Félicitations les Bleus and thank you Russia for showcasing football’s global appeal. The 2018 FIFA World Cup hit all the right notes, providing goals, upsets, underdogs and star power. There is a feeling that, even after the post-tournament giddiness has died down, Russia 2018 will be placed alongside the great World Cups – and certainly crowned the best of my lifetime. However, Russia’s lack of a PR-friendly culture and rich footballing heritage initially led to a degree of reserve, verging on pessimism, rarely seen in pre-tournament media coverage. So what was it then that ultimately made Russia 2018 so spectacular?
Well, the pre-tournament negativity never burdened proceedings. Instead, Russia 2018 was freed from the high expectations that have weighed down previous editions. This was evident from the offset, with an opening ceremony that featured Robbie Williams giving the finger to a live TV audience of millions, as Russia 2018 declared its intent to move to a tempo that Rio 2014, most notably, failed to keep up with.
Nothing better exemplifies the legacy of Russia 2018 than the host nation’s own progress. Criticized for being the worst Russian team in memory due to their time-worn defense and lack of youthful energy, Russia casually shrugged off their critics by lumbering into the quarter-finals. In doing so, they scored spectacular goals – namely Denis Cheryshev’s parabolic outside-of-the-boot strike which eliminated Cup-favourites Spain. The team also played its part in one of the games of the tournament: a knife-edge 2-2 match against Croatia which proved that extra time is not always superfluous.
Although the least romantic of host nations on paper, the Russian team set the tone for a World Cup that showed little respect for established hierarchies, felling the reputable and deified without fuss. Case in point are Spain who, despite glimmers of brilliance against Portugal in a frenzied 3-3 thriller, were forced to concede that the possession-based football central to their bygone generation of champions has finally fallen. La Furia Roja completed over 1,000 passes near and around (but not through) a stubborn Russian defense, before bowing out on penalties.
Other nations with great histories, Argentina and Germany, followed Spain’s example. Fleeting moments of brilliance aside, such as Messi’s unfeasibly fluid thigh-boot-shot screamer against Nigeria, or Toni Kroos’ 95th-minute free-kick winner into the top corner against Sweden, both nations limped out, exposed and humiliated on the global stage.
Argentina’s exit in particular seemed to symbolize a changing of the guard, as 19-year old French phenomenon Kylian Mbappé repeatedly cut Argentina apart with his blistering pace and unapologetically direct play in their July 30 round-of-16 game.
And in many ways, Russia 2018 was all about the old making way for the new. England’s penalty voodoo, having prevented them from ever winning a penalty shootout in their World Cup history, was finally conquered on a tense, muggy evening against Colombia. Decades of under-performing on the international stage were forgotten in England, if only for a few euphoric weeks, as the national team reached the semi-finals for the first time since Italia ’90. Boasting the second youngest team in the tournament, England’s youthful dynamism and decidedly un-English winning mentality buoyed a nation, despite a costly inability to capitalize on the weaknesses of more seasoned opponents.
The only team younger than England were champions France, whose faltering early performances against Denmark and Australia gradually gave way to the assured, solid displays that came to characterize their tournament run. Oddly, despite a wealth of attacking talent, the French side failed to consistently perform with flair or fluidity. This was instead a team that relied on brilliant individual performances, tactical discipline and a self-belief in their ability to exploit any split-second opportunities presented.
Russia 2018 was a tournament crafted in the image of the carnivalesque, defying established narratives and hiding frenetic entertainment in the unlikeliest of places. This was a timely reminder of football’s ability to mobilize the collective, transforming individual action into geophysical force – see the nation-wide celebrations following Mexico’s goal against Germany registering as seismic activity. Russia 2018 gave an account of football at its most removed, as a game of structure, chaos, courage, kinesthetic beauty and, at its least, a lot of fun.