I have watched and analysed World Cup football tournaments since 1966, first as a fan and since 1982 as a journalist or commentator at the venues or in the TV studios. Of the ten World Cups that I have written about or commentated on, I can categorically say that Russia 2018 was the greatest of them all in sheer unpredictability and setting new trends. History will remember Russia 2018 as the tournament in which technology played a decisive role in deciding matches. Matches were tighter than ever before; 31 of the 64 games were decided by a single goal margin and 14 matches ended in draws. The margin between football’s nobility and title aspirants is narrowing. It was the first World Cup without Germany, Brazil or Argentina in the semi-finals.
The new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system is here to stay forever, as it has led to greater efficiency. The VAR system examined nearly 450 incidents and ensured that there was 99.32% accuracy in all decisions made by the referees. Consequently a record number of 29 penalty kicks were awarded during this World Cup, 11 more than the previous mark of 18 in the 2002 World Cup. Also the fear of getting caught on camera led to less violent incidents. There was not a single red card for violent conduct.
Contrast this with the Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, known as the Battle of Nuremberg. In that game, the Russian referee Valentin Ivanov handed out 16 yellow and four red cards. Now, the fear of getting caught led to less violent conduct on the field and the flow of the game was quicker.
It also changed the outlook of teams, especially in the jostling that takes place in the 18-yard box during free kicks and corner kicks. Belgium’s coach Roberto Martinez categorically indicated that the presence of VAR had changed the way his team handled both defensive and offensive set-pieces. It has not eliminated jersey pulling and jostling in the box but has certainly led to less simulations (a penalty kick awarded to Neymar against Costa Rica was reversed as the VAR judges felt the Brazilian was play acting) and body play. The 2018 World Cup brought us this refereeing revolution. The judicial police who managed the VAR became very important men.
Just imagine, if VAR had been in existence in previous World Cups, many contentious decisions would have been reversed. For instance, Diego Maradona’s infamous 'Hand of God' goal against England in the 1986 quarter-finals would never have been allowed. Similarly, if goalline technology had existed in 1966, we would have known if England’s third goal against West Germany in extra time would have been allowed. Did Geoff Hurst’s shot which hit the underside of the bar and bounced back, cross the line or not? In 2010 such technology did exist but FIFA did not use it. Otherwise, it would have clarified if Frank Lampard’s shot on the stroke of half time against Germany was a genuine goal (had it crossed the line after bouncing off the underside of the bar or not).
Above all, the destiny of nations may have changed. VAR would have shown that Ferenc Puskas’ equaliser against West Germany in the 1954 World Cup was genuine. The English referee Wiliam Ling had awarded the goal but the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths ruled Puskas off side. If the goal had been allowed, Hungary would have equalised at 3-3 and were likely to win because of their superior firepower. Hungary would then have been the first East European nation to win the World Cup. Croatia was the fifth East European nation to try and win the World Cup in 2018 but in vain.
The fortunes of France, the ultimate champions, swayed with VAR. In their opening Group C match with tenacious Australia on 16 June, France struggled to find rhythm. The team laboured. They lacked creativity and cohesion. The score was goalless till early in the second half. Then in the 58th minute after consultation with VAR, the referee awarded a penalty kick to France. Antoine Griezmann converted. France were on their way to glory.
In the final after Ivan Perisic equalised for Croatia in the 28th minute, France were pegged back. But their fortunes changed in the 38th minute when Griezmann’s took an inswinging corner kick. Blaise Matuidi darted to the first post and leapt to head the ball. He did not connect properly and the ball hit Perisic’s outstretched left hand, seemingly accidentally. The human eye would not have been able to detect such a handball as referee Nestor Pitana’s vision was blocked by Perisic’s body. France protested and asked for a penalty kick. A decade or two ago, the referee would have waved play on. But in 2018 technology had an impact. After consultation with the VAR panel, Pitana went to the sidelines, checked the replays and awarded a penalty kick which Griezmann stroked in. France led 2-1 and after that dominated to win the final comfortably.
Above all this World Cup has shown that individuals do not win matches, even if they are as great as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite several moments of brilliance and some sublime goals by both Ronaldo and Messi, both Portugal and Argentina exited in the space of six hours on 30 June. For both, it was maybe the last time in the greatest show on earth. The change of guard in world football was evident in this World Cup. The precocious teenager Kylian Mbappe could become the next superstar of world football. He has the pace, power, sudden acceleration, goal scoring ability and above all good temperament to excel.
Other youngsters who impressed were France’s 22-year-old right and left wing-back Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, the talented winger Hirving Lozano of Mexico, Russia’s creative midfielder Alexander Golovin, Columbia’s 6 ft 5inches tall defender Yerry Mina and Uruguay’s defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira. The expected young stars of the tournament — Gabriel Jesus (Brazil) and Joshua Kimmich (Germany) — had limited impact. This shows that the gap is narrowing and many countries are producing talented players.
Teams won because of collective endeavour. 70 goals were scored from set pieces in 64 matches. Of the 32 teams in the fray, 15 scored at least 50 per cent of their goals from set pieces. England scored nine of their 12 goals from dead ball situations.
The last time France won the World Cup, in 1998, they brought cross-culturalism, into the media spotlight. Winners again, they were one of three semi-finalists who had significant numbers of players with a mixed heritage, sons or grandsons of immigrants. Sixteen of the 23-member French squad belong to immigrant families. The sheer diversity of the squad is best exemplified by what two important members of this squad, N’Golo Kante and Griezmann, were doing as toddlers when France lifted the squad in 1998. Back then, the 11-year-old Kante was picking up trash to support his migrant family. He never watched a football match. He couldn't afford to. Griezmann, who belonged to the middle class, was at the final at Paris and as a seven-year-old wearing a French jersey, trotted up to Thierry Henry and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez for autographs.
This World Cup has finally proved that there is no more the poetic football of South America and the prosaic football of Europe. As globalisation imposes itself, in football too people and ideas are ever more mixed and identities fragmented. The abrupt end that befell Germany and Spain endangered the tiki-taka style that conquered the last two World Cups and became a footballing yardstick by which the game was measured. The World Cup in Russia consecrated the middle way. Teams that did not seek to dominate for 90 minutes, nor dig in and wait deep, excelled. Teams that felt more comfortable counterattacking did well. France did this to perfection and won the title.
In the final, the French youngsters seemed overawed at the onset and appeared tentative. For once, Kante was hesitant and Croatia dominated midfield. Didier Deschamps' reading of the game was spot on when he substituted Kante with the tall Steven Nzonzi in the 54th minute. Nzonzi helped the French midfield in suppressing the Croatian attacks and allowed Paul Pogba to move effortlessly forward. Then, in the space of six minutes, France unleashed a blitzkrieg, relying on the pace and momentum of Pogba and Mbappe. They scored twice and it was game over midway through the second half. The Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic also admitted that after the fourth French goal, he knew a comeback was impossible, even for his gritty team, which had shown great character, cohesion and determination to reach the final.
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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 15:01:43 IST