Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2018

Les Bleus Remporte La Coupe Du Monde

In the days before this weekend’s conclusion of the World Cup soccer aficionados began to debate whether the 2018 edition of this quadrennial tournament was the best one ever. There will be no effort to weigh in on that discussion in this space; On Sports and Life doesn’t pretend to follow international football closely enough nor be sufficiently familiar with all that happened in the twenty previous World Cups to offer an opinion. Apparently the 1982 tournament, played in Spain and won by Italy with a 3-1 victory over Germany in the final match, is generally accorded pride of place in the historical rankings, though no doubt there are plenty of devoted fans and seasoned analysts eager to make the case for some other year. As is always the case with any such ranking in any of our games, whether about individual players or teams or, as in this case, specific events, the actual significance of establishing a pecking order over the course of decades pales next to the nerdish enjoyment of arguing in support of one’s personal favorite.

Even if hindsight and the eventual consensus places 2018 in second or third place, that the debate is even taking place is surely good news for soccer and a welcome relief for FIFA. Any sport is boosted by a well-run showcase, filled with drama and a hearty helping of the unexpected, and this World Cup provided plenty of both. As for the organizing body, not yet free of the taint of the massive corruption scandal that has convulsed FIFA since the spring of 2015, a month in which the focus has been on the pitch and not the courtroom can only be counted as good news.

Whatever the long view of this World Cup, what immediately stands out are the ways in which it reflected a changing game. The next two tournaments, in 2022 in Qatar and 2026 in North America, will be very different tournaments, irrespective of the state of soccer. Four years from now fans will again be reminded of all the corruption allegations, as the World Cup moves to December and is staged in the tiny Persian Gulf oil state that will be by far the smallest nation ever to host the tournament. Then in 2026 the Cup will expand to 48 teams, a move that is marketed with language about growing the game, but which looks mostly like a money grab by ever voracious FIFA, one that will inevitably dilute the quality of play and, depending on decisions about Group Stage format, raise the serious possibility of collusion among teams vying for the Knockout Round.

So, before the story becomes the tournament itself, perhaps it was good to have a World Cup in which the story was the state of the game. The principal headline out of Russia was that soccer remains a team sport. For all the focus on individuals, especially at the club level of the sport where stars move from team to team for untold millions in transfer fees, team play carried the day at this World Cup.

Yes, the French teenage Kylian Mbappe emerged as a star for the eventual champions, and the veteran Luka Modric was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player after leading his Croatia side to the final. But the teams with the game’s two biggest stars, Portugal and Argentina, both limped into the Knockout Round, and neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi could carry his squad past the round of 16. Neymar and Brazil went one game further, but in the quarterfinals the Selação were outplayed by Belgium.

In Russia the team play that was rewarded was that of fully balanced squads, not the glamor franchises that were expected to prevail. Before play even began pundits predicted this weekend would be a glorious one for German sports fans. It was indeed, 1,500 miles west of Moscow at the Wimbledon women’s final, where Angelique Kerber defeated Serena Williams on Saturday. But at the World Cup pre-tournament favorite Germany finished dead last in its group. Just like Brazil, Spain also was sent to the sidelines early in the second half of the tournament. It was the less heralded teams like Belgium, England and Croatia that played on. Backers of Les Bleu no doubt thought of the French team as a global power before the tournament, but in truth it was only by winning its second World Cup that France ascended to the sports’ top tier.

It was also a World Cup decided by set pieces more than ever before. Almost half the goals were scored off a dead ball, with teams given the chance to run a predetermined play off a corner or free kick. Perhaps the prettiest set piece of all was the one that allowed Germany to escape Sweden during the Group Stage, about the only highlight of the tournament for Die Mannschaft. That increased reliance on orchestrated plays from a dead ball also levels the playing field. In the flow of a constantly moving game, the technically superior side will almost always eventually prevail. But a game decided by two or three planned plays can go either way.

That 19-year-old Mbappe was the dynamic star of the month was fitting as a reminder that, as in every sport, change is constant. If this was not the last World Cup for Ronaldo and Messi and Modric, it was surely the final time they will appear as dominant players.

Then in the end, in Sunday’s final match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, this World Cup reminded fans of one of life’s oldest truths – that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.  If one guessed the outcome of the final by looking at the statistics of the match, the nod would go to a historic victory by Croatia, the second smallest country ever to send a squad through to the final. The Vatreni controlled play for most of the contest. Croatia dominated in ball possession with 61%, had six corner kicks to France’s two, nearly doubled Les Bleu in total shots, and committed fewer fouls.

But only one statistic determines the winner, and the ball wound up in Croatia’s net four times, while settling in France’s just twice. In the eighteenth minute Mario Mandžukić diverted a free kick into his own net to put Les Bleus in front. Ten minutes later Croatia equalized, but France took the lead for good on a penalty kick after video review clearly showed a Croatian hand ball shortly before the half. France added two more goals in the second half, the last by Mbappe, before French netminder Hugo Lloris returned the favor of Croatia’s first half gaffes by flubbing an easy clear that allowed Mandžukić to score.

That’s how a compelling World Cup ended, 4-2 for France’s second title, even as the skies opened and the two teams and their fans celebrated or mourned in the rain. Whether or not it was the best tournament ever, 2018 offered drama, upsets, and a comprehensive look at the current state of the globe’s most popular game.

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