The sightscreens entering, the perspective narrowed. 16 nations departed – the defending heavyweight champions felled – and with wheat came chaff, with the whey the curd. Much was more palatable than in vintage events, with Peru’s reprisal emotional, Senegal’s fortune mislaid, Iceland unbounded, and Iran and Morocco harassing Iberian partners to the brink of indignity; few had reason to be crestfallen, but condemnation smothered debate.
The remaining forces, encamped in various logistically anguished positions across this vast battleground state, would not relinquish their berths lightly. Swathes of footballing woodland had been cleared to make route for Europe’s elite, and for appealing prospects from the Americas, the most evident of which were unfortunately drawn together. Now the blows were truly set to land.
Round of 16
While the final round of group games had moot welcome, and even smaller acclaim – England and Belgium rendered base, Senegal suffocated against Colombia, Japan and Poland, after France and Denmark, exchanging farcical conservatism – a chlorinated tonic frazzled the eyes of the onlooker as we progressed. France met Argentina and all normality was released. Antoine Griezmann’s early penalty was a formality, threatening to castigate all Albiceleste dignity and establish a rout; instead, Lionel Messi’s underlings crawled further from the incredulity of Jorge Sampaoli’s management. Angel Di Maria rifled home the equaliser, Gabriel Mercado registered the second, but still, even with Messi as an unbridled marksman, the CONMEBOL outfit buckled, with Christian Pavón’s action ill-fitting, Javier Mascherano exposed as irregular midfield partners were drawn wide and Franco Armani reasserting his inexperience by conceding a decisive third, a first for Kylian Mbappé.
The Argentines were not brought just to entertain – though they did achieve just that. Prone to calamity and hardwired to inconsistency, seldom sufficiently panning to their icon, and also idolising history, they wear their badge with pride; beyond even the Germans, the poorest performers in this tournament.
Few could gorge further that evening, but Uruguay and Portugal demanded investment; to impress upon all the value of tactics, if the previous event had forgotten all rules. The adage was that of attrition – both nations gradually eroding on Atlantic coastlines, both rich in culture that near-neighbours mock – and at least on one side, those present were willing to provide it. Oscar Tabárez, hauled out of a touchline stoop at any necessary call, eked every ounce out of a collective founded, if not pursued, on diasporic perspiration; Fernando Santos, withering when statuesque in immediate view of disciple Ronaldo, did not. Instead, Real Madrid’s bygone talisman assumed the chalice of Judas Iscariot. Distracted and troubled, he could not penetrate the smokescreen cast by Atletico Madrid’s defensive heart as he had routinely done so before. Essentially, this was the same opposition; a 4-4-2, albeit formed in a midfield diamond and requiring more lateral movement from striking centrefolds, intent on disrupting opposition before themselves counter-attacking to fruition.
And what made the Portuguese task even harder was the formulation of what will remain unsurpassed as the greatest team performance in the entire tournament. Edinson Cavani’s opening finish would have proven a feat of agility incapable of any other striker in the entire competition, firstly. The pass that created it, from the boot of Luis Suarez, could not have been provided by any other strike partner. There are no other strikers of their calibre, yet they sacrifice their club inclinations to create a ten-man defensive bloc – one that only offered a chink in its armour from a well-taken set-piece, an equal dead-ball situation. Portugal did not offer vast lapses themselves, but did not exceed capacity – European champions, all they had at centre-back was a duo that resigned from English and Spanish divisions once their use was expended, all they had to support Ronaldo was a misfiring big-money forward at a misfiring, big-spending club. Toil as they may, but the nation of navigators – so reinforced by their rare nickname – could not fracture the inhabitants and bastions of a nation never usurped, falling not to indignity, but to a familiar void.
