- By Rory Smith, www.nytimes.com
- MOSCOW — Some time around France’s virtuoso victory against Argentina and Belgium’s breathtaking comeback against Japan, the planet seemed to come to a decision. Russia 2018, it was universally decided, had not just been a good World Cup, and not just a great World Cup. It had, in fact, been the best World Cup.That assessment may not last, of course: once we have all had a chance to reflect, it may not quite live up to the standards of the 1982 tournament, most people’s market leader whenever this conversation arises.Regardless of its exact place in the hierarchy, the effusive discussion itself will be of considerable relief to FIFA, which hitched its fortunes to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, for better or for worse. When international soccer is being outflanked in so many ways by the club game, when it can appear to be such an afterthought, when the next edition, in 2022, will be occur mostly during December and the one after that, in 2026, will expand to 48 teams from 32, these five weeks needed to be a success.
Have they gone well enough to carry FIFA and the World Cup through the next eight years of upheaval without suffering considerable damage? Certainly, this has been not just an enjoyable tournament, but a significant one, one whose broader consequences may echo for a few years yet. In more ways than one, Russia 2018 really was a game-changer.
The Rise of CollectivismIf there is little doubt this has been an outstanding tournament, it seems fair to say there has been no outstanding team. Either France or Croatia would be a more than worthy winner, of course, but one has played a notch below its potential brilliance and the other right at the very edge of its capabilities. Neither would be considered, by most, a team for the ages in the mold of Spain’s 2010 vintage.Nor has it been a World Cup dominated by individuals: Kylian Mbappé has shone the brightest, and Luka Modric the longest, but in a sport increasingly in thrall to stars, almost all of those teams that had been constructed in the service of the great and the good failed to ignite.Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski went home in the group stage, and Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta soon after. Neymar made it to the quarterfinals, but won few friends along the way. His addiction to melodrama was a discordant note at a World Cup that has seen thankfully little controversy.Instead, it has been a tournament for collectives: for Uruguay’s resilient, defiant defense; for England’s ingenious, coordinated set pieces; for Belgium’s lethal, perfectly orchestrated counterattacks. Russia’s work rate brought the host country within a penalty shootout of the semifinals; Japan and Mexico, with its brave, breakneck style, might have made the quarters.
The days when the World Cup represented the pinnacle of the sport, the highest form of soccer, are long gone. Now it is best seen as a snapshot of where the game is. This year — one of shocks and surprises and the great being brought low — the picture is pretty clear.The gap between the very best teams, the traditional giants, and everyone else is shrinking, and shrinking fast, reduced almost to nothingness by the spread of knowledge, the sophistication of coaching and, crucially, by the end of the tiki-taka era.Increasingly, the style international teams hope to emulate — and have the most success in doing so — is not that of Barcelona, and that glorious Spain team of eight years ago, but of Atlético Madrid or, occasionally, Borussia Dortmund: willing to sit and wait, or happy to press opponents into mistakes.The reasons for this are obvious: lesser teams cannot beat greater ones by playing them at their own game. In a straight fight, the more technically accomplished side, the one with the brightest stars, almost always wins. By playing on the counterpunch, the playing field is leveled. Suddenly, unheralded teams have a chance in a way that would be unimaginable if Spanish-style possession was the dominant ideology.The teams that have had the most success here — in particular France and Croatia, but England and Belgium, too — of course have done so because they have the best of both worlds: players of remarkable talent who are prepared to place it entirely at the service of their team. Too many others seemed to arrive in Russia expecting the opposite to happen. Those days are over.
A Changing of the GuardOn the afternoon of June 30, France sent home Lionel Messi, who had looked so haunted, so stressed, during Argentina’s chaotic time in Russia. That evening, Uruguay’s battle-scarred defense shut down Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. In the space of six hours, the two finest players of their generation — the two players who have towered over the 21st century game — exited the World Cup stage.
The question that now lingers is whether it is for the last time. Neither Messi nor Ronaldo has won this competition, of course, and neither has much of a track record of leaving ambitions unfulfilled. It is difficult, though, to escape the sense that this was their last chance.Messi may return in 2022, though by that time he will be 35, and even his magic is likely to have faded. Can Argentina, so chaotic here, afford to spend the next four years building around a player entering the twilight of his career? Will Messi find the idea of another arduous qualifying campaign appealing? The head says one thing. The heart may say another.Ronaldo, meanwhile, will be 37. He clearly does not believe he is finished: in the hours before the first semifinal, he was in Greece, completing his $110 million transfer to Juventus.It is worth noting that his contract lasts four years, until the summer of 2022, a few months before the Qatar World Cup. It is a staggering commitment to a player of his age, but perhaps even his new employer feels, by that stage, his remarkable powers might have waned a little.What is for certain, however, is that this is the final World Cup either will approach at, or even near, his peak. It was impossible to escape the sense that this tournament marked the end of one thing, and the beginning of another. Andres Iniesta, reduced to the role of substitute as Spain ground to a halt against Russia, will not be back; Lewandowski left no impression at all as Poland slipped from sight in the group stage. Of that generation, only Modric, steering Croatia to the final, has excelled, and he may yet choose to bow out in glory.In their stead, a new generation is rising, led by the tournament’s breakout star, if that is not a strange tag to give to someone who is already the second-most expensive player in the world: Mbappé.He has a long way to go if he is to emulate either Messi or Ronaldo, of course; on the evidence of this World Cup, he is unlikely to have a peer and a rival capable of pushing him as hard as the Argentine and the Portuguese have for so many years. Throughout Russia 2018, though, it became increasingly clear that this is Mbappé’s time. That of Messi, Ronaldo and Iniesta — in terms of World Cups, at least — has passed.
