Football, bloody hell, said Alex Ferguson, famously. He meant it in a good way. The World Cup, for a decade or two, has more often been bloody purgatory, and that was the way Russia 2018 threatened to go – dodgy hosts, weary stars, silly geography, not enough teams with big-game credentials (no Italy, no Netherlands) and too many that looked like cannon fodder. Instead, it’s been a treat, a feast, a proper celebration: football, bloody heaven.
This World Cup has delivered plot twists like a smiley version of The Bridge. There have been little shocks, such as Gareth Southgate, of all people, steering England to victory in a penalty shoot-out; and there have been big ones, headed by Germany going from the serene to the ridiculous. Rather than cruising to the semi-finals as usual, the Germans crashed out at the group stage, beaten by Mexico and South Korea, the final goal in their coffin coming from a shot rolled into an unmanned net, as their goalie, usually a colossus, looked on helpless from somewhere on the left wing.
Amid the intrigue, there has been something sport seldom serves up: equality. As the quarter-finals loomed, the five traditional powers (Germany plus Brazil, Spain, France and Argentina) had won only half their matches. It turns out that Russia isn’t so keen on oligarchs after all. Argentina, or Messi+10 as they’re known to the Guardian cartoonist David Squires, couldn’t beat Iceland. Spain, a great team gripped by a strange lethargy, allowed Russia to pip them on penalties. The Spanish goalkeeper, David de Gea, is arguably the best in the world, yet he faced seven shots on target in the tournament and saved only one of them.
Argentina’s struggles early on left them having to beat France in the last 16, a scheduler’s nightmare and a neutral’s dream. The French, too fast for an elderly defence, raced into the lead, before Argentina hit their stride with a wonder goal and went 2-1 up. France scored three in ten minutes, two of them from Kylian Mbappé, still a teenager, as flair and fearlessness swept away nous and know-how. The ageing Messi, out of sorts but still a genius, conjured a goal with an immaculate cross, but couldn’t quite force extra time. As someone said on Twitter: don’t cry 4-3, Argentina.
That encounter felt like one for the ages, but it was just about matched two days later by a far less appetising fixture: Belgium vs Japan. The Japanese players are small in two senses, as physical specimens and as names, whereas the Belgian line-up is bulging with giants and put together like a compilation album – Now That’s What I Call Premier League, featuring stars from Man City, Man United, Chelsea and Spurs. This being Russia 2018, Japan carved out a two-goal lead, composed of grit and teamwork, only for Belgium to claw it back to 2-2 and then concoct a delicious team goal, from their own penalty area, in the 94th minute. The statisticians had to look up the last nation to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win at the World Cup. The answer was Germany, beating England in Mexico in 1970 – so long ago that England were the holders and Alf Ramsey was the manager. That was the first World Cup match I ever watched, and I can still taste the disappointment.
Sports lovers drool over a good draw – not the match that ends level, but the sheet of paper that shows who plays whom next. It’s all curly brackets and destiny (and now you can have fun with the form online, as at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, where each team comes with a probability that morphs as you make your predictions).
The World Cup draw has ended up landing nearly all the strongest nations in the same half, so that only one of Brazil, France and Belgium can now reach the final. It’s been, to borrow a tag-line from Tina Brown’s time at Tatler, all the fun of the unfair. The highest-rated team in England’s half are Switzerland – whose game against Serbia was won, in effect, by Kosovo, as two Swiss players of Kosovan descent, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, took the chance to put one over on the Serbs.
As politics, the tournament has been a pleasant surprise. Vladimir Putin has yet to use it as cover to invade a nearby country. There has even been some social progress – thousands of Iranian women turned up to cheer on their team, which isn’t allowed at home; Russia’s racist fans have been drowned out by the jubilant majority; and in Britain this has been the moment when, at last, it became perfectly normal to hear a female commentator or pundit. Many England fans, suddenly exposed to Southgate’s gentle intelligence, have discovered something they didn’t know they had in them: a sense of proportion.
For years now, international football has been giving ground to the leading clubs, which are alarmingly rich and powerful. Real Madrid showed it by poaching the Spanish manager on the eve of this tournament, leaving Spain to pay the price. It has become commonplace to argue that the Champions League, featuring Real and Europe’s other leading clubs, dishes up better football than the international fiestas, but this year the World Cup has shown that it’s still the boss. It may not be as silky or sophisticated as the Champions League, but it’s more engaging, more colourful, more multicultural. The big clubs may look like little leagues of nations, but the individuals they import from far away don’t, alas, bring much of their world with them.
This World Cup has been far more surprising than the Champions League, and, best of all, more bonding, because it’s on terrestrial telly, and it unfolds in a month. For all the charms of cricket and tennis, the World Cup is the only game in town, and it brings us together. Football used to be drama for people who didn’t go to the theatre. Now it’s also for people who do.
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden