress was never once threatened. Worryingly, they are yet to click into full fluency.
Each World Cup recoils, despite its extensive coverage, and purrs for the revelations of lesser states. An irresistible romance, persisting throughout, has allowed this monolith to remain, and the flirtation again reared to the recompense, almost, of an Iberian King and his recently-embellished brother. Moorish kinship saw Morocco’s rivalry blossoming, and Portuguese helmsman Carlos Queiroz completed the set by tying socio-economic survivors Iran to the bonding session. Like all family affairs, the ammunition fired freely, and gunshot lodged itself in the arm of 2010’s world champions and perilously close to the heart of the presiding European saviours; not only internal bleeding but spurting embers of the literal Furia Roja were gorged upon by the onrushing, uncouth empires of Persia and the Atlas.
Morocco had, only days prior, been rejected by FIFA delegates for the opportunity of hosting an expanded 48-team 2026 World Cup – a vote they had been quiet favourites for in early proceedings, chiefly given proximity to the entities whose crowns they prized. Even further from the halls of power, perpetually politically conspicuous Iran would take some elevation, the pundits considered, from previous outings to alter the course of their Mediterranean darlings. Kick a stray dog, if you so dare. It will only return such vengeance.
Restrained at first from their ultimate prey, the cultural aliens of Africa and Asia bruised and grazed for the sake of three coveted points. An unlikely source, of course, handed the more experienced side the spoils, and enabled them to rival the apparently stratospheric talents that played out an enthralling, yet tactically masterful, 3-3 showstopper. Hervé Renard had not taken his squad, youth-centric yet supplemented by a variety of wise heads, this far and personally claimed such plaudits to seize up in their deficit; though allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to evade marking at an early corner was a fatal negligence, they exceeded Portugal for all offensive threat as Fernando Santos made all concessions to defend his lead rather than allow his marksman to further embellish goalscoring records. He knew an even sterner examination of impermeable credentials lay ahead. Iran may have pickpocketed an equally nervous Fernando – new man in, Hierro – as Spain leaned more on defensive fortitude, stunts and the balmy Kazan air than a glamorous midfield to repel pragmatic Eastern advances.
Each trap was set, then. No longer could each Iberian royal aid his twin, but each had to absorb yet another evening’s hostilities. The challenges had altered, and now it was as if a mirror had bisected pitches in both Kaliningrad and Saransk, where international eyes apportioned their gaze accordingly. The counter-attacking Portuguese were being played at their own game, as were the possession-based, centrally intricate Spanish, and neither could initially establish the unbreakable leads so prized by all serial winners. Defensive capitulation, for the second time in a frenetic opening 15 minutes, in fact handed the alert Khalid Boutaib a gilded strike on the target of a goalkeeper many Premier League consumers view as the world’s new benchmark. Naturally, the response arrived from Isco’s quietly industrial right boot, but the North Africans would bar a repeat of such freedom.
Attention turned to what Iran could offer, but Andre Silva did the probing with movement free of talisman Ronaldo and Team Melli swept away attempts, by hook or, indeed, by the Ballon d’Or winner’s moping while goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand squirmed. Ricardo Quaresma – not mellowing in old age at the slightest – defied logic again as half-time approached, Beiranvand intercepted Cristiano’s telegraphed penalty and the pressure now laid entirely with a side who knew their captain, the immovable force, had slumped into another subdued fit. As Queiroz reloaded, the ever-reliable personification of Portuguese affront, Pepe, retorted; we knew the early rounds were surpassed now. Blow followed blow, and soon VAR referral followed VAR referral; what should have amounted to a sending-off for Ronaldo did not, what should not have represented an Iranian penalty did. Gratefully, Karim Ansarifard dispatched. Elsewhere, a late flurry handed Spain top spot, and Iago Aspas had profited from technological involvement. Morocco were angered, so were Portugal, but neither would make official interventions known – the outcome for each was inevitable and imbibed by several cultural factors this group had set an absolute precedent for barbarity, for equality, for the grateful rivalry on which the competition exists. They would not be surpassed.
If the World Cup is a stage to shirk national stereotypes, France did not heed the call. In three outings, seldom did they part from the pose of a pensioned artist sat outside a winery or café, pausing momentarily to offer a smirk to a waiting camera before discharging a casual puff from his cigarette. For all of the skillsets of N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba, they did not tear off the chain that restricted them two summers ago. Our prophecies foresaw strife against the Danish and Australian backlines, but for the ingenuity and technical ability of raw forwards to rise above. Instead, restrained by inept management, they faced almost immediate embarrassment against the dogged Aussies. Griezmann saved them once, now an ego sufficiently serene to compete for a Ballon d’Or, and his flexibility would save them again as Olivier Giroud, the perennial unimaginative resort, entered for subsequent ties.
If Deschamps’ reaction to tactical surprise – almost impasse – was a conservative one, once again it invited critical examination, more so from L’Équipe than undistinguished Peruvian ambition and amplified Danish realism. 4-3-3 dispatched, 4-2-3-1 was hardly the new vogue, but rather a ploy to eke out the anti-ignominy FFF vision. Rigid, tepid and ponderous; they still qualified top.
Perhaps we were unfortunate that Peru vs Denmark was drawn first from the lots, with the Andean outfit saddled by the long-uncertain presence of Paolo Guerrero looming only from the bench as Christian Cueva blazed a first-half penalty. Their later defensive lapse, the gnarled and redeemed striker could not be faulted for, but CONCACAF’s fifth qualifiers were subdued by the stage and were dampened before they had even relighted their nation.
Yet we commended the interchange of Ricardo Gareca’s side, alongside the industriousness of Bert van Marwijk’s. Neither succeeded, limited tactical scope exposed by the individual mastery of Christian Eriksen and Griezmann and the sufficient com mand of both European vanguards. While both underdogs attempted to break from indecision and from the malpractice of previous entrances, or lack thereof, their efforts were found superfluous. Slight fortune paved safe passage for UEFA’s steeds, but underwhelming as the route was, the rewards could be fantastic. For any motley crew so devoid of imagination to see out their service with a dour stalemate, it would be an injustice of the meet to go further.
Few would have expressed genuine surprise of Croatia and Argentina advancing, nor particularly in their individual manners, prior to the tournament. We all understood La Albiceleste’s tactical imbalance, but for such minimal constraint to have been shown by Eduardo Salvio and Nicolás Tagliafico at full-back, their one-dimensional offensive movement was not aided. Defensively, chaos ensued.
Jorge Sampaoli inconsistent by both apparel and ploys, the diminutive Argentine – formerly of Chile, and another on the rotational roundabout of short-sighted CONCACAF desperation – swooned in seemingly awash with complacency. He had not tinkered his tactics to test Icelandic irritants, and as Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia formed a 4-2-4, barring at times on 2-2-6, in their midfield pivots, the width so coveted by Heimir Hallgrímsson became abundant. A famous draw would, paradoxically, prove all the islanders would emerge with.
Representing the extremities of CAF bipolarity, Nigeria had become, to some effects, engrossed in their own hype prior to the tournament. An apathetic surrender to Croatian followed. An ineffective use of prodigious youth in Kenneth Omeruo and Kelechi Iheanacho, himself increasingly accused of complacency in stalling club exploits, and a drastic void of midfield hustle, chiefly a symptom of John Obi Mikel’s role as number 10, deprived Gernot Rohr’s squad of the vivacity its vast public deserved. Remedied, without great dishevelment, against the Icelanders, of all teams, the West Africans unmasked an entirely contrary character; defensively resolute against the marauding Birkir Már Sævarsson and Hörður Björgvin Magnússon and able to outnumber the valiant Strákarnir (Boys) in midfield with their 3-5-2 confidently assumed.
