Four weeks of endless drama in Russia has re-energised World Cup | Barney Ronay

Thank you Russia, and goodbye! It’s been fun. Not to mention epic, thrilling, dazzlingly well-organised, and with a constantly shifting sense of place from the strangulating heat of Samara, to the fly-marshes of Volgograd, to the mist and drizzle of the north.

But that is now a wrap. After four and a half weeks and 64 matches, 1,613 shots, 1,734 fouls and a shared continental-scale avalanche of herring, beetroot, dumplings, vodka and sustained on-field drama, the World Cup can now be packed away for the next four years.

It is tempting in the immediate glow to call this the greatest modern tournament. Certainly Gianni Infantino and friends have been energetically congratulating themselves. On the eve of Sunday’s final the swanky Arbat embankment was buzzing. This is where Fifa based itself for Russia 2018, with an HQ at the Stalin-does-Disney Radisson Royal, the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1957, and host these days to its own fleet of river yachts.

On the strip outside the Royal on Saturday night an armed military escort lounged in its supercharged Mercedes jeep, next to the plain-clothes security in the Cadillac Escalade, just down from the black-out Maybachs, part of a £2m haul of luxury cars lined up waiting for their passengers to eat a pizza.

Inside the Qatar 2022 committee could be seen enjoying a pre-final dinner that looked more like a celebration. Understandably so. Russia 2018, the other half of the late-Blatter two-hander, has been a wonderful success, a World Cup that has both re-geared international football’s juggernaut status and reinforced Fifa’s authority as keeper of the spectacle.

Around the same time Infantino was across town on stage at the ballet cooing and fawning over Vladimir Putin. “This World Cup is changing the perception of Russia, particularly from us in the west. Even the police are smiling!” Fifa’s president gushed, a political statement for which he will now presumably fine himself heavily.

Infantino is right to be bullish though. The World Cup will head to the Gulf looking relevant and purposeful, beneficiary once again of football’s ability to re-energise itself no matter what its governing bodies throw at this great belching circus of global interests.

On the pitch Russia 2018 was beautifully gripping from first to final whistle. The only caveat would be the absence of one or two obviously great national teams, although it is possible this young French squad might change that perception in years to come.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi departed early from a tournament that wasn’t for superstars

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi departed early from a tournament that wasn’t for superstars. Photograph: AP

Overall Belgium scored the most goals. Russia committed an astonishing 95 fouls in five matches. Right up to the final weekend Spain had made the most passes despite exiting at the first knockout stage. England led the world on passes backwards. Neymar overcame his constant sufferings to have the most shots, 27 in all. By way of contrast Kylian Mbappé had just six before the final.

At the end of which France were admirable champions, a team culled from the beautifully fecund academy system and cast in the fanatically team-oriented shape of their coach. It seems likely that in Mbappé France also finessed a little further the outstanding attacking player of the next decade.

Although this wasn’t a tournament for stars. Instead the struggles of the World Cup’s herd of would-be GOATS provided another layer in the daily drama and a refreshing shift away from club football’s cult of personality.

The constant TV close-ups of Lionel Messi’s Sad Face, his utter bafflement at not being about to rouse a team of lesser talents; the wretched theatricals of Neymar; the inability of the great C-Ron to drag Portugal along under his arm: all of this was a gripping counter-narrative to football’s standard seasonal star fest.

Instead organised western European nations thrived, with Sweden, Switzerland, England, Belgium and Denmark leaving some kind of imprint. African football remained stuck in the blocks, with an apparent deficit in prep and organisation and support staff.

The slaying of various stricken giants added early depth. Germany and Spain seemed trapped within their own methods, hampered in both cases by a failing manager: Julen Lopetegui’s sacking and Jogi Löw’s vagueness.

Germany supporters are dejected at their group stage exit

Germany supporters are dejected at their group stage exit. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Endless drama was the key. There were very few of the dull games that can dog the group stages. The last 16 and quarter-finals were often tight and taut to the end. France 4-3 Argentina, Brazil 1-2 Belgium and Croatia 2-1 England felt like authentic World Cup matches.

Tactically this was a tournament with little in the way of innovation or fine-point embroidery. The usual dance between possession football and counterattack was played out. But international football is too rushed, too brown-paper-and-string to feature much in the way of real planning. The most notable change of gear was the emphasis on set-piece goals, the easiest thing to coach in a hurry and the hardest to defend on the hoof.

If there was a dominant texture to the play Russia 2018 was perhaps the tournament of the central midfielder, with Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, Philippe Coutinho, N’Golo Kanté and Kevin De Bruyne among the outstanding players, less so the goalscorers or attacking playmakers.

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Chief irritation was the constant play-acting and writhing about holding the wrong body part, no doubt driven in part by hope of a favourable VAR referral. Talking of which, a word on VAR here: rubbish. Actually that’s unfair. VAR works best the less it’s used and clearly has a place. But it can be dreadful when overdone, or used as a piece of big-match vanity refereeing.

Russia itself was a multilayered joy and also, of course, an enigma and all-round riddle wrapped up in a crab-flavoured crisp packet. The promised pummelling with knuckledusters failed to materialise. Instead everyday Russians were curious, amused and often kind. Russia may have scrubbed up to face the world, and undoubtedly has plenty of issues unaddressed by a football tournament, but there is a warmth to this huge, piecemeal, slightly bonkers nation that suited the oddity of a World Cup.

These events have their own energy too. The sight of Peruvians and Senegalese waving flags in former Soviet city centres and singing football songs outside the Kremlin is striking in itself. Who knows what ripples might be felt.

Finally on to England, and the fevered micro-climate of joy and giddiness that greeted Gareth and his boys. In retrospect a likable, hard-working team performed well against opposition at their level but didn’t have the class to beat those above.

A delighted Gareth Southgate after England’s penalty shootout win over Colombia

A delighted Gareth Southgate after England’s penalty shootout win over Colombia. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

The best part was the public engagement, although watching the reaction in England from a distance was a strange experience. The gushing BBC news reports about players “carrying a nation in their hands – but still taking time to go grocery shopping!” over an adoring shot of Harry Kane holding a plastic bag. The sense of a nation in the grip of some unbearably sensual excitement, through to the sudden end with its slight feeling of come-down. They’re selling Southgate wigs in Woolworth’s. And for now the greatest English World Cup adventure of the last 28 years is over.

The fond memories will remain, as they will of a wonderful four weeks. Even the final was fascinating, with a weirdly aggressive closing ceremony featuring flag bearers of all nations dancing angrily to house music. A man called Nicky performed an inappropriately suggestive rap routine in an inappropriately heavy tog bomber jacket. Ronaldinho played the bongos. And France and Croatia dished up the most goals since Wembley ’66.

In its wake this grand old overblown competition feels energised. The World Cup trophy had arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium escorted by Philipp Lahm and someone described by the PA as a “philanthropist and supermodel” (same).

On the touchline it was unpacked from its case with the usual weirdly sensual air of longing. The fetishising of the trophy itself – purring and leering at it as though in the presence of some magical relic – has been a theme of modern Fifa.

In Russia it felt apt after a month where the sense of madness and longing and scale returned. This was a reminder of sport’s basic fun, not to mention its ability to offer a degree of escapism in odd and fractured times. Qatar, with its winter sun, its tiny footprint, has a great deal to live up to.


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