Jostling independently now of their Iberian counterparts, Fernando Hierro’s Spain entered the realm of the indigenous, unfancied by few. Many suspected the pragmatism evident in ties with Iran and Morocco to be rescinded, and Russia’s realistic capabilities demonstrated more in defeat to Uruguay than victories of alternative foundations against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Alas, the tie revealed far more than the statistics at first available. Andres Iniesta was absent from a Spanish starting XI in the first instance since injury removed him from contention in their second group game – against Honduras, as Vicente Del Bosque had to rework his entire tactical philosophy – in 2010. Hierro showed immense courage to enact the evergreen Castilian’s withdrawal. Yet recompense did not show; Koke, his replacement, was lacklustre throughout, and carried doubts into his penalty responsibilities. When the moment was due, the Atletico captain’s glaring miss was inevitable.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s incorruptible demeanour was translated, unperturbed, by every individual bestowed with the sceptre of political expectation, let alone social optimism, lurking in one’s shadow. Dopers – as accused by some international elements – or not, how fixated their focus was on perpetual Spanish frustration deserved great acclaim. The sole instance in which this extended itself to illegality was punished, but fortune also transpired in the form of Artem Dzyuba’s penalty.
As the ramparts were drawn, rather than a Spanish inquisition, futile midfield interchange emerged. 78.9% possession – only marginally exceeding the 78% Argentina smothered noble challengers Iceland with, as Hierro’s side also did Iran, to claim the title of greatest single share in this tournament – would not be constructive if dominated overwhelmingly on the half-way line, nor an astounding 1115 passes in 120 minutes, if only 16 of them had a recipient in the opposition 18-yard box. Diego Costa only managed three shots, the three attack-minded players behind him three altogether. As efforts mounted in extra-time, with Russian legions floundering, Igor Akinfeev offered all the energy a goalkeeper stores in reserve – while David De Gea did not make a save in open play or from a quintet of penalties, the CSKA Moscow skipper only surpassed himself in a decisive shoot-out. 110 international appearances had only brought the Muscovite four prior penalty saves – the most recent from Qatar’s Ibrahim Majid in a November 2016 friendly – but from Iago Aspas, his intervention, his flailing left foot, vanquished another presumed pining champion. Vindication for Russia’s hosting, if not earlier evident, now had arisen.
Boxsets of monumental defensive fortitude do not fly off the shelves, however. For a tactical stalemate, primarily dictated in midfield, between Denmark and Croatia not to ensue that evening, individual brilliance would have to impart its perspective. Few such signs had, earlier in this knockout round – Mbappé aside. Or, if to seize an advantage by the 30-second mark, a centre-back’s weak back-post slice from a deep throw-in. 1-0 Denmark. Or, if equalising by the fourth minute, a free six-yard strike laced with the fortune of a defensive deflection. 1-1.
Otherwise perfectly counterbalanced – the Balkans more offensively-orientated, the Danes reliant on physicality and aerial threat – each made attempts at victory in 90, and indeed 120, minutes, but above their individual constraints, Kasper Schmeichel – mentally conquering Luka Modrić from 12 yards – and the substantial Croatian defensive ballasts of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida repelled disorder. For either nation’s historic attacking remembrance – the forms of Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, the Laudrup brothers and Jon Dahl Tomasson cast in iron and bronze, overlooking the training halls of today’s heroes – modern chapters would be etched in the image of stubborn rearguards. More so, Danijel Subasic and Schmeichel would enter alone, and though one departed a victor, both stood, if for a brief glimmer, as equals; elevating personal performance to standards impenetrable against commodities valued as epoch-defining. As far as either was accountable for the length of the farcical shoot-out, Nicolai Jørgensen was the first to twitch before even stepping up and sent his nation home. Positivity paid, but only narrowly.
Ambling to victory over Costa Rica and Serbia, would-be, almost self-coronated champions Brazil had poured on marginally sufficient pressure to escape the group stage. Qualification had been an ease, last-minute winners seldom required, but evidently the psychologically scarring of four years earlier wore heavy on many frozen souls in prior eventing. Tite was forced into monotonous alterations by injury and desperation – Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, Casemiro, on. Where qualification, the first task of the internationally unbridled helmsman, afforded liberal innovation, they had not surpassed all overbearing expectation. As passage was guaranteed, the Seleção faced consecutive draws in Colombia and Bolivia, while the average time of their opening goal had slipped back from (roughly) 28 minutes before qualification was assured to the 65th in the four latter outings. Forgivable then, but not now.
Arduous viewing was guaranteed with this Brazilian outfit – a stereotype broken. Even Juan Carlos Osorio’s once-majestic Mexicans stood, almost, in stupor, uninspired by the profligacy of a nation emblazoned with insufferable possession-recyclers, but unable to elevate them to anything more. Even Fagner, excruciatingly inept, did not face grand harassment as the North Americans opted to reel in their net despite the long-range threat of Philippe Coutinho’s marksmanship. An opportunity bypassed, respect overawing. Each goal saw the deep defensive formation pierced; Neymar and Firmino prodding home at the far post, and neither drew major offence. So on went Brazil.
Initially, in limbo between the blemished groups and the hope-smattered knockouts, England fans gazed only on Belgium v Japan as the match they may have played, their undecided assailants against eminently beatable opposition. Eyesight quickly cleared. Essentially pitting two three-man defences against one another, though considerably flexible in the latter instance, each would pick at more inflectional faults in the other’s interpretation; not facetious to argue Belgium’s lack of a true wing-back partnership or defensive midfielder did them harm in Genki Haraguchi’s opener and Takashi Inui’s follow-up, respectively, nor that the lack of towering height paid dues to Japan’s chances in the event of Marouane Fellaini’s convenient introduction. Samurai Blue were simply unfortunate that their final opportunity immolated in the form of a set-piece; a corner, no less, that, while misjudged in the context, sparked a breakaway through Kevin De Bruyne. Once Thomas Meunier gained a wide crossing sight, Romelu Lukaku found his berth and all seemed over, but the opportunity passed over. Nacer Chadli tucked in and all was indeed over – the glimpse of greatness all had hoped for from the Red Devils in 2014 and 2016, now heralded. It had demanded introspection and an afroed 6ft 4in totem pole to even reach the necessary position, but they had indeed survived with dignity intact. Few dared conceive the future.
Diplomatically unbiased, socio-economically comfortable and seldom, since the immediate post-war period, acclaimed on such a pedestal, Sweden and Switzerland drew little such equal respect. Abridged, geographically, by Germany and outflanked by France, Italy and the Netherlands; regarded, similarly, as havens of the intelligentsia; even in peace time, the paradox did not fit. Conservatism and liberalism has abetted, noble patriotism cradled – after the largely unaffected Brazil in 1950, the first World Cup hosts in an ideologically divided Europe. 1948 Olympic Gold had celebrated Swedish offensive talents, the soon-to-be AC Milan Gre-No-Li trifecta starring. Hosting responsibilities inherited subcultural advantages; the quarter-finals, and final, reached; the Swiss defeated 7-5 by their Austrian neighbours before four years later Sweden fell 5-2 to Brazilian prodigies. The former had not reached even the last eight since. The Swedish had, only twice – 1974 pragmatic, 1994 fraught with geopolitical fortune, while also rich in quality. This event was not. The loss of Stephan Liechtsteiner and Fabian Schaer led an otherwise unperturbed Alpine backline not to launch into full avalanche, but for the peaks to clear as Swedish sun bore down; a 20-yard strike pinging around the box and beating Yann Sommer. Applying their crampons, scaling the peak. Josip Drmić typified the disturbance Vladimir Petkovic’s outfit have suffered in converting, for all exertions little tangible opportunity. Emil Forsberg, the pressure valve, released when necessary, never beyond. Of the physiques on display, his flickered under and between notice – his has conquered the mountain, even before extra-time.