When prying eyes finally accredited Iceland, had they achieved all they set out for? They did not part from their much-beloved 4-4-2, with organisation an irrefutable principle, but eventually the strain weighed heavily on their trawlers net, and their volcanic potential lay dormant. When even Croatian youth belittled them, their persistence in the face of unknown adversity, their life at the tournament had expired. Not their use; they represent the greatest of historic feats in their qualification, let alone their tie with two-time World Cup victors. These mere Icelanders, decades earlier internationally nameless, evoke the guiding ideals of the sport, and, if valued at all today, act entirely with humility while doing so.
Earlier in their own heritage, the very same could have been spoken of the newly independent Croats – well, if asking Laurent Blanc, the sporting morals aside. Seething with an identical upstarting vigour to that summer of ’98, the self-aware squad of Zlatko Dalić may have been eased in by Abuja’s contingent, but have etched immediate mastery onto the rambunctious but technically lacking slate FIFA’s drawing allocation afforded them. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic may be amulets in the rivalling Spanish kingdoms, but visionaries on the international scene they had not yet established themselves as. Occasionally culpable for the breakdown in communications, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebić have nonetheless been clinical when most required. Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, and particularly Ivan Strinić, have excelled amidst modest expectations, revelling in the confidence freely circulating through their Roschino base, almost neighbouring England outside of Saint Petersburg. They dismantled the Messi-fronted façade and exposed the deep-rooted cavities of Buenos Aires bounty – professional head-hunters, exercising the cleanest of kills – and maintained focus onto an obligatory final task, a round where all others deemed them exempt. With Iceland forced to make first engagement in their drastic pursuit, they are yet to match up with a truly defensive outfit; Denmark awaits.
Another day, another heiress, another nation’s motivations sold as irrepressible forces collide. Switzerland, topographical kit in check, enticed vulnerability from patchwork (full-strength?) Brazilian pride; landing weight when latching onto a set-piece. Neutrality was the response Philippe Coutinho’s overstated strike anticipated, yet the Swiss were in no mood to emulate errors of old. Supreme athletes, skilful in glimpses, but now robust also, the world’s sixth greatest outfit acquitted themselves as qualifying showed them able – without trepidation or hesitation.
Elsewhere, an Aleksandar Kolarov free-kick sealed Serbian advantage; Costa Rica fruitless, stuttering form in endeavours subsequent to 2014 perpetuating. Mladen Krstajić had the buttress his quickfire revamps required, but not the performance. If Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević, Kolarov and Branislav Ivanović, even Sergej Milinković-Savić and Aleksandar Mitrović, had not posed sufficient physical hostility, the withdrawals of Adem Ljajić and Dušan Tadić in the meeting – in their place Filip Kostić, with only two prior international strikes, and right-back Antonio Rukavina – certainly beat the Central Americans into a pulp.
Hitherto insurmountable, Tite’s Brazilian band did not resume their World Cup relationship with absolute ease, either against Switzerland or beyond. Danilo, Marcelo, questions over Neymar; fitness has, to some extent, scuppered momentum. While Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa and Fred cannot be immediately accommodated, the onus on Gabriel Jesus, Willian and Paulinho to repeat previous glories under the paternal steward was not alleviated at any stage; Coutinho prodding home a desperate injury-time winner in Saint Petersburg before the underemployed Alisson Becker weathered a second-half storm against Serbia and Thiago Silva bailed the oppressed forwards out with a well-taken header. Scarcely could there be greater disconnect with four years earlier, when Luis Felipe Scolari structured his side entirely around the boy wonder, now made a man. Maturity, even as the globe’s heftiest financial asset, in devolving responsibility to his versatile midfield has won Neymar several favours – an unlikely Golden Boot victor now, but a World Cup champion? We can but merely speculate.
The result was formulaic, the permutations limited. Joachim Löw’s Germany drawn against Mexico, Sweden and South Korea – a foregone conclusion. We need not consult the history books; these are perpetual quarter-finalists, if not semi-finalists, if not serial winners, unquestioned in the event of uncertainty. Why quibble over warm-up deadlocks with naturally game-raising Austria and Saudi Arabia?
Then it struck; a cataclysmic knell, 1-0 to Mexico, Hirving Lozano with the lone effort. There was no tactical frailty or naivety – meticulous preparation is a synonym for any clockwork DFB outlays. An injury to Jonas Hector aside – Marvin Plattenhardt a highly competent stand-in – Löw had entered his most formidable XI. Sampaoli’s error repeated, by the defending champions, the prized spoils of a hired assassin, there was no consideration of Mexican intentions. Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio, by contrast, had engineered a ploy specifically prising German vulnerabilities as Toni Kroos, consistently the fulcrum in the post-Schweinsteiger era, was extinguished and Joshua Kimmich exposed. Deprived of the fundamental roles of each, the German supply line was irrevocably weakened, while support was blatantly ignored by Löw.
Uncharacteristically, the outward message of Die Mannschaft was not organic, but as so many defending champions before, excoriatingly defensive and misguided. Rather than allow bemusement to fester with Sebastian Rudy introduced, or Kimmich withdrawn to form a back three or restricted back four, Marco Reus, Mario Gomez and Julian Brandt all entered – the latter the only generally deemed in-form – and desperation ensued, ignominiously without reward. This was now a side, a nation, constructed on unity, and when initially upended by tactical miscalculation, this value did not wholly desert them, but ebbed away at pivotal interchanges.
The selection of Reus over Leroy Sané – overlooked in a slipshod form of nationalist folly to question Brandt’s place by the English media – on sentimental lines as far as we were all aware, did not unravel positively. If he was not to start ahead of Julian Draxler, the victim of enough personal struggles at Paris Saint-Germain who almost certainly would have played second fiddle as a defensively unaccountable pace merchant to the Manchester City assist-maker, perilous questions began to mount. As far as Timo Werner was the first genuine German striker to command a starting berth since Miroslav Klose’s 2010 function, his response to muttering public doubts did not inspire confidence; portraying himself as another false forward, uncertain more so than unable in his role.
From Sweden, something was salvaged. There could scarcely consider quite what, but after 90 minutes recollection is understandably hazy. Their opponents in this instance were not as fine-tuned; with two burly strikers, the handle on Kroos was loosened. When arriving in Kazan, it seemed they imagined an identical eventuality. Evocative of 2002, South Koreans harried and distracted purposefully and successfully – even if eliminated, their pride could not be splintered. They were, of course, aided by the sudden elevation of Leon Goretzka as a winger – hardly supplementary to Kimmich’s defensive strife, nor Werner’s ill-focus. A second deathly chime fell across the global titan; fluency long since lost, exhaustion of imagination evident throughout. Setbacks from the start had caused chaos, little altered afterwards; though their tenure swiftly elapsed, it was the greatest embarrassment at such a stage for generations. Their partners conducted the vanquishing, but they had merely plunged an ailing victim into his grave in this tournament. For Löw, it would be nigh-on inconceivable after all prior successes not to rise again, but in their absence, largely lesser squads progress.
