Thank you Russia, for a wonderful time

Sport is to celebrate every participant, irrespective of performance or result. Yet it brings out instincts most primal in us, where — at times — our desire to win precedes every other emotion. But the ethos of the game, too, is binding on us and it primarily drives us to play fair, to play for a win without compromising on the ethics and rules that govern our everyday life.

And after a month-long, 64-match gruelling competition, a young and multicultural France deservedly added a second star to its lapel as it controlled its emotions and play — in an otherwise topsy-turvy tournament — to claim the sought-after prize. It rode past the challenge of a tired and overextended Croatia as Didier Deschamps joined Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer to become only the third man to win the trophy both as a player and a manger.

While Deschamps was the ‘water carrier’, the man entrusted to do the dirty midfield work in a team blessed with the genius of Zinedine Zidane and the eclectic pace of a young Thiery Henry in ’98, here as the team’s think-tank he shaped a team that played on the counterattack, curbing the natural instincts of quite a few of his exciting forward players.

Defensive solidity

His methods, however, worked with France showing exceptional defensive solidity, just trailing once (for eight minutes against Argentina in the pre-quarterfinals) in the entire competition.

In the final, too, it was comfortable in ceding possession — controlling little more than one-third of it — but was ruthless on the counter-attack with a few of its biggest attacking stars — Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba — showing the champion’s flair, converting the few chances that came their way.

For Croatia that has many a tale of escapology — it won thrice after falling behind — in this competition the final proved a burden one too many to cross and for it’s champion playmaker Luka Modric, who had had run tirelessly for his team’s cause in every game, there were no consolation in the second prize or the Golden Ball, which he deservedly won as this tournament’s most influential player.

Backbenchers to the fore

It was a World Cup where the so-called backbenchers punched much above their weight with the tournament losing the defending champion, Germany, in the group stage, while former winners Spain, Argentina fell by in the first knockout round.

Deschamps, while evaluating the World Cup, said: “Small teams on paper arrived really prepared athletically and with effective defensive systems that are easy to prepare and it made the life of a lot of big teams difficult. The teams which had highest level of possession was punished by fast forwards and quick counters. When you defend well you can benefit from counter-attacks or set pieces. I don’t know if this was a beautiful World Cup, but it was athletically a very difficult World Cup.”

While the tournament ended with two few goals compared to Brazil 2014, with an average of 2.64 per game, it did indeed see a proliferation of set-piece strikes with 71 goals coming from dead-ball situations with referees — armed with VAR — awarding 29 penalties – 11 more than the previous high in 1990, 1998 and 2002.

The Video Assistant Referee making its debut in the World Cup got most of the decisions right though there were some contentious calls — including the penalty awarded to France in the final — and will need further work before gaining universal acceptance or perhaps that is too much to ask for. “With VAR, you think it’s right when it goes for you, and it’s wrong when it’s against you,” Zlatko Dalic, the Croatian coach, said rather philosophically after the final loss. The supposedly hopeless home nation, Russia, started the carnival with a 5-0 hammering of Saudi Arabia and its unlikely escapade continued till the quarterfinals, creating a never before football frenzy in the nation, before its run was stopped short by yet another come-from-behind victory for the Croatians.

There were some classic games — the entertaining 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal, France’s nerve-wracking 4-3 win over Argentina or Belgium’s tactically domineering victory over the five-time champion Brazil in the quarterfinals. In Eden Hazard, Ivan Rakitic, Harry Kane — the top scorer — and many more the event had it fair sprinkling of stardust, too.

Finally, the love and warmth of the Russian people and the smooth organisation made every player, every fan feel welcomed, dispelling the negative notion about the tournament and the country.

Russia for all the memories and Qatar 2022 here we come.

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