The final stand arrived, intent on unifying a nation. Others may have designs on the quarter-finals, but even their attention was suspended as perennial kneelers, destabilised after defeat, met bipolar defending quarter-finalists, shivering with James Rodríguez absent. Personally, I arrived to a hotel room in Tallinn – local time around 10:00PM – as the second half progressed; another half that may have not amounted to great drama, but a chapter of mounting intensity. Evidently, the South American challengers to an upstart England were intent on disrupting these invigorating tactics by means legal or otherwise. Ultimately, it proved the latter – Kane winning and scoring what seemed, as the minutes passed, a pivotal penalty.
Inevitable conservatism crept in; the multi-pronged attack of Messrs Bacca, Muriel and Falcao scything into what now became a five-man defensive arc, width in scarce supply for a fatiguing England. Survive, survive. But fortitude drew rewards, ramparts were stormed; Yerry Mina drove through Anglican hearts and consigned another 30 minutes. Reset your watches.
Where psychology was once the preserve of a qualified few, now it is elevated and prophesised to common commodity. All onlookers understood he who ended this period the stronger would be handed the shoot-out advantage, one that in itself was seldom questioned, even if Colombian castigation descended on Jordan Pickford’s penalty area. Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford would not have been introduced together if Southgate had not had anticipated penalties; it would be derided a wild miscalculation if a South American sight had been finished. Instead, two goalkeepers without reputation, David Ospina the mitigated, Pickford the relative fledgling – albeit with under-21 shootout heroics to his accreditation – held scrutiny. The former’s sole save was from a mentally uncertain Jordan Henderson, the latter similarly reading the eyes of Bacca. Matias Uribe’s misjudgement the differential, the simplest of penalties from the most flatlined man on the pitch, Eric ‘dead-behind-the-eyes’ Dier, crept under Ospina’s custom wing. England were through on penalties, and we loved every moment of it.
For all exits, evident forefathers still stood. Brazil would be present at the semi-final stage, at least. Although Belgium did have an appeal. Uruguay, outstanding ethos intact, were deserving of further progression. But France’s wide-ranging individual quality could outmanoeuvre any temporarily static trial. We did not have a single 21st century World Cup semi-finalist on the other half of the draw – what a dilemma.
Each logarithmic equation was calculated without the need for surplus time, discourteously. CONMEBOL wildfires were trampled before even setting ablaze; Raphaël Varane chief saboteur as Antoine Griezmann stalled a wide free-kick, while Fernandinho was bestowed dishonour when beating Alisson with a defensive header lacking all means of communication. Self-implosion was not the entire tale, with overwhelmingly streetwise North-Western Europeans, the profiteers of decades of internal investment where South Americans have remained ad-hoc, emphatic. Belgium’s backline, the preserve of Premier League royalty, did not creak under examination beyond Renato Augusto’s free header, while Griezmann disguised some curve when shooting from distance at Fernando Muslera. An avoidable error, yes, and one that would sacrifice his nation’s final chance at equity – capitulating under external expectation. Neither great victor even had a glimmer of recuperation, such was the strangulation and determination of each European entity, helmed by the younger – attuned to refreshment, inclined to encourage responsibility on part of their unadorned superstars.
Janne Andersson’s Sweden had matched up against three 4-2-3-1’s this tournament, one 4-3-3 (South Korea). Each had to be tweaked even to disturb Scandinavian security, but Gareth Southgate was certain. A three-man defence is harder to reinvent mid-match, yet England’s set-pieces provided a useful outsource if matters went askew. Harry Maguire went untested from a corner; the result was methodical. Energy elapsed, the silent Forsberg establishing no precedent, no other stepped up. Cast forward, space opened; Dele Alli netted from point-blank range. The Swedish, gathered from 14 different divisions but shallow on starring quality, surrendered the stage without response. Perhaps a new identity is not yet discovered.