Bedecked in yellow and blue, Sweden emerged from a hovel without monetised propaganda – after Euro 2016 and injury, Zlatan goes to LA. Emil Forsberg took the mantle of heroism, but in truth a wily interchange between touring nous (Andreas Granqvist, Seb Larsson, Ola Toivonen) and expendable youth (Ludwig Augustinsson, Victor Lindelöf, to all intents and purposes Forsberg himself) would maintain respect in the post-Ibrahimović age. That the ponytailed emperor’s service was a falsehood of the Scandinavian spirit did not hold complete conviction; these were formerly pillaging kingdoms themselves, guided by identifiable warlords. Naturally, each warrior cast the national honour forward, and discredit in Zlatan’s time would be undue. They are not reimagined, now, but more balanced in existential norms. Collective action, without a chieftain, is rarely as self-lubricating as in Nordic climes. So progress proved, seizing on seemingly annual Mexican pitfalls and gaining a further opportunity to test their newfound capabilities.
Two relative provincial minnows meet two (generally) upwardly mobile Northern European identities; beyond these configurations, did we ever deem upsets truly possible? Aged and potentially resigned, Hernán Darío Gómez’s Panama were at the peak of their historic powers upon entry but had discovered the fearsome extent of UEFA’s hegemony in prior preparations – in March, a 6-0 slump to Switzerland ensued. Belgian and English offence dismantled all disguise of repentance, with Premier League forward lines cashing in.
Of course, England had not been free of such shackles before. Harry Kane scuppered Tunisian ambitions, hunkered down amidst the buffeting force of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard’s profligacy, as set-pieces proved more punishable than open play in Volgograd – a decisive, but agreeable, upset to the Anglo norm. The trend was not broken in Panamanian demolition.
Concurrent Belgian incision ensured a final group meeting would be much anticipated. Defensive lapses reared against Tunisia – a marvellously liberal affair, with spurned chances again an ode to the acute creativity of an in-form and self-confident entity.
Assurance, however, was not the overwhelming emotion exuded by the Kaliningrad testimonial. Disrupted, inevitably, by the changes forced upon them altered expectations and long-term squad dynamics, both potential superpowers showcased the antipathy of their earlier characters; England retreating to indecisiveness and an inability to stifle psychology, Roberto Martinez’s men tactically unhinged as converted wingers failed to fulfil the balance demanded of a wing-back. While the former opted to refrain from immediate pressure on a mediocre attacking contingent, the latter rebuffed all tired attempts to loop into the outnumbered and overstretched Jamie Vardy. If we needed any comment of how far either is from the true global elite, this was it; inept when attempting anything outside of deep-set predictability, and for all talk of greater cohesion, fractured at key intervals. Oh, and Adnan Januzaj, of all people, scored – mediocrity can astound.
Any stanza starting with the vanquishing of both top seeds, one by an ill-conceived early dismissal and the other by sheer disorder, is a fine entrée to a fortnight’s rewriting. From the Japanese circling on a depleted Colombia and Senegal’s dispatch of the Poles, anything became possible in this, the final of all servings. In isolation to all around, this multicontinental cocktail altered intentions again when the unfancied Asians and untamed West Africans, in just their nation’s second ever qualification, entertained a tie and the haughty South Americans carved through Eastern European ranking myths, overturning the rhetoric posed by Croatian butchery.
And Poland were eliminated. A breed of individually exceptional talents – Robert Lewandowski, Piotr Zieliński, Arkadiusz Milik rolling off the tongue if Messrs Błaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Piszczek and Szczęsny were now discounted – joined those before them in flattering to deceive. Internally, little had changed from the underwhelming outings of, truthfully, every date since 1982, and now the hard-earned accumulation of ranking points in the years prior proved shallow; playing to FIFA’s algorithms will not be a ploy they enact again.
Three into two, meanwhile, did not compute. National pining, in one instance to equal the achievements of their only prior entry, in another to reach the knockout stages for only the third time in their history and the other to avoid an early exit that has in the past resulted, shamefully, in the murder of a preceding representative, would coarse through all remaining action. While tactics largely received indignation for Aliou Cissé and José Pékerman’s steeds, cavorting simply in search of a final necessary spike through the other’s heart. James Rodríguez withdrew, but his impact was only as great as each other destabilised individual in an ungainly meet. Japan stumbled elsewhere, perhaps finally buckling as most had anticipated far in advance of their entry into Russia. No matter if stalemate remained in Saransk – but Senegalese nerve was being tested, the lack of a genuine marksman perhaps finally proving costly as M’Baye Niang and Sadio Mané stumbled without support. Yerry Mina, himself a rising force, provided the totemic blow in decidedly forthright terms; the slightest of errors in Senegalese positioning punished, and with no more to follow, the airlock was sealed.
Aesthetically, some charge the progress of the Blue Samarai as a miscarriage of justice. Edging Cissé’s side merely on discipline and employing defensive tactics in the closing minutes of their Polish defeat, their route was not simple nor valiant, but did have merit. The weakness of their domestic sport was a national embarrassment before the tournament, and successes in the Bundesliga largely disconnected with the image of the team that has rarely deviated since 2002. Akira Nishino, national technical director until April, had only stepped into the breach after Vahid Halilhodžić’s position was finally deemed untenable amidst lacklustre results and widespread aggravation. Facilitating numerous technical attributes throughout the squad, Nishino has finally formed respectability in the old age of many notable names – captain Makoto Hasebe 34, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima 35, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki both 32. They will not go much further, but in Belgium they have another opponent whom they could succeed in surprising. After the madness of their group, both alumni will be reluctant to make any comfortable predictions.
AND SO, half way beyond. Russia has fortified itself as an apt host, revelations have sprung, and uncertainty still covets the eventual outcome. Croatia, of all, appear sufficiently at ease the achieve the unthinkable, exceeding the heroism of 1998, while Uruguay have shown few weaknesses as of yet. Iberia’s finest have passed stern examinations, least of all from one another, France and Argentina are fraught with fragility if facing tactical equals (in this event, many potential opponents). Russia, Japan, Denmark and Sweden may not be initially tipped, but none will surrender meekly. Switzerland, England, Belgium, Mexico and Colombia, could all go far, or all crumble at a moment’s notice, making for spectacular viewing. If able to unlock their mastery, Brazil can emerge victorious, but pragmatism will also define their campaign, no matter where. Do svidaniya to all those who now prematurely depart, doing so with some regrets but hopefully a fondness in retrospect to their contribution. All had individual opportunities to celebrate, a rarity in such environments, and many will in future return – not to atone, but to pen fortunes anew. In the meantime, the debate only tightens, the synthesisers dropped – the cacophony of nature is calling, beckoning glimmers of its ultimate prize. We revel in the process again, and we await the inevitable evaluation, each even more sycophantic than the last. Enjoy it while it lasts – you just don’t know your luck.
Having traversed the globe with all the sincerity of an MC Hammer verse, here we are. Preparations are all but complete. Delegations are being dispatched at haste. Finally, we fixate on the reality itself, as ever an entry into the chapters of history, as yet untarnished and unlit by forthcoming events. And so, to Russia.
