So here we are, after an entire glorious month of international football it all comes to an end this evening in the final clash between France and Croatia.
This has been a World Cup which has delivered many firsts. The introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), challenges to our perceptions of the host country built up through prior mainstream news coverage and an England team the nation could FINALLY get behind.
Above all else, this has perhaps been the best World Cup for an entire generation – purely on a sporting and entertainment level.
I’m not just saying this because England reached the semi-finals – admittedly it does factor into this opinion – World Cups tend to be fun fare, even when the Three Lions are playing well below par, Brazil 2014 is a good example.
But there was something about this World Cup in particular, which has been much more special and entertaining than tournaments of the past. Not for nothing, but this World Cup should be placed in the ranks of USA 94 and France 98.
This year we were treated to goals galore, outrageous tekkers, incredible comebacks and real-life David versus Goliath stories. Russia kicking things off with a 5-0 stomping of Saudi Arabia was a precursor to how this tournament would unfold. The next day we were treated to a thrilling 3-3 spectacle from Spain and Portugal – or should that be Spain and Cristiano Ronaldo?
When Ronaldo struck that late free kick into the back of the Spain net I knew this was going to be a tournament for the ages. One of those ‘where were you?’ moments. We were in the pub next to our office and as CR7 was running up to strike that ball the bloody TV cut out. Five seconds later I’m seeing him run up to the corner flag to do his signature celebration – do we have a name for it BTW?
We also saw underdogs Japan and Mexico defy expectations as they beat favourites Colombia and Germany in their group games. Shock upsets were to become par for the course in Russia this summer.
Germany provided us with a last-gasp escape in their added time win against Sweden just when we thought they’d been eliminated in their first two games, and then South Korea provided us with the shock of the century sending the four-time winners home in the group stage for the first time in history with their surprise 2-0 defeat.
Despite one case of schadenfreude you felt the pain of the teams knocked out. Japan, in particular, agonisingly close to reaching their first ever quarter-final, were beaten 3-2 at the death by Belgium with literally the final kick of the game.
It was the dawning of a new age of football icons and while it’s too soon to write the international career obituaries of Messi and Ronaldo but there was a sense this would be their final bows on the big stage both in the round of 16.
Argentina’s 4-3 defeat to Les Bleus signalled the sun setting on the old guard and the dawning of the new – in particular, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé who is on course to being crowned player of the tournament. He wasn’t even born when his manager Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup in 1998, and now he and the tricolour are one step closer to delivering the country’s second. All that stands in their way is Croatia – led by the talismanic trio of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandžukić.
Which brings us swiftly and conveniently to England. Prior to this tournament, when was the last time you could honestly say you could get behind the national team in a tournament? For me, it was Japan/South Korea 2002. Every tournament after that has been the equivalent of a led balloon sinking into the ocean.
After the last Euros (you know the one where we got beat by Iceland a few days after Brexit) I had to assess my relationship with the England team and international football in general. I was pretty much done. It’s something I say after each tournament, but I honestly felt this was it for me and England at the time. Being an Arsenal fan was hard enough already.
Of course, come 2018 the buzz was back but the expectations were mediocre at best. Then something happened which I didn’t expect – and I doubt any of you lot did either. Gareth Southgate and his men got the nation to believe again. Not in a ‘jacked-up, let’s believe the hype way’. More a ‘we’ll be better than previous teams’ way. But few were ready for how much better they would be.
First game: 2-1 against Tunisia – standard. Second game: 6-1 against Panama including a hat-trick for skipper Harry Kane – qualified, beautiful, but expected. Third game: a 1-0 loss to Belgium – whatever, we got the easier route through the knockout stages and a date with Colombia.
That’s when the surreal began to happen.
Tuesday, July 3, where were you? Where were you when a nation finally exorcised their demons? As we endured another gruelling penalty shootout, only this time for the script to be rewritten. As Pickford slapped away Carlos Bacca’s penalty and Eric Dier slotted his away a nation let out an exuberant cheer of relief and euphoria. Beers went up in the air, friends old and new were being hugged. England had won their first ever World Cup penalty shootout.
We swept through Sweden in the quarter-finals 2-0 and the belief it was coming home became so real. But the footballing Gods are cruel and it wasn’t meant to be. As you all know Croatia put up a better fight than we expected. The curse of English hope returned. So it was back to being miserable… for about 20 minutes.
Hindsight kicked in, Harry Kane and co. got further than any of us expected, and our nation – divided day-by-day through class, wealth and political ideals – were able to put their differences to one side for five weeks and come together in unison. For once we were able to forget about the cluster-f*** that is Brexit and the visit of a certain President of the United States.
As I walked home on Wednesday I thought to myself how nice it felt to believe in a national team which played for the shirt and connected with its fans. Sure the pain of not reaching another World Cup final hurt, but it was cathartic. It felt so refreshing to feel this way again and I could take solace in knowing that this was only the beginning of this young and talented England team.
For once I didn’t dread the future of international football. This time I was staring back at the abyss, eagerly waiting for what Euro 2020 and beyond had in store for the Three Lions.
While I’m under no illusions the country won’t fall back into old habits – because it’s easier to hate than it is to love – it is remarkable how sport can bring a nation divided together.
the England fans in the stadium right now, don’t look back in anger ???????❤️ pic.twitter.com/Ldw0TlBWJk
— t (@louvinglyharry) July 11, 2018
The same applies to France and Croatia, as they are nations with their own troubles and issues respectively. This tournament has offered their nations the briefest of respite.
The argument as to whether sport should, or shouldn’t, be used to prop up a political agenda or a form of protest is a moral grey area. It’s a subject for another article. But what it should do is serve as a release and a well-meaning distraction from the shithousery which politicians inflict on us in our day-to-day life.
This above all else is why this has been the greatest World Cup ever.
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