Russia, ominously, were just one step from their pre-tournament target. Chastised earlier, a nation without icons verged on the casting of innumerable busts – not least of comrades Akinfeev, Golovin and Ignashevich. Dzyuba would require industrial quantities. Denis Cheryshev looped a wondrous effort when Croatia, respectful but ragged, entered momentary limbo. Hope is no substitute for nous, however, and the equaliser arrived – Andrej Kramarić squirming home. We waited for more, both sides more offensive than in previous outings, but dictator Luka Modrić could not carry all burden. They exchanged set-piece goals in extra-time, Russia’s the latter, seemingly riding the crest of a wave into penalties. Their tails were too high, efforts blazed high and wide into the impending dusk, and an unfamiliar emptiness descended over south-coast Sochi. Very well, their stand drew acclaim and now came their bow. Losing to Slavic cousins was no indignity, and a familiar passage for the Croats was most pleasurable.
A modicum of time, and permutations were not just halved this time – they will be dissected, a lobotomy inspecting all logical explanation for each. Each spent force had scant argument, where all who remained had slices of fortune – Muslera’s error, Brazil’s egotistical void, Swedish injury and Spain’s earlier demise to Russia – but each equally overcame misfortune; Blaise Matuidi’s suspension, Kane, et al., bruised after Colombian cross-examination, Croatia forced to extra time again and Belgium to cope without distinguishable litmus Thomas Meunier. On they went, to defy reason in depths unknown to most and unprecedented to all.
Four clamouring nations survived; four Europeans, each with individual ideals. More so, the weight of history differed. The oldest champions, obscured from a respectable tournament for so long, in England held a united society on its cusp of revived self-confidence; 1966 tangible in word and sight, yet more so 1990. France, the final victors of the 20th century, had suffered character conflict since and had failed to exceed gracious hopes. There were of course two sides as yet uncrowned – 1986 and 1998 their own apexes, each defied by eventual champions at the semi-final stage. Croatia, the latter, held a best finish of 3rd, however, not just 4th. Every exchange had mattered to the post-conflict state then; each and all would be imperative, more so now than ever.
Hubristic, unbounded by history and liberating in part, long-bereft fanbases – perceived objectively by media – typified their corners. No nation reaches so deep without conviction, whether placed in management, players, or hopefully both – better still if consistent in administrators, but seldom relevant at this stage. In any eventuality, the triumphant helmsman would be the youngest since the early 1990s in this competition; Zlatko Dalić a relative veteran at 51, the same age Carlos Alberto Parreira was in another tournament of shocks, the much-touted 1994. In that instance, the Brazilian, having began not as a player but a fitness coach, was at his third World Cup after tenures in Kuwait and the UAE, had already lifted the Série A with Fluminense and was in his second spell with his home nation. He had not been lifted from an Emirati homestead, seven years since his last undistinguished role in the confines of the national FA, eight months prior to a tournament he was not guaranteed of yet reaching; put it that way.
Roberto Martínez was never himself an international player, either – with only a single La Liga appearance to his name, a 19-year-old’s substitute appearance for nearby outfit Real Zaragoza, never in the same hemisphere. Gareth Southgate and Didier Deschamps, of course, were, and mainstays of international tournaments for that matter. As they studied from personal experience, each offered a multitude of parallels and modernisations through presence practice; Southgate’s unrequited love under the campaigns of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle, whose respective conflicts with FA hierarchies and national media had engineered the demise of what possibly remains the nation’s most abundant era of talent, and Deschamps’ fairy-tale era of captaincy, with both the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship titles. Each had endured, dare I say ravaged, psychological conflict to emerge onto this stage – as aforementioned, the Englishman’s more at the height of his powers, the Frenchman’s prior to Aimé Jacquet’s appointment, even while gliding from all-encompassing glory at Marseille to Juventus – and had personalities, let alone philosophies, shaped by these capitulations and moments of national reckoning. The latter would forever be an icon amongst home fans, the former a testimony to the unfulfilled promise perpetuating throughout Anglo-FIFA relations since Alf Ramsey’s time.