Under another administration to Sepp Blatter’s, in which his distaste for co-hosting probes after the outcry of the 2002 edition was exceeded only by residual disloyalty to the politically meek English, Russia would almost certainly not have won the rights to this World Cup. Yet, when the vote was held in December 2010, this was a FIFA that only six months earlier had paraded Nelson Mandela, symbol of liberty and endless moral struggle, as the façade for a first African-hosted edition. The Swiss was not entirely culpable – his predecessor and mentor João Havelange invested the transformation of the global sport in the 1994 event, to be staged in a state (or States) that had slumped so far from their first engagement with the game – but his illegality and bureaucracy had driven the Brazilian’s ambitions into disrepair. If, with skyrocketing commercial revenues, he had promised greater equality between the continents, Blatter had delivered that; Africa and Asia were just as corrupt and unaccountable in their footballing federations as they were in government now.
Russia was an untameable bestowal, though. Unlike South Korea & Japan, South Africa and, at least at the stage of 2022’s verdict, Qatar, the globe’s largest geographical state, with Europe’s second-longest serving head of state (after post-Soviet Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko) at the helm, was not an implement of Blatter’s lecherous interregional stranglehold. Oh no. This was in Havelange’s vision, a summit that would consecrate the sport in a previously untapped reserve, overflowing with liquid optimism. Rather than, in the famously egotistical Brazilian’s experience, have Ronald Reagan court you at the height of his administration’s Cold War campaign with an invite to the White House, FIFA’s chief in this instance had to ensure support for an alternative to matches in Plymouth, dotted between Rotterdam and Genk or sloshing from Santander to Lisbon, by any means necessary. The cries were almost palpable across Zurich: anything but Milton Keynes!
Vladimir Putin had promised rail, hotels, city centre refurbishments, meticulous preparation and a plethora of newly-constructed stadia, all within European time zones and with his ever-diligent population in full support. The semantics touted all of FIFA’s ideals in a bare-back, horse-riding, salmon-fishing weekend wet dream in the lush Russian forest clearing, cradled to the President’s bosom every canter of the way. Even without systemic corruption, it may have been a done deal; though England had Wembley, a pre-Olympics London Stadium and Old Trafford, Spain/Portugal the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu, and Belgium/Netherlands the Amsterdam Arena and new 80,000+ capacity Nationaal Stadion and Nieuwe Kuip developments in the pipeline, none matched the ideological ambition of an ever-perceptive quasi-dictator.
Cast the clock back again. USA ’94 flourished, with the exuberance and transformation of newly-elected President Clinton’s nation – Diana Ross-shanked penalties included – providing an apt stage for Roberto Baggio’s artistry, post-Communist showmanship from Bulgaria and Romania, Ireland’s locally-favoured resurgence and, ultimately, Brazil’s pensive attrition. The world was united, irrepressible, and cared little for retrospect.
There could scarcely be any further contrast today. If that tournament sought to shed politics and welcome a new, positive, human age, its idealism finds little reminiscence in battle-hardened, ostracised Russia. While the hosts are impenetrably homogenised, others have fractured as a result of the Kremlin’s sadomasochistic expansionism. With Crimea seized as part of their latest expansion pack, Syria all but secured as a lucrative chip in the Middle East and co-operation with the centrepiece of centuries-old competition secured through Donald Trump’s aligning politics, they have never been better positioned to exert their national credentials.
Therefore, to see even the outspoken Gary Lineker trudge apathetically beyond passport control draws dismay. Local Russian officials and citizens have disputed vociferously the claims of Putin dangling his fingers over this competition as a pawn in his far more existential chess game, but by the sheer constitution of FIFA, such proceedings will always encroach on the hosting of the event. Not to the extent that the loose-lipped Boris Johnson may suggest, but this summer will serve as an invaluable public enlightenment as Putin begins his fourth – second consecutive – Presidential term; more so if he remains occupied by ministerial duties during the course of the football. Vlad’s shapeshifting abilities have always served him well, but in prolonging his present service have leaned more on the serene than the imperceptible. While he lays untroubled, even jovial, in the State Duma, it was not always this way. Dissolution-brokering Boris Yeltsin ousted in drunken, corrupt disgrace on New Year’s Eve 1999, up stepped the former KGB man, seemingly a loyalist of his predecessor. His military past served him well, however, and a direct proximity to the major political events concerning the USSR in the decade prior – stationed in the East German capital as the Berlin Wall fell before reconnecting with former University associates Anatoly Sobchak (Mayor of St Petersburg) and future Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in his rise up the post-Communist political ranks – has asserted an ideological shroud over the economically flourishing state ever since. Pandering to the dissent of citizens who, though defeating Mikhail Gorbachev’s flip-flopping reformist pledge, were in opposition to Yeltsin’s responsible stance on USSR debts and his naïve submission to private business elites, Putin has since allowed them to settle. With economic upturns credited to an enhanced international pedigree and the expansion of the urban middle-class, and provincial idiosyncrasies instilled as social foundations, his vision has not been predated by inflexible decrees, but instead driven the Russian Federation forward by distancing from either monarchist or Marxist heritage. Anti-politics have ruled Russia – when presided over, in exchange with a fellow former Sobchak student, by Dimitry Medvedev preoccupied with the freefalling oil prices and Western banking wounds of 2008-09 – and have since fertilised the White House lawns. Had a laughably marketized #USMNT have been waved off by the abnormally large hands of Washington D.C.’s caricatured king this week, with Twitter co-commentary accompanying their every act, this month may have been truly insufferable.
Leadership that has secured World Cup hosting rights has also obscured patriotic hopes – though conflicting, a tale sympathised with by all of the profiteers of Blatter’s 2006-onwards racketeering. For the world’s largest land mass, the contorted form of Tsarist, dare I even state Stalinist, nationalism perpetuating from the pacified suburbs out has resulted in the hindrance of the national team. Subordinated by the lucrative livings that continue to be made in the Russian top flight, the plaything of mass state apparatus, a nation establishing its modern identity from Communist autocracy has defied the usual stereotype. Above even long-serving glovesman Rinat Dasayev, Igor Akinfeev was thought of as the most promising Russian-born ‘keeper since Lev Yashin; he has not been tempted away from CSKA Moscow. All but two of their 23-man squad hail from Russian Premier League (RPL) clubs – five from CSKA, another five from Zenit St Petersburg. So shallow are the barrel’s contents that now they must call on foreign-born assets Mário Fernandes (Brazil) and Euro 2016 squad member Roman Neustädter (Ukraine, qualifying also for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Germany).
Talent has certainly slipped through the grasp of national authorities – of the squad that attended the 1998 Under-21 European Championships, Vladimir But of Borussia Dortmund, Vitesse’s Dmitri Shoukov, Saint-Étienne’s Erik Korchagin and PSV’s Sergei Temryukov collected only two cumulative senior caps – but the relative fortunes of Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and, for a short Andalusian stint, Aleksandr Kerzhakov do hold the Russian Football Union (RFS) accountable. Fundamentally, those who do attract overseas interest are, in more instances than not, victims of a patriotic self-fulfilling prophecy. Only the more extroverted, personable individuals have been seen to adapt to English, Spanish or Italian environs, yet in the image of Eduard Streltsov – already four years into his club career with Torpedo Moscow, arrested on rape charges aged 20 a fortnight before the 1958 World Cup – often silenced at home.
