The World Cup in review: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Monday 16th July 2018 10:14

1) This was a brilliant World Cup, perhaps my favourite ever. But the rush to call it ‘the best’ or rank it objectively against others is misplaced.

The magnificence of the World Cup lies in its universal popularity and yet its simultaneous ability to mean a million different things to a million different people. Your enjoyment of a tournament depends largely on your personal and professional situation.

Was this the one where you came of age, long afternoons spent in hazy beer gardens in a fog of beery bliss? Was this this the one where you wowed at 100 goals in silence, dancing on the inside as you tried to hide the tiny live stream window in the corner of your work computer screen? Was this the one where you watched the highlights every night with your newborn baby in arms, fizzing with happiness to the point where you thought you might burst?

What is certainly true is that World Cup 2018 had all the right ingredients. There were goals in quantity – more per game than in three of the last four tournaments – and quality. There were controversies, upsets and memorable matches between traditional heavyweights and new-found favourites – France vs Belgium, Spain vs Portugal, France vs Argentina. There was a worthy winner and a memorable final.

In fact, the only possible issue with this tournament is that France lifted the trophy having beaten Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium and Croatia and yet still left us with the sense that they didn’t play at their best. A wonderful tournament, but the highest-quality winner? Not for me.

 

2) There’s nothing better in football than realising how little we know. Part of sport’s attraction lies in having your assumptions turned on their head. We watch for entertainment in the football, but also in the unknown. Were you told the winner of every competition at the start of the season, it would soon get dull.

This World Cup did that in spades. We expected Germany, Spain and Brazil to be strong, and would have laughed at anyone who predicted that only one would make it to the quarter-finals. We expected Neymar to shine and the Germans to play as a team. We expected Russia to flunk and expected very little of England.

Look back at our World Cup predictions and call us fools. But only if you accept that you are also foolish. Picking France to win the thing was just about the only thing anyone could have expected to get right.

 

3) I was delighted that Luka Modric won the Golden Ball, but there is no doubt which player used the tournament to elevate his status to superstar. If that sounds a ludicrous thing to say about the second-most expensive player in the game’s history, see Paris Saint-Germain for details. As with Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, Kylian Mbappe’s extraordinary transfer fee could soon look like a bargain.

At 19, Mbappe now has the world at his lightning quick feet. He was France’s best player in only one of their seven matches at the World Cup, but picked his moment perfectly. The two goals to knock out Lionel Messi’s Argentina did feel like a changing of the guard, a baton of greatness passed on. Messi remains the king for now, and his brilliance will cover for his advancing years for a good while yet, but Mbappe is established as the crown prince.

 

4) Despite Mbappe’s rise, this was a tournament that re-established the importance of the collective over the individual. For those of us who have bruises from banging our heads against a wall every time two people argue about the merits of Ronaldo over Messi or vice versa, this was welcome respite.

Belgium finally linked together the excellent individual components to create a team, France had magnificent stars but their best two players were N’Golo Kante and Raphael Varane. England found a togetherness that was lacking during the years when they had a team worth less than the sum of its parts. Croatia battled through on hunger and grit, perhaps matched only by hosts Russia.

But this trend was made most obvious in Sweden, who eclipsed all expectation with their run to the quarter-finals despite the absence of superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic from a major tournament for the first time since 2002. Scratch that: Sweden eclipsed all expectation with their run to the quarter-finals because of the absence of superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic from a major tournament for the first time since 2002. This is the power of the team.

 

5) Another clear theme is European dominance: It will now be 20 years since a South American country won the World Cup when the next one comes around.

That comes as little surprise, in truth. The lack of funding and disorganisation – and corruption – within South American football is finally coming home to roost, with European sides now able to match their South American counterparts on technical ability. With North America, Africa and Asia still unable to mount a meaningful challenge, Europe has enjoyed the cakewalk.

There is hope, of course. Argentina must now undergo a self-imposed cleanse if it is to respond again following years of dependence on Messi, but Brazil remain in rude health despite their exit. Tite’s team outplayed Belgium for long periods of their quarter-final and could well have given France a stern test, while Belgium themselves came close to exit at the hands of Japan.

