At last, the end had come: after 63 matches and 163 goals and a spine-tingling four-week long roller coaster ride of surprises and giant-slaying, video assistant referees, multicultural teams and the drowsy illusion of football coming home, the World Cup culminated, after an interminable wait, with a frenzied final between the might and myth of Les Bleus pitted and the guileful Croatians at the colossal, spaceship-like Luzhniki Stadium – a marvel of a backdrop, where the quadrennial high mass had commenced four weeks ago with Russia thumping Saudi Arabia in the presence of Vladimir Putin.
For Putin, this World Cup had been the ultimate PR coup, presenting Russia as a brave new nation, with fans from around the world enamoured by the motherland. With a single brolly, Russia’s head of state returned for the final. There were more productisation and commodification as well: only the right credit card served to buy snacks and beverages and Will Smith and Co provided the obnoxious, garish entertainment that has now become so associated with sanitised showpiece events, often accompanied by an anti-septic ambience as corporates and VIPs revel in their ‘m-as-tu-vu’ moment. Trashy Western songs blared around the cavernous ground, but, at least, the vast checkered mass of Croatian fans were little roaring dots in the south stand, who embodied the fandom FIFA so eschews.
This was very much a final that the tournament deserved – weird and wild, but not of the highest quality. Spectacular and compelling, yet not of the elite grade. Gloriously chaotic and never-ending in drama, except for the last five minutes of pedestrian football when the Croats had been slain. The Pussy Riot invasion, VAR controversy, Emmanuel Macron’s wetsuit and Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic campaigning with all too much vigour, hugging Luka Modric intensely, all of it was absorbing and fitting for the denouement of this extraordinary tournament, one that defied logic and ridiculed prediction.
Yet, as the sense of an ending and the all-consuming, impending doom of Monday’s football-less black hole engulfed all of us, France were determined to outlast all the mayhem and play the stifling football that served them so well this tournament. At times, it felt as if Les Bleus were competing in a parallel tournament, where caution and restraint prevailed. Even in the final, they were restrained, reluctant to sublimate to tournament’s law of chaos. Deschamps’ team remained mechanical and functional.
The French shaped their own immortality with the most mundane of virtues that belied, and perhaps ill-befitted, the depth and talent of their young squad. It was all about discipline and grit, and fortune. In Russia, they were the most complete team and the second-half strikes of the towering Paul Pogba and the quicksilver Kylian Mbappe were simply signs of predestination.
Still, how will this French generation – whisper it, the Grizou generation – be remembered and perceived? In four years time, their football may be more expansive or they may, as defending champions, just exit in the group stages in Qatar. French coach Didier Deschamps had little to say. In fact, the tournament’s outcome and the final’s result was his emphatic answer, the cult of victory.
“It means that we did things better than the other,” said Deschamps after his players had showered him in copious amounts of champagne, invading the press room with chants of ‘On va tout casser.’ (We will break everything). “I had a very, very young group, because 14 of them were on a discovery journey, but the quality was there. My greatest sources of pride with this group is that they managed to have the right state of mind for this tournament. It is what I always repeat: never give, never give up. We were able to see that the teams that had the best technical skills did not have enough. In the first half we didn’t have much, but we were leading 2-1. Of course, the question is - is France a beautiful champion? Well, we are world champions and we are going to be on top of the world for the next years.”
France exulted as Nestor Pistana drew the tournament to a close, but even in their moment of ultimate triumph they formed a guard of honour for the Croatians. Adil Rami and Samuel Umtiti applauded the Croatian fans and the gesture was reciprocated. France’s scoreline superiority never deterred the Croatians and their vociferous fans. They had slogged their way from Modric’s ancestry village, from Zagreb and from across every nook and corner of the country to Moscow. What they found was emptiness and crushing disappointment, but also the beauty of a skilful generation that produced a tour de force.
As the medal ceremony began and dusk approached it seemed the skies, with a biblical downpour, and a rumbling thunder, were crying – for Croatia, for the end of the World Cup and for all those who had fallen so cruelly in the process, including my dear friend Alexandre Abreu Gontijo, a Brazilian football journalist, who cared deeply for the beautiful game. He loved Russia 2018, but, no longer among us, he’d never witness the final. Time, alas, waits for no man. Neither does it wait for football. The World Cup, once more, has come to an end.
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Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 11:28:30 IST