Streltsov had emerged as the sporting pinnacle of a post-Stalin age, and had the swagger to support such claims. With a film star quality to his slicked-back locks, the prodigious youth carried the drinking and womanising habits of the role; precedent-setting female Politburo minister Yekaterina Furtseva’s daughter Svetlana reportedly charmed. Yet as a lurid late-night slur at a celebratory Kremlin event held for the 1956 Olympic Gold Medallists laughed off any suggestions of marriage, and Streltsov instead tied the knot with his longer-term partner Alla Demenko only weeks later, the central Soviet powers were becoming increasingly wary of his cultural influence, especially when potentially breaking ranks on Torpedo’s European tours. The Communist Party, behind the pretence of sporting publications, slandered him, and so in pre-tournament training camps the decision, allegedly, was made. At another evening function, absconding from the deadlines imposed by managers and administrators, with events forever shrouded in mystery, it emerged the next morning that the forward and two team-mates had been taken away by police, with Marina Lebedeva lodging charges against them. Neither Mikhail Ogonkov nor Boris Tatushin represented their nation again, and scarcely recovered their club careers with Spartak after their three-year bans, but Streltsov – five years the duo’s junior – did recuperate his legacy after receiving widespread admiration in what was originally declared a twelve-year prison sentence. Certainly aided by the waning approval of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who some position as the instigator, he was released in 1963. Though he returned to alight the national team – seven goals in 17 appearances – after their victory in the 1960 European Championship, the result of his initial interment had, for some, as profound a national impact as the slump of England in the Munich Air Disaster’s aftermath; both nations would carry designs on their first Jules Rimet trophy, had it not been for such external afflictions.
Routinely, non-Russians were also identified as inferior to the qualities of Moskva’s CSKA, Spartak, Torpedo and Dynamo. Various managerial, administrative and political ideologies had prevented this inclusion throughout Stalin and Khrushchev’s tenures, but more alarming during the economic stall inflicted by Leonid Brezhnev was the ignorance of the Caucasus or Central Asia, when between 1973 and ’83 only a sole Moscow side won the Soviet Cup (Dynamo, ’77), with Ukraine, the Armenian SSR’s Ararat Yerevan and Georgia’s Dinamo Tbilisi swarming. Forced to play second fiddle if called up at all, the fortunes of Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Turkmen and Tajik talents was as morbid as their economic deprivation. Ukraine, and to some extent Belarus, did gain recognition as culturally proximate to Moscow and Leningrad, but the exploits of Oleg Blokhin were of embarrassment, generally, to fierce ethnic Russians. As were those of Tbilisi’s David Kipiani in the otherwise barren 1970s and Ukrainian Volodymyr Bezsonov, who from full-back powered the nation to the 1977 FIFA World Youth Championship as top goalscorer. Russia had exhausted itself, and in a botched 1978 World Cup qualifying attempt, none of their five goalscorers hailed from the mother republic; Kipiani scored twice as playmaker, while the Dynamo Kyiv pairing of Anatoliy Konkov and Leonid Buryak (Blokhin’s strike partner) delivered returns against Greece and Hungary, respectively, but it was insufficient.
Elsewhere, these players had reinvented the Union. A year earlier than the World Youth Championship, they had returned victorious from Hungary with the European Under-18 title, while in 1975 Kyiv had won both the European Cup Winner’s Cup and Super Cup; the first ever Soviet side to do so in either competition, and only in the latter, and formed the basis for a bronze medal-winning performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, beating Brazil to ensure a Communist 1-2-3 behind East Germany and Poland – in fact their second in a trilogy of successive bronzes. Odessa, Lviv, Dnipro, Kharkhiv and Donetsk possessed an unerring sense of national pride and produced the talent to match; Russia would never recover from this ignominy. After his continental victories with Kyiv, in 1975 Valeriy Lobanovskyi became the first manager of the USSR to have both been born outside of Russia and to never have managed or played there, soon followed by club successor Oleh Bazylevych and the final helmsman Anatoliy Byshovets, another Kyiv native who won 1988 Olympic Gold and watched the ruins of Lobanovskyi’s weakened 1990 World Cup side fully fracture and fledge.
Fraternity is obviously paramount to Russian culture, whether socialist or not. As a Ukrainian USSR needed a Ukrainian boss, Moscow’s demands do not fall far from the tree today. Fabio Capello followed Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink in the role from his resignation from the England post, evidently seeking more politically agreeable employers. The Italian may have brought a repressed, rant-prone character akin to his players, but his obdurate ways again reared; an over-reliance on physicality, an inability to trust youth and a refusal to let form precede favour in cases such as Roman Shishkin and Artyom Dzyuba’s each resulting in yet another trip down the rungs of a personal legacy. In a low scoring World Cup group, a lack of character failed to spark any escape. Advocaat, a perennial cultural chameleon, had initially inspired the side in 2012, but the 4-1 thrashing of a ragged Czech Republic quickly fizzled out to result in Czechia’s victory in the group, Russia’s early exit and a peculiar void, especially for Alan Dzagoev, finishing in the company of Torres, Balotelli, Gomez and Ronaldo as top goalscorer. Hiddink, similarly well-travelled, had validated and perhaps crowned his accreditation by taking a third nation to its utmost glory; a Euro 2008 semi-final, after inflicting defeat on those who had dismantled France and Italy, the Netherlands.
Experimental by tactics and selections, Hiddink led some to recall Lobanovskyi’s interpretation of the Total Football trends of the 1970s or the relentless tooth-and-nail stereotypes of Soviet ice hockey sides. It was the best an independent Russia had ever been – a side bolstered in confidence by CSKA and Zenit’s UEFA Cup titles in 2005 and 2008, each retaining a heavy Communist influence with 14 of their 18-man squads hailing from post-dissolution states – and still remains as such. The latter continental triumph, under Advocaat, removed any doubts over the credibility of the first; Villarreal, Marseille, Leverkusen and Bayern all defeated en route. Arshavin was the campaign’s star and following the end of the Russian Premier League season in November was finally set to leave his lifelong Saint Petersburg abode. Arsenal swarmed, as did Tottenham on Pavlyuchenko, Chelsea on Yuri Zhirkov, Everton on Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Stuttgart on Pavel Pogrebnyak, at no short cost – or profit for Moscow and St Petersburg’s governmentally ratified ownership. Prime Minister Putin publicly praised the state of affairs; he could be thankful to Advocaat and Hiddink for easing the economic burden on the Federation and restoring a football-obsessed population’s confidence.
What became of these players was not of great importance. Of course, it was agreeable to see Arshavin’s joyous introduction – four famous goals in the 4-4 draw with Liverpool the early pinnacle – but politically, their work was done. All evidence now exposes this flurry as short-lived and inflexible, condemning Russian football to a cycle of international distrust and internal stagnation. The next provocation was of Gazprom, RFS Financial Committee head Yevgeny Giner and Leonid Fedun (both oil magnates) of Zenit, CSKA and Spartak to induce a reprise via foreign signings, before Suleyman Karimov, a billionaire of investment-derived fortunes, bought out Anzhi Makhachkala; Hulk, Samuel Eto’o, Axel Witsel, Seydou Doumbia, and for some demented reason Aiden McGeady, arriving on extortionate wages and to bemused acclaim. The approach was simplistic, as featured earlier in England and later in China, and failed – Financial Fair Play a relinquishing aspect, and the invasion of Crimea another – and the RPL has since served as a competitive void on UEFA’s eastern flank. For all of Zenit’s Deloitte-recognised fortunes and Moscow’s stability, the only foreign influence that remains is the perpetual Brazilian diaspora and the ex-satellite states, and the greatest national presence in the Champions League is in the pre-match Gazprom ads. And still, the number of Russians in the Russian Football Union’s annual 33 top players list was lower in 2015-16 than 2012-13 or ’11-12. Knockout stage ideals for Сборная (National Team) were secondary to the opportunity of hosting the tournament, and scarce intervention took place after Makhachkala’s demise and the player exodus to avoid the nation’s lowest ebb.
