It may not have been the best World Cup, but it was not short on surprises and excitement
Russia 2018 may not, as FIFA president Gianni Infantino delicately put it, have been “the best World Cup ever”, but there is no denying that it was among the most entertaining. The final was a snapshot of the tournament as a whole: a thrilling spectacle featuring surprises, errors, and loads of goals. There was no single outstanding team but France, which secured its second World Cup, was the best of the lot over the five weeks. The French — coached by Didier Deschamps, who won the trophy as a player in 1998 and now emulates Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer — did not exactly play beautiful football. Often, they appeared workmanlike and conservative despite the frightening depth of talent. But they were efficient, organised, and clinical when it mattered, downing a doughty, unlucky Croatia at the final hurdle. For all the criticism of his methods, the plain fact is that Deschamps achieved the ultimate objective. Kylian Mbappe, who at 19 became the youngest to score in the World Cup final since Pele, showed glimpses of his extraordinary potential; he now looks set for greater things. France’s victory also shone a spotlight on the nation’s diversity, with players of African descent making up over half the squad. “There are different origins but we are all united,” Antoine Griezmann said after the final. “That is the France we love.”
This was a World Cup of shocks: Germany crashed out in the opening phase for the first time since 1938, Spain and Argentina faltered in the round-of-16, and Brazil in the quarterfinals. Teams built around superstars struggled, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exiting before the last eight, while the likes of Croatia and Uruguay, which relied on collective spirit, advanced farther than expected. For Croatia, marshalled by the excellent Luka Modric, there is no disgrace in defeat. The nation’s relationship with its football team — and Modric in particular — is a complicated one, and has its roots in a corruption scandal involving a powerful former administrator. But on the pitch, the East European side showed great resilience. Russia 2018 will also be remembered for the home team’s spirited run to the quarterfinals, with the whole nation caught up in the euphoria. Russia put on a great show as host, its people warm and welcoming as fears of racist behaviour proved unfounded. The baton has now been handed over to Qatar, which in 2022 will host a winter World Cup for the first time. FIFA has approved the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, a decision that has divided opinion. As he celebrates the success of Russia 2018, Infantino has much to think about.
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