(Disclaimer: I didn’t see France vs Belgium, what with being on a flight at the time, and as this review is a delayed upload already, I’m not about to delve into two nations who have totally defied my reckoning for them in this tournament. Hope that’s alright x)
Speaking of Ramsey, dare consider what he may have made of Southgate’s tactics this summer – not only in-game, but placating fans and media alike to the tune of other successful British, and indeed international, sporting projects. Famously stubborn, yet cerebral, the Essex native pledged he would ‘never change a winning team’ – a man after his own heart, plainly, inherited his position today. Where his contemporaries had indulged in the depth of their respective squads, Gareth was bound to those with the smallest scope for ineptitude; Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Nick Pope hardly spoke of the vision, chiefly Dan Ashworth’s responsibility, to further national achievement by failsafe means. Psychologically, as harmonious as the rhythm was from Repino, such a burden on the Harry Kane’s, John Stones’ and Raheem Sterling’s of this group was unforgiving. It may have explained the forthcoming errors of each; the Three Lions captain laborious, and even though not the most creative runner in any event definitely off-kilter, the Manchester City defender miscalculating Ivan Perišić’s decisive pass to Mario Mandžukić and the latter still the scapegoat for many fans after finishing with just a single attacking return for the tournament. As a summit, the most prestigious match for both nations involved for at least two decades, fatigue did not entail the full tale; Kieran Trippier solidified his position as amongst the elite attacking full-backs present before contributing to the late comedy of errors; Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli starred on the front foot and were exposed, both by a lack of midfield width and their own defensive naivety, as the match wore on; Luka Modrić, once subdued, dictated without once looking overworked. It was a talent many Croats displayed here, maintaining the psychological framing to excel after earlier being suppressed. Once an unseasoned England were challenged, they retreated, individually and collectively.
The autopsy was almost too simple; failing to punish chances, fundamental errors leading to defeat. Far more complex self-assessment will be made at FA HQ, this being stage one of a long-term process. Patience will at least be afforded from fans immediately afterwards; previous mentors did not have such a commodity. Where there was scope for criticism, the margins were minimal, and alternated depending on previous heartbreak. This squad exceeded themselves, their personal pedigrees, their upbringings, their managerial inexperience – but not alarmingly so, at least in the immediate fallout. Individually, the sides of 2002 and ’06 may have achieved similar success the way this draw unfurled, but with Lampard or Gerrard dropped, and Terry and Ferdinand (where once allies, now pragmatically distant) returning to patriarchs Ferguson and Mourinho, the atmosphere would certainly have been fractious. Southgate could not have helmed those sides. If Eriksson, or later Capello, thought he could recover the shattered crystals of tournaments that descended into such naïve self-combustion, now the opposite is true; England must look forward, notwithstanding internal damage, and seek further redemption. Perhaps it required a defined hiatus from competitive reckoning to rediscover the necessary perception; Roy Hodgson offered us that, neither the realism of Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and Joleon Lescott in 2012, nor the ineptitude of a vacuous and laboured 2014, disappointing.
The Balkans warned humility in their obliged post-semi-final utterances –Modrić spoke of disrespect, Lovren of underestimation, beyond that we can only consider the pre-match motivation to have seared. Hell hath no fury like a post-Communist nation, only escaping oppression after four years of poverty-stricken conflict, scorned, it seemed. The greatest lesson of all these players’ lives was posed by their nation’s War of Independence, and Dalić was fortunate to avoid much of the duress while playing for Varteks at the time, a side on the Slovenian border, not the Serbian. Two decades earlier, their predecessors had habilitated a society on the global stage through sporting endeavour; now the gauntlet fell to empower successors and secure a victory that truly defied all socio-economic odds.