So, what of their chances this summer? Former Spartak and Dynamo boss Stanislav Cherchesov made the bold move of upping sticks to Poland, and after winning the 2015-16 Ekstraklasa title and Polish Cup for Legia Warsaw was rewarded with the national management. Predecessor Leonid Slutsky, the only viable and – despite a wearied appearance – young candidate for the role after two titles with CSKA during Capello’s tenure, has since followed in the same ilk; fleeing to Hull, curiously for some, and without success. Cherchesov, a Spartak and Lokomotiv goalkeeper in his playing days, represented each the USSR, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Russia, but had never particularly settled in any setting; the only club he ever spent more than four years at, Tirol Innsbruck, dissolved in 2002, forcing him to leave before a final (and fourth) Spartak spell and retirement. Though not a stable candidate, he understands better than most the priorities of the Russian state – as RFS President Vitaly Mutko upheld, government face and the promise of a semi-final result. His players, the victims of this façade, differ in intentions. Most do not seek notoriety; most are understated Moscow dwellers; most are reasonably uneasy with the burden of hosting. Paradoxically, if they do achieve, it will be in spite of governmental rhetoric.
Their curtain-raiser against Saudi Arabia will not be the adversarial clash of the Iberians in neighbouring Group B or, more pertinently given the hostile milieu, the undertones of Kosovo’s autonomous pining between Group E’s Switzerland and Serbia, nor the platonic relationships that will arise and surprise this summer. For FIFA to unfold their flagship event under the wing of two traditionally autocratic regimes, an issue only aggravated by the domestic-first selection policy and relatively uninspiring tactical plans laid out by each, a discerning international rhetoric only sharpens. Some conspiracists see the Russian path, starting with the only nation comparable to them in ranking, as deliberately posed in order to progress – Uruguay laid last, when assumed as distant group favourites to have procured six points, and resting regalia – when suggesting recoils from Michel Platini’s recent admittance of “a little trickery” in 1998, but this is far-fetched at best. Let alone facing demolition via either Spain or Portugal in the Second Round, after the FBI-led inquisition of 2015, Gianni Infantino’s early reign has compared to none as FIFA Chairman before him, and while cameras pan to the heights of the glorious Luzhniki Stadium for the event, grasped by a Putin handshake and offered popcorn from the President’s own purchase as Fyodor Smolov plants a six-yard header home for the first goal of the tournament, he must prove entirely transparent. An entire sport, the most popular in the world, rests heavy on his shoulders as he strides from stadium to stadium, a bald head bobbing underneath the burly shoulders of native security guards, hoping to evade the unrelenting journalistic probes. He is a man oppressed, and though the mask will slip at least once, he need only avoid elementary disaster – fortunate that, even when held on the exact eve of kick-off, the vote for the 2026 World Cup hosts, though again avoiding Western Europe, does not involve on either side an absolutely tyrannical or morally debilitating nation, by most interpretations – before making inroads in the unfortunate Qatari and Moroccan/North American habitats of the near future.
Unperturbed, we return to the present. Four weeks of footballing feasts await us, and like any great show it begins and ends with the symbolic swish of stately decadence. This rightfully follows a lineage of appalling dishonour, discourtesy and downright depravity, yet awash with financiers, omnipotent and globally-hijacked media scrutiny and ideological opposition like never before, it pins weary expectations on its showmen to diffuse the situation. Tactically, the tournament could stifle such openings; the number of those who aim to play on the counter, with reliance on width, overwhelms the ocular debate, while the common favourites approach with ponderous policies prised open by an array of unfortunate injuries. Initial uncertainty from the stands could define the tale of the entire competition, and the slick, militarised efficiency of camerawork, stadium construction – well in schedule and glistening in the low summer sun – could render the presentation clinical, rather than impressing Brazilian hospitality. By some strange fortune, V.A.R. could in fact enliven the whirring machinations of former ‘closed city’ Nizhny Novgorod, notoriously austere Rostov-on-Don and military pilgrimage Volgograd to an era-affirming stature. All signs point east, and our first appetiser arrives in Moscow, in just four days’ time. Many will hope this not to be a connotation of the entire event, but come as it may, this will be 2018. This will be the Russian World Cup.
The pulsating public appeal of the World Cup's quadrennial format is founded in exclusivity – a paradox of the sport after its stance against the stratospheric payment structures engineered by both 1990s inventions, the Champions League and Premier League. Olympian it may not be, but the tournament continues to comprise many ideals harboured in its 1930 invention; rampant professionalism, in direct proximity at the inaugural edition, hosted in Uruguay. Politically naïve – if an inevitable reaction to idealism – Jules Rimet nurtured sentiment to be contorted and manipulated by all future corruptors. FIFA’s own capital rose with the elevation of true celebrities; Argentina’s serene centre-half Luis Monti and free-scoring centre forward Guillermo Stábile surpassed by a frantic Uruguayan outfit spearheaded by local icon Héctor Castro, while the USA’s Bert Patenaude drew myth in short-lived international exploits. One mere factor has relented, however. South America no longer holds sway. Europe, perennial colonisers and grand schemers within, rules.
For all the barometer’s swings, none have been as dramatic as its present bias. Though Brazil were irresistible in their charge to 1958, ’62 and ’70 crowns – the closest to what an increasingly Americanised media may crave to term a ‘dynasty’ – even that run, the one which made their name on the global stage, pales in comparison to consecutive Italian theatrics, Spanish mastery and German ruthlessness; each entirely indicative of their era. If discounting the long-disputed interruption to their hegemony, even, it may not even compare; too easily hindered here by an English hubris, and elsewhere (namely West Germany, Argentina and Portugal) refuted credibility, 1966’s reverence amongst South American historians does not capture post-2000 plaudits.
No one finalist in these past three tournaments has repeated their appearance, in a tournament that has rewarded eight few victors and paid indifferently to four further unfulfilled finalists in its 20 iterations. It was no aberration to succumb, if Vicente del Bosque, Marcello Lippi or Raymond Domenech, to new victors and, potentially, superior intellects, if a devout professor of the sport. Though the 1998 edition may have been France’s destined emergence, and 2002 Brazil’s – but more so Ronaldo’s – redemption on uncertain geographical footing, while minnows and politically reignited states bounded on with fearlessness, from Germany onwards, the plagues permeating Europe had infected Sepp Blatter’s FIFA also; corrupt wounds still having plasters peeled, while subjects wince.
Renewing as it takes to Russia – Blatter purged, Vladimir Putin stalled as his latest sparring partner drew compromise – the tournament now finds favourites in Brazil, Spain, Germany and France. Though distant from many other competitors, their collective rivalry is scarcely separable. Two possess managers in their first international competitions, whereas many doubts are cast over France’s Didier Deschamps. Two harbour stagnant domestic competitions; Messrs Bayern and Saint Germain obstructing all means of internal conflict. Joachim Löw’s ageing contingent aside, all have prompted full inspections of recent frailties. We have a reigning heavyweight, indeed, but the scrapping pretenders do not lack attributes of their own.