But that doesn’t alter the cold, hard statistics. Only one of the last eight World Cup finalists (Argentina in 2014) have come from outside Europe.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino believes that this should be a wake-up call to non-European nations.

“So, at the end, it comes down of course to the quality of the players, and it comes down as well, I think, to the work and to the professional attitude and of course to the way of operating in football, and I think that this World Cup shows by the results and dominance of the European teams,” Infantino said.

“I think that the results of this World Cup for the other continents outside of Europe — well, it should be a catalyst and a motivator for them to work even harder, to train, to invest in training.”

 

 

6) Possession has always been a better judge of a team’s style than its strength, but this was the tournament where the ‘possession equals dominance’ myth was truly busted. There’s nothing quite as ineffective as sterile domination.

None of the six teams who had the most possession in Russia reached the semi-finals, and none of the top four for possession even made it beyond the last-16 stage. Only two teams in the World Cup averaged more than 65% possession. They were Spain, whose lack of a Plan B against Russia turned their ponderous, patient passing into a parody, and Germany, who knocked and knocked at the doors of Mexican and South Korean defenders but were left goalless.

Meanwhile, France ranked 18th for possession of the 32 teams, Sweden ranked 27th and Russia 30th. The benefits of creating a solid defensive platform, soaking up pressure and hitting on the break was obvious. When your counter-attacking options are as good as Didier Deschamps’, it can be enough to win you the whole thing.

In their four knockout matches, France’s possession was as follows: 39.8%, 38.6%, 36.4% and 34.2%. Each time they gave up more of the ball. Each time they fell further into Deschamps’ strategy. Each time they got closer to glory.

 

7) It’s an unscientific theory, but a glut of result-changing late goals make for a tournament that sticks longer in the mind. A match in which the result is established after 89 minutes rather than 19 minutes is likely to stay with you longer simply because you have less time within the match to get used to it. That helps to bridge the gap between matches that then turn a tournament into one long memory, rather than individual spikes.

World Cup 2018 was a tournament of late goals. Thirteen result-changing goals occurred in the 90th minute or later of normal time. Nine games were won and four were saved. For over 20% of a tournament’s matches to be decided in added time is extraordinary.

In total, 29 of the 166 goals scored in normal time at the World Cup game came in the 86th minute or later, or 17.4%. You quickly learned not to leave early to beat the traffic.

 

8) As soon as it was announced that VAR would be trialled – and this very much was a trial – at this World Cup, it was guaranteed that the initiative would make headlines. How could it not?

I’m broadly against the introduction of technology for subjective events. I see the value in goal-line technology and can even see that for offsides VAR can work, but little else. That said, I can see the benefit in reducing howlers, those decisions that those at home know are clear mistakes while the referee on the pitch is still in the dark.

My issue lies in the fact that the game has now been irrevocably changed on the sly. We have had breaks of up to five minutes while officials watched multiple replays on screens. We have had the interpretation of handball offences by top-level referees changing overnight to the point that I could now watch ten handball claims and have no idea which would be given and which not. We have the new scenario where assistant referees don’t flag for offsides until after a goal is scored because it can all be watched back. For those of us who watch sport as obsession, the product has changed and changed forever.

Refereeing has now changed too. Making decisions in real-time is becoming a thing of the past, because the clever thing to do is not make a decision at all, wait for the word in your ear and then watch the incident seven or eight times until you are sure. The best referees used to be proactive, but now they are persuaded to be passive.

This is also only a half-solution, epitomised in two incidents during this tournament:

a) Antoine Griezmann dived for the free-kick that led to France’s opening goal in the final, but VAR cannot intervene when an event occurs outside the penalty area. Yet this was clearly a game-changing event – perhaps even the game-changing event – of the final, and nothing could be done. So where does this end?

b) In the Brazil vs Mexico last-16 game, the assistant did not raise his flag for a ‘close call’ offside, because they are now instructed to let the game go and VAR will be used to check offside if a goal is scored. But if a corner is won in that same move – as it was – the corner will stand without VAR being used and therefore any goal resulting from that corner will stand without review. So an assistant is effectively allowing a goal to stand that he or she believes not to be legitimate. That is illogical.