Stood in their way, the cosy French. Afforded liberal, centrist leadership, a multicultural populace at peace with itself and only the very ilk of military incorruptibility a Western European nation can gain while entrenched in Syrian meddling, their world view would not alter if here defeated. Not that such eventualities were considered. Their winning experience at least equalled that of their highly-acclaimed rivals, pervading throughout resources, even if tainted by moral culpabilities. Having a paternal pragmatist at the helm would not have aided England as it did this squad; Deschamps pursuing with Evra, Gignac and Sissoko at Euro 2016 and only reneging this time as a result of injury and old age. Selecting Olivier Giroud to spearhead the likes of Griezmann, Mbappé or either Fekir or Thauvin was not the move of an optimist, but rather an individual with glimmers of reactionary astuteness. Not the speculation of a tactical visionary, not a selecting particularly nouveau; nothing that marks him out ahead of his players as the mastermind of an unbeaten run. Just Didier, just victory.
What was perhaps the most noticeable element of this final’s dynamic, the lack of internally-housed talent, was paradoxically the unseen; nine of Deschamps’ 23 based in Ligue 1, two of Dalić’s in the Prva Liga, but only one such player relevant to this final exchange; Kylian Mbappé. Breezing onto the Luzhniki colosseum floor as he had Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Saint Petersburg, the teenage wonder defied reason yet again in the overall fresco. Initially, however, he was displaced as a comfortable order without stern earlier trial received violent cross-examination. Battery by Croatian hands ensured this final to be like few before it; intent on engaging full operations, not the fourth consecutive event to head to extra-time.
The half-time score was still misrepresentative, regardless. A fortuitous flick-on and a penalty by very default of the occasion and the official guidelines had seen the French into the lead, with starring figure Perisic only one goal deep into personal accreditation. Dalić had attempted to expose the naivety, and possible tactical incongruity, of full-backs Pavard and Hernández as no opponent had previously dared, and to a certain extent had succeeded. Complicating his designs was a centre-back partnership of incomparable present stature and an exceptional early performance from a reignited Hugo Lloris – all components of Deschamps’ gradually moulded outfit attentive to responsibilities, shouldering teammates if necessary. In a second half of absolute decision, all remaining individuals would hope to claim such accountability.
And these 45 minutes signified, in truest form, the raising of new orders. When some – including myself – entered into this affair expected a dour stalemate, two 4-2-3-1’s counteracting, the thought of pulsating reverse counter-attacks, each leaving a backline more exposed than the last, would have been scoffed at. As Antoine Griezmann relinquished more of his offensive role and N’Golo Kante was sacrificed for Steven N’Zonzi, from his Sevilla service more inclined to the present formation and duties, the French seized the game and not under Lloris’ blundering error deferred. Mbappé shone as the situation allowed – all others had vacated to allow it. Disorder did not suit Croatia; after England, Modric said they had played the best game of their tournament. Thrashing a primal Argentina was long forgotten – they had become consumed by engrossing conflicts after three all-UEFA knockout ties. Subašić made a misjudgement of his own for Paul Pogba’s goal, but the trophy was already beyond reach. This was the final capitulation, not to be followed by anything greater than mere bloopers. When the instance did arrive, it provided a playful analogy for the tournament, one in which little was languid. The proverb ‘to err is human’ sprang to mind. At a World Cup in the depths of geopolitical depravity, of suspected corruption and confirmed state-sponsored doping, of ominously shrouded hooligan threats, humanity has been restored. Titans fell, individual brilliance was overtaken by collective fortitude and fans saw far more of warmth from their hosts than consumerism or barbarity. One nation may have won – another politically – but a sporting bastion’s redemption was confirmed, if temporarily. Qatar 2022 will be much different, but until then Russia 2018 will be held in high regard by all. The ticker-tape and showered beverages may have been swept up so swiftly that inbound visitors may be shocked by the knowledge a grand sporting event took place here at all, but we’ll all hold the memories of this World Cup. And I for one would like to believe it – characterised by organisers, local or on tour from Zurich, promoters, construction teams, volunteers, political powers – would of us. It would only take a little humanity, after all.
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!