If geopolitical undertones have subsided in radical gauges since an ideologically moribund West Germany’s victory at Italia ’90, the re-tarmacked ‘Road to…’ has only favoured the most studious elements of the sport. Denmark, Croatia, Turkey and South Korea thrust forth for a while, amongst those who refused to rest on their laurels, especially after dramatic earlier failure; Italy, beset with cultural fears after elimination to the Koreans in 2002 and only lightened from the malaise that followed in Euro ’04 by a 21-year-old Antonio Cassano, Spain by similar disappointments at the same meets, and Germany by inconsistencies and an inability to prosper for much of their reunified history.
Exposed Brazil, however, found their coup de grâce on home soil. While England and France have achieved sole victories in temperate motherlands, and Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany and Argentina each accredit a single of their multiple accolades to local support, the hotbed of the sport, the romanticised heartland, failed to capitalise on an identical, fêted, opportunity. Twice. Their 7-1 defeat to Germany touched pains just as visceral as in 1950, when denied by neighbours Uruguay in front of 200,000 baying Maracanã fans. As Pelé, and the advent of Brazilian emigration to professionalised Europe, emerged soon after that national devastation, the patriotic amulet now falls to Neymar – certainly no revolutionary 17-year-old, but a rebel seeking redemption – after the injury that tragically arrested his increasingly assured duty on home turf, and another that ravaged his universally despised opening PSG account. With Olympic Gold at the stadium his side did not progress to bask in two years prior, and a cycle on from his Silver at Wembley, he has already been a beneficiary of football’s implausible delays. Today’s Verde-Amarela have not earned the comparative guise of 1970’s icons, nor even of the side that transitioned from France to East Asia, and political uncertainty has not aided their cause; the 2014 tournament awash with public protests as poverty still ravages in a country that haemorrhages natural resources to fund the political class’ self-interest.
As Adidas’ charges sport dedications to former artistic glories this summer – cautious reverence, in present periods of relative democratic dormancy, showed to iconic apparels of ’90 and ’94 – and Nike’s opt for a minimalist’s perspective, there is a palpable confidence in each rivalling approach. Germany and Spain wear their recent glories very much on their chest in immediately recognisable fibres, yet hold their achievements very much as a testament to what previous decades dealt; Brazil and France would rather forget all and demonstrate their enviable footballing modernity. These are the sides to whom the multinational tandem partners pander; forget England, Egypt and even Nigeria, they demand recognition as contributors to, and valued sponsors of, the perennial prize winners, and require a select bracket of national brand. This is a business of cliques, revelled in by the most amoral of the sport’s necessities.
Fortunately, if all comply to expectations and emerge victorious from their groups – a route lined with fewer potential pitfalls for the Mediterranean-bordering duo, one may dare to suggest – then all could reach the final four. A tantalising prospect indeed, and one only tempted by the canny scheduling of meetings in March to test the reigning champions against their closest two challengers. They went winless from the ties, drawing an all-action 1-1 with Spain and dampened by a Gabriel Jesus header misjudged by Kevin Trapp against Brazil, but this would only act as a foretaste for marketers and consumers alike. As fascinating tactical tussles have proven the tale of all previous three finals – each extending to extra-time, and 2006, infamously, to penalties – and public appetite has sustained for the occasion (1.013 billion tuning in for the Rio de Janeiro showpiece across all platforms) the course of imminent events should only deviate depending on an influx of imbedded talent, and their intentions.
A rolling stone, famously, gathers no moss. Look only to Argentina and Belgium, who retain their status as seeds from 2014, to validate this transcription; previous counterparts Uruguay, Colombia, Switzerland replaced by Portugal, Poland and France. While it would be horrendously discourteous to write off their chances in Russia, a doctor has two tasks, to prescribe and to proclaim death.
The former, helmed by Jorge Sampaoli, still heralding the success he enjoyed with Chile in 2014, is fraught with the same selection headaches that have dogged a top-heavy crop for the entirety of a scornfully unfortunate Lionel Messi’s career – never to emulate his countrymen Maradona and Kempes, particularly after a credible, but eminently forgettable, runners-up medal in Brazil.
Roberto Martínez’s served as the second consecutive uninspiring appointment by the Belgian FA after Marc Wilmots and has fared little better with this luxurious loot; failing to fuse a successful combination of industry and explosive flair from the enviable tools that lay in front of him. Ridding his squad of a single rallying workman in Radja Nainggolan is adjudged only an admittance of his inability to tame the characters of the Red Devils, while for Sampaoli, though blessed in attacking areas, omitting Diego Perotti will deprive his unproven midfield of an ability to work openings for a frontline more immobile for the favour of Gonzalo Higuaín over Mauro Icardi. The loss of Sergio Romero to injury does not aid their cause, of course, and neither do fixtures against the defensively hard-hitting Croatians and Icelanders, nor the examination of their own dubious backline they will again receive from Nigeria after a 4-2 friendly defeat late last year. Belgium will face the same explosive sucker-punch should England defy their demons, and set up far more offensively – with far more to lose, as top seeds – than their North European counterparts against the resolute Tunisians and debut-making Panamanians, with ambition most potent.
Geographical minnows lacking much semblance of winning mentalities, the progression of these masses is scarcely evident since 2014. Messi may be a serial winner; Hazard, though amiably modest, similarly outspoken while driving his employers to regular silverware. Otamendi and Lukaku may have been elevated by the pinnacle of world coaching; Agüero, Higuaín, Mascherano, Di Maria, De Bruyne, Kompany and Courtois maintaining their erstwhile pedigrees. Strike a swift 2-0 deficit to Croatia, or England, into their eyes, and what emotion greets you? De Bruyne aside, none fizz with the impermeability of potential Quarter-Final opponents – Spain and Brazil, respectively – and great burdens will fall to combustible forwards Paolo Dybala and Michy Batshuayi in these instances. Sampaoli and Martínez lack the audacity to blood these steeds – they will trundle through with a generation implausibly facilitated at the expense of a rhythm anew. That Martínez boasts more international caps in his suspected – post ‘Mattressgate’ – 23-man squad than Löw had at his disposal in 2014 (1,054 to 971, before 2 June without an individual centurion to Germany’s four) only welcomes the world’s scoffs.
до свидания – do svidaniya – may be the call for an expiring guard of these states, but for renewed royalty, the challenge is not a stagnant one. For Germany, even if 34 players feasibly run out in Austria and Saudi Arabia friendlies, they will still be the first squad this century to defend their title with fewer total caps. Of their predecessors, Spain, Italy and France all faced group stage capitulations, the likes of which the tournament seldom saw of its standard-bearers in the 20th century.
Progressively, however, there does remain an oscillating factual truth. From the 14 cumulative caps of Vieira, Henry and Trezeguet sur terra firma to the emboldened Ronaldo of ’02, continentally famed Italian contingent of ’06 and domineering Barça-Real bloc in South Africa, even to Löw’s innate and trusting relationship with Messrs Klose, Podolski, Schweinsteiger and Lahm in Brazil, more experience has been required to reach the trophy on each occasion; astoundingly, almost doubling from 501 accumulated appearances with consistent leaps of roughly 100 caps at each post-Millennium summit. These are as much insights to the cultural and structural factors imposing on each nation as they are of the direction of perceived superiority; the exponents of the trend all reverting to type this summer; Didier Deschamps with around 600, Tite with over 650 and Julen Lopetegui around 950. The bevy of ravenous forwards, the smattering of Brasileirão talent dovetailing the undisputed figurehead and the eking out of a gilded glut’s final dregs as wholly capable fresh hands take their place; all conform.