I’m broadly anti-VAR. I love watching, playing and writing about football because of its propensity for human error, not in spite of it. Call me selfish, but I think football has a duty to be absorbing and entertaining more than to be ‘right’. But my biggest gripe is that it felt as if football was being experimented upon at the World Cup before the guidelines on this new future had been set in stone or players and managers had grown accustomed to them. To me, that was a mistake. And I’m not asking everyone to agree.

 

9) Still, one consequence of VAR’s introduction was the reduction in the number of red cards. At the last three World Cups there were 55 red cards combined, but in 2018 only four. They have dropped off a cliff.

Most notably, there were no red cards for violent conduct. Because what is the point in elbowing somebody if there’s a Big Brother watching your every move from a studio packed with television screens and different camera angles?

 

10) That said, the reduction in red cards must also be put down to some extraordinarily lenient refereeing in this World Cup. There’s interpreting the law with common sense and there’s deliberately failing to administer it in order to avoid players being sent off or being suspended for accumulated yellow cards. This was the latter.

There were innumerable times that counter-attacks were stopped by shirt pulls and cynical fouls but only a free-kick awarded, and times too where red-card incidents were not give due punishment. Think Gerard Pique against Morocco, Cristiano Ronaldo against Iran, Wilmar Barrios against England and Ante Rebic against Argentina. Russia and Uruguay committed 144 fouls but were given only eight yellow cards between them.

There is an argument that the rules were the same for everyone, but there’s also no doubt that such leniency allowed strategic fouling to become rife. I’ll be wondering how Dejan Lovren wasn’t booked in that semi-final until the next World Cup comes around.

 

 

11) The other impact of VAR was the huge rise in set-piece goals at this World Cup. In total, 43% of the 169 goals came from set-piece situations, easily the highest in history. That is explained in three ways:

– The lack of holding allowed at corners and free-kicks. Following the controversies in England vs Tunisia and subsequent awarding of two penalties for England against Panama, managers soon realised that sly holding at set pieces – previously a staple of defending – were a thing of the past. Less holding equals more free runs equals more set-piece goals.

– The use of technology to award penalties. There were 29 penalties awarded in 2018, 11 more than the previous World Cup record set in 2002.

– The general improvement in open-play defending from weaker nations. Only five teams conceded more than three times in a game at this World Cup. Two of them were Argentina and Croatia.

 

12) Hindsight might enable 20:20 vision, but we saw Spain’s tournament failure coming from the moment Julen Lopetegui accepted the Real Madrid job and was promptly sacked by the RFEF. It left Fernando Hierro as the stooge, desperately trying to learn the lines to a month-long soliloquy hours before the first curtain call.

Lopetegui and Real Madrid deserve censure. If the manager really did delay in informing his bosses about his impending departure then that was a huge error of judgement. Real’s arrogance in making the announcement so close to the start of the World Cup was predictable but demoralising.

Yet you do wonder if the RFEF now consider Lopetegui’s sacking as hasty. He had effected such a change in Spain’s style and mood that there was genuine hope that another World Cup was in realistic reach. Hierro merely went back to what he knew from his time as a player, sterile domination with the ball but far too little penetration after the opening 3-3 draw with Portugal.

If Spain had beaten Russia, their route to a final against France was Croatia and England. With Lopetegui in charge and the players all pulling in the same direction, the final was the least Spain could have hoped for. Luis Enrique’s performance will determine for how long the regret lingers.

 

13) For Germany, the biggest under-performer in Russia, there will be no root-and-branch review. It may seem an odd thing to say after finishing bottom of a group containing Mexico, South Korea and Sweden, but this was a tournament of fine margins.

