It’s been a fun World Cup, no doubt about that. Watching some of the big boys leave the playground with a bloody nose before the bell rings has been entertaining. But… There is a sense that, like a kid playing with matches who has set the curtains ablaze, things have gone a bit too far. That we could all do with a few heavyweight bouts from here on in.
We already know that one of England, Sweden, Croatia and Russia will make the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday week so its probably safe to say that there are very few of us keeping the fingers crossed that Uruguay can somehow navigate a way through France, Brazil, and Belgium from the top side of the draw.
Underdogs and dark horses are fine, up to a point. They’re that slightly eccentric relative or neighbour you’ll gladly have for a cup of tea with while mindful that you don’t want to lose the entire day to them either. There are shades in all this of 2002, when France and Argentina got stuck in the blocks and Turkey and South Korea made the semis.
We can protest otherwise but let’s not kid ourselves. We’re suckers for the stars.
The FA Cup has long lost its hold on the imagination but the 2007-08 campaign stands out, not so much for the glee that met Barnsley’s defeats of Liverpool and Chelsea and Manchester United’s exit at the hands of Portsmouth, but the sense of anti-climax when little Pompey ended up facing second-tier Cardiff City in the final.
The great British public was certainly underwhelmed.
Only 7.3m tuned in on the BBC that day. The ratings had touched 10m just 12 months earlier when Manchester United faced Chelsea while the 12.8m that took in the meeting of United and Arsenal sides at their peak in 2005 was the highest figure for the blue riband event in two decades.
So, we can smirk at the German team bus with that ‘Let’s write history together’ slogan making for the airport and a flight home after the country’s first group stage exit at a World Cup since 1938, but there is clearly an element of being careful what we wish for as we exult in that bitchy brand of schadenfreude.
What this World Cup could really do with is a team to capture the imagination.
This may be harsh but the French side of 1998 has a decent claim to be the last World Cup winners to truly strike a chord with the world.
And this was a team that, given it was stuck with Stephane Guivarc’h up front, is remembered for its celebrated multiculturalism as much as the quality of its football.
Even the great Spanish side of recent times left a curiously limp footprint on the history of this competition. Having lost 1-0 to Switzerland in their opening group game in 2010, they knitted their way skilfully but metronomically to victory in the final against the Netherlands having scored just eight goals in their seven games.
It’s that kind of detail that makes you wonder whether the growing band of punters picking holes in the quality of the teams at this latest edition have any knowledge at all of football history.
Haven’t major tournaments been littered with examples of far-from-great sides reaching finals and, in some cases, going all the way?
From the West Germans that avenged an 8-3 defeat to Hungary in 1954 by winning the final when the pair met a fortnight later, to the Greek team that somehow, inexplicably accounted for France, the Czech Republic and Portugal in the 2004 European Championship, champions have more often been decent or very good rather than great.
Which brings us back to France.
Lucky against Australia and laboured against Peru, they clocked in for a perfunctory stalemate with the Danes in the last group game before finding some ‘joie de vivre’ against Argentina last Saturday. That spell lasted no more than 45 second-half minutes but it was bewitching beyond anything else seen so far.
Brazil still carry the mantle of favourites, but they are more Dunga’s Class of ’94 than the icons of 1970 with the chicanery of Neymar and increasing maturity of Coutinho adding a touch of gloss to an organised collective with a defence that puts you in mind of the lauded 1985 Chicago Bears.
The sense with the French in Samara after they went 2-1 down to Argentina was that of a gambler down to the last few chips who decided to bet it all on a pair of twos and they were so much the better and more fluid for it. The hope is that they pay heed to the lesson and retain at least some of that sense of freedom.
Didier Deschamps has the youngest French World Cup side since 1930 in his hands, players of a rare calibre in Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, and Paul Pogba, and a squad that was sufficiently strong to leave Anthony Martial, Karim Benzema, and Anthony Rabiot with a summer of their own choosing.
Here’s hoping the really fun stuff has only started.
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