So, there is a mistruth to at least one rhetoric. Youthful prodigiousness is certainly an admirable component if available, but relied on to the extent of a 17-year-old Pelé or Ronaldo, or unbridled Ligue 1-based duo and Arsène Wenger tutee? England – with Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling paling only to Gary Cahill and Jordon Henderson for international exposure – may hope so, but it is an unrefined approach, highly reliant on momentum and an ever-dissipating element of surprise. Wise, relevant heads have their place also, but not when entrenched in attempts to consolidate existing legacies; they must locate alternative, proactive motivations. If daring to select Julian Brandt over Sebastian Rudy in what many view as his final selection conflict, Löw may inject a much-needed progressive thrust. With the selections of international rookie Álvaro Odriozola over Marcos Alonso and Corinthians’ Fagner over Alex Sandro or Rafinha at full-back, both bold appointments in Spain and Brazil cast their chips with impetus – meanwhile, with Presnel Kimpembe and Benjamin Pavard joining, Deschamps pandered to a void of talent and the inevitable defeat of favoured steeds Koscielny, Sissoko, Payet and Gignac.
If assessing the greatest professional movements since Mario Götze’s finish – forever to be repeated as a plight to his injury-ravaged career – then, at their very mention, England must rank favourably. Roy Hodgson is gone, and too his homogenous favour of celebrities, irrespective of form or positioning, at the unguarded national forefront. Dan Ashworth’s newfound belief – proclaiming 2017 as ‘the best year on the pitch, bar 1966’ – the fruition of views adopted from Italian, Spanish, Dutch but primarily German administrations in various youth honours, and, straight from the FA’s coaching manuals, Gareth Southgate, are in. Unafraid of culling a deflated Wazza, broken Daniel Sturridge and shot Joe Hart from the picture, Southgate has finally restored the confidence of a side that had seldom witnessed freedom since a teenage Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scythed down Mathieu Debuchy in their opening Euro 2012 tie. Dele Alli was not immune to benching, nor the toxic and immature Jack Wilshere to being dropped entirely. Judge him by actions or words, but Southgate has displayed bravery on par with his global counterparts, matched with the sensibility and respect ingrained after three years with the Three Lions’ under-21s; Ruben Loftus-Cheek will not be the fleeting talent that Andros Townsend was, nor John Stones a Carl Jenkinson or Martin Kelly, or Steven Caulker, or Jon Flanagan…
The objective here is not to besmirch Hodgson’s name. For all the Football Association’s flaws – an administrative corporate whitewash, duplicity towards grassroots subjects, Sam Allardyce (the appointment more so than the subsequent scandal), hostility from Greg Clarke to gay players and Mark Sampson to long-serving women’s players – Southgate, aided by a thriving young squad, was an astute appointment. Grouped with one-time FA Cup winner Martinez, patriot Nabil Maâloul and old hand Hernán Darío Gómez, their engagements will be some of the most understated in the competition.
A decade ago, one was in League One, one leaving the Guatemalan manager’s role and another the Tunisian assistant; Southgate tipped as the FA’s potential replacement for Teesside predecessor Steve McLaren, having led Middlesbrough to a mid-table finish. This is no egotistic linkage, and views typical of colonist histories are to be fully discouraged. This is ancient history – since Senegal in 2002, old world orders have shattered with the cataclysmic unison of a pyromaniac let loose in this, the cathedral of football. There was no time to reinforce the stained glass before iconoclasm swept through.
While England may have banished their recurrent earlier evils – lacking attacking width, and exposed at full-back, in labouring 4-3-3s and 4-2-3-1s – with their resurrection of a three-man defence, there are only pragmatic shades of the tussles that will engross Tite’s, Löw’s, or Lopetegui’s admirers. If not in process from 2014, with this trio begins the crowning of leaders amongst, rather than of, their players. In an age of rampant marketisation and tabloid smut, the need is ever-present.
Though nationwide dexterity has rewarded responsive generations, and requisite technical abilities, successive to 2014 and 2010 – when the much-fancied Brazilians fell to Wesley Sneijder’s temporary mastery – many ideological remnants of victorious campaigns remain. Spain are still stereotyped as an oppressive, overwhelming outfit; 36 goals scored, and just three conceded, in ten qualifying ties modernising the incisive ways of Vicente del Bosque, with Rodrigo, Iago Aspas and Diego Costa – disciples of highly contrasting schools of marksmanship – preferred to the morose Álvaro Morata and the spent forces of Fernando Torres and David Villa. Saúl, Isco and Marco Asensio have burst through with the trust of modern World Cup midfield bastions in Madrid, while Thiago assumes the pall bearer’s role to retiring stanchions Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta. If midfield was their earlier mastery, however, the Spanish can now confidently assert theirs as the leading vanguard, if not equal with Germany; David de Gea earning his equal standing with Manuel Neuer, Jordi Alba above Jonas Hector, Dani Carvajal arguably slipping behind the unrelenting Joshua Kimmich and Piqué-Ramos continuing their engrossing legacy and competition with Boateng-Hummels.
2008-13 aside, only twice have the Iberians progressed beyond the Quarter-Final of a major international tournament; 1984’s grit and, though from just two knockout rounds, 1964’s final defeat of inaugural European champions Soviet Union. If del Bosque were to be an exception to the rule of an economically modest and democratically inept nation, elimination would follow against Argentina or, in the worst-case scenario France, this summer – ¡imposible! The toreador roars again, and the often-abrasive chutzpah will again grow infectious.
Brazil are an untamed entity in relativity, and amount fully to the perpetual national breeze. Gabriel Jesus the only outgrowth of a 2015 Under-20 World Cup campaign, even Marquinhos and Neymar are now established qualities, but their critical assets lie in those who Tite has fostered to fruition; Alisson, Fred, Taison, Paulinho and one may even suggest Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Accommodating the rising stock of Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Ernesto Valverde and Paolo Fonseca’s charges with ease, this is a group radiating confidence. Only two members of the starting XI in their previous World Cup outing, and two further substitutes, remain, but Thiago Silva and Neymar return with vengeance – not least for their fallen brother Dani Alves.
Political instability intensified the Seleção’s psychological stranglehold before, and, if anything, has only ratcheted further against openly corrupted President and playboy Michel Temer, who now counts down the final few months of his presidency. Mariano Rajoy is ousted in Spain; Emmanuel Macron’s populist appeal predictably wavers in France and the parliamentary coalition now more necessary than ever for Angela Merkel in the Reichstag typifies the times. Dissatisfaction with authorities that have stood, in reality, for centuries is only a symptom of the culture that pervades each, so synchronised with brooding footballing affairs. Entering what effectively amounts to a police state, their concerns are placed as comparatively petty, and that is, demoralizingly in some respects, the reality of this career. Events pass you by as the pursuit of your own collective glories. Relief may be what you offer to friends and family, but it is not a true patriot’s service. More so than ever, when meeting for such an extensive period it is a club atmosphere that greets them; associations finally keeping pace with the investment and expertise of their contributors, and perceived puppeteers. This is the ideology that has rationalised the World Cup stratagem, and that which will be further refined this summer – not producing the most stylistically advanced competition, but for the traditionalist few current iterations compare. Exclusivity is not as it once was. The World Cup is dead, long live the World Cup.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!