Firstly, Joachim Loew got a number of things badly wrong tactically. The decision to play with such a high defensive line against Mexico seemed arrogant and left Germany’s slow central defenders and holding midfielder waving the white flag of surrender. The lack of minutes afforded to Julian Brandt was another mistake, and in general Loew was too slow to try and change his team’s lack of goals from the bench.

But Germany can also count themselves unfortunate. No team in the tournament created more chances per game, no team had more shots per game and only one team had more shots on target per game, yet no team scored fewer goals. Germany were undone by some magnificent goalkeeping and some wayward finishing. The 2-0 defeat against South Korea in particular was an extraordinary event, 28 shots attempted and no goals scored.

That is why Loew has kept his job. This was a blip, not the beginning of the end.

 

14) Whatever anyone might say, England really did move forward.

Following the humiliating exit to Iceland at Euro 2016 – which itself followed England’s worst ever World Cup in terms of results – public apathy reached a new high. The accusation was not just that England’s players weren’t good enough, but that they did not care sufficiently. Overpaid prima donnas, an awful lot of social media users would have been only too happy to tell you.

To progress from humiliating last-16 exit at the European Championship to a semi-final place at the World Cup is evidence of progress enough. Those saying that England only beat Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden are missing the point. Three of those four are exactly the sort of opponent that England have struggled against in the past. Add in a first World Cup penalty shootout victory in their history, and the case for the defence rests.

But this goes beyond mere results, for two reasons. Firstly, this is an England team at the start of its cycle, not the end. After Italia ‘90, with captain Bryan Robson 33 and Terry Butcher, Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce and Peter Beardsley all aged 28 and above, the squad had peaked. This is different.

England have used 23 players over the last 12 months currently aged 25 or under, and that doesn’t include Ryan Sessegnon, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho or Ademola Lookman. Gareth Southgate has insisted that this must be a platform to build on rather than the sum total of England’s achievements in this generation, and he’s absolutely right.

England got as far as they ever have in a major tournament outside of their own country, and they did it with the second-youngest squad in the competition. That is not to say that there is not a gap between England and the best, because to pretend otherwise would be a nonsense, but there is hope that that gap can finally close if structures to aid the development of young players now in place can be utilised.

Finally, this is a question of hope. Ask every England supporter in Nice when Iceland humbled us in 2016 for their thoughts for the future now, and every one of them will be positive. Ask those who vowed never to emotionally invest in England again after that farce if they have changed their mind; most have. They sang all summer, not in arrogance but in hope and in finally enjoying watching their national team.

For too long following England was a labour of habit not love, and certainly not enjoyment. For the first time since Euro 2004, there are ambitions of a brighter future that might not be just another pipe dream. If you can’t celebrate that, we might as well all pack up and go home.

 

15) But if we’re talking about countries who really did move forward, Croatia are the stars. Go here and read conclusions 14 and 15 for their story of triumph through self-inflicted adversity.

 

16) And so we wave goodbye to Russia, about whom it is possible to say that they have both hosted an excellent tournament and yet not solved the issues that clouded their hosting.

The scare stories in certain sections of the media about organised hooligan violence proved unfounded, but perhaps only because Vladimir Putin made it clear that such violence would not be tolerated.

The scare stories about homophobic and racist abuse largely proved unfounded, but anyone who believes those issues have been addressed should think again.

The scare stories about police brutality proved unfounded, but ask any Russian if they believe that they will be treated in September how the foreign tourists were treated in June.

The scare stories about the lack of free press proved unfounded, but that doesn’t change the bigger picture. Since the start of 2017, five journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances within the country.

The World Cup becomes its own state within the host country, laying a blanket of surrealism wherever it travels. That’s how you get a statue of Lenin stood next to adverts for VISA and Coca-Cola. This is bizarro-land.

Hosting a World Cup forces a country to act up, but not necessarily change. The lasting cultural legacy of this Russian World Cup could be positive, but you’ll forgive the cynicism. Just as likely is that when the circus leaves town so too does the World Cup effect, for better and for worse.

Russia put on a brilliant show, but that’s exactly what it was. Inhabitants of the country can consult those in Brazil and South Africa for details.

Daniel Storey

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