The Feedback LoopThe 1990 World Cup captured Ireland’s imagination. The team defied the odds in Italy, its unexpected run to the quarterfinals transfixed the nation. Even those who normally turned their noses up at soccer, “the English game,” were hooked, swept up in the excitement.Many saw it not simply as the summer when Ireland became a true soccer nation — its loyalties having always been split between soccer, rugby, Gaelic football and hurling — but as the start of the country’s economic boom in the 1990s. Italia ’90 was Ireland’s coming out on the international stage.The mania, though, was lost on the fans and players who were there; what little information they had, from family, friends and reporters, could not convey the extent of the team’s impact. “I missed Italia ’90,” the journalist Con Houlihan wrote. “I was in Italy at the time.”The experience of the players in Russia could not have been more different. If South Africa 2010 was the first Twitter World Cup, and Brazil 2014 the first during which fans were given a glimpse into the players’ lives through Instagram, Russia 2018 may well be remembered as the first WorldCup.gif.The players, almost all of them social media natives, have been able to keep up — in real time — with the scenes of celebration back home. They have seen videos of fan parks and crammed streets. For the first time, perhaps, they have been able to appreciate the effect they have had; that, in turn, has had an effect on them.
As the England defender Kyle Walker wrote on Twitter (obviously), the images “felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more.” The way players experience World Cups fundamentally changed in Russia, and so did the role the fans can play. It is no longer limited to cheering for the team inside the stadium. Even those at home now genuinely do seem to make a difference.
Video and the Law of Unintended ConsequencesIn the 1920s, soccer’s authorities were worried that the game was becoming boring. Too many teams, they felt, had perfected the art of catching opponents offside, meaning too few goals were being scored. To try to rectify the situation, the Laws of the Game were amended, theoretically to hand the advantage back to attackers.It worked, initially, but teams did not take long to adapt, changing their defensive structures to account for the new rules. Soon, the number of goals was plummeting again, back to where it had been, and beyond.In the 1980s, crowds were dwindling. The game’s authorities were convinced dull soccer was, once again, to blame. This time, they changed the rewards: three points would be awarded for a win, rather than two. The aim was to incentivize teams to push for victory. Instead, a study by Luis Garicano and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta found, those teams that took a lead became more inclined to draw back, and protect it. If anything, games became more defensive.Major changes to the fabric of soccer, in other words, do not always have the intended effect. If this World Cup is anything to go by, the same may soon be said of video assistant referees.On balance, for all the fears that the World Cup was too high-profile a stage for what was essentially a trial run, V.A.R. has been a success in Russia. Though the group stages were marked by some confusion about when it should and should not be used (it has barely made an appearance in the knockout rounds, oddly), the rather fluid definition of what constitutes a “clear and obvious” mistake has allowed it to do its job. Referees have awarded penalties they had initially missed, or struck off decisions that were incorrect. V.A.R. has passed the test.
Just as significant, though, it has changed the game in ways that had not been foreseen. England, in particular, seemed to be seeking the illegal embrace of defenders from corner kicks through the tournament, rather than trying to score goals. And Roberto Martinez, the Belgium manager, confirmed that the presence of V.A.R. had changed the way his team handled both defensive and offensive set pieces.The ramifications could be significant. This has been a World Cup decided by the dead ball: nearly half of the goals have come, directly or indirectly, from set pieces.If that pattern is maintained, the way soccer is played itself could change: it places a premium on winning free kicks and corners, and having players capable of delivering them well, defending them well, and either scoring from them or using them as a route to win penalties. Soccer has always obeyed the law of unintended consequences. V.A.R. may be no different.
More Teams May Mean More ChanceMexico made it, even though at one point it seemed as if Juan Carlos Osorio’s players were doing all they could not to. Japan might have blown it, too, right at the end, but got there by the skin of its teeth. Everyone else failed: some narrowly, some spectacularly, but all — sadly — predictably.Between them, Africa, Asia and the Concacaf region sent 13 teams to this tournament. Those teams combined to win 10 games. But Mexico and Japan were the only representatives from those regions to make it out of the group stage, and they both fell in the round of 16. It fits the pattern: in the five World Cups this century, there have been 40 slots available in the quarterfinals. Teams outside Europe and South America have claimed only five.Privately, at least one coach here confided that it is all but impossible for African and Asian teams to compete with Europe, in particular.
Partly, of course, that is a legacy of political, economic and social exploitation — either through the depredations of colonialism or the distorting effects of soccer’s transfer market — but it does not necessarily explain why large, rich Asian nations make so little impression.Whatever the cause, the World Cup cannot risk three of its confederations fading into irrelevance. In that light, FIFA’s deeply unpopular decision to expand the tournament may not be quite the disaster most expect. The motivation for the change may be purely financial, but that does not mean there will not be a sporting impact, too.Africa, in particular, has always suffered because its qualification process is so brutal: good teams miss out because there are so few spots available that even the slightest mistake is punished in a way that does not happen in Europe. Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Cameroon would hardly have been out of their depth here.For Asia and Concacaf, the issue is more complex. Watching Panama and Saudi Arabia, it was hard to see how adding more teams would do anything other than dilute the quality of the competition, create more hopeless mismatches, foster more humiliation.In the short term, that is likely to be true; in the long run, it is to be hoped that exposure to the elite will raise standards across the board. The World Cup’s next few years will be difficult: first Qatar, then expansion. That does not mean, however, that the glory days are definitely over. Russia 2018 might have been the best World Cup for years. This will not necessarily be the last time we say that.
© 2018 The New York Times Company.