My first World Cup memories go back to 1966 when I would have been 10 and at a stage in my childhood where I was really becoming obsessed with football.
While some of my recollection of detail would be a bit sketchy after all these years, I can still clearly remember England winning and the brilliance of Bobby Charlton, Pele literally getting kicked out of the tournament, and Eusebio emerging as one of the world greats.
As a lover of football and as a player who tried over more than a dozen years to help Ireland qualify for a place on the greatest stage of all, the World Cup has always loomed large in my life, so it pleases me very much to be able to say that I regard Russia 2018 as the best tournament I have seen since the famous one in Mexico in 1970 when Pele bounced back from the disappointment of four years earlier as the iconic figure in a celebrated Brazil side which, playing a dazzling brand of football, won the Jules Rimet for the third time.
There might not have been any team of such outstanding quality in Russia but for drama, excitement, attacking football, memorable goals and enthralling games, in my opinion there has been nothing since 1970 to compare to this.
Which is not to say that all is rosy in the garden of world football. One troubling question arising out of this tournament is whether there are any new players coming along who will be able take over from the likes of Ronaldo and Messi and Iniesta and Xavi.
It’s a question with serious implications for Irish football too because I have long worried that we are simply not producing the level of talent that we have done in the past.
Scotland is a glaring example of a worrying slide.
England too, despite the fact that they’ve done well in this tournament, are lacking in world-class talent. Harry Kane is a brilliant goal-scorer but, in the semi-final defeat to Croatia, I think we saw that he can’t really be ranked up there with the very best players in the world.
Similarly, Eden Hazard can do terrific things in a game but he still remains a couple of rungs below the true greats, while Kylian Mbappe, for all the precocious qualities he possesses, has yet to prove he will be able to deliver consistently at the highest level. And after Brazil’s exit, there have to be serious questions about whether Neymar has the professionalism to take his talent to where Messi and Ronaldo have taken theirs.
Happily, tomorrow’s final will play host to two of the outstanding personalities of this World Cup. N’Golo Kante and Luka Modric are also two of the smallest players playing the game and yet they have simply towered over everyone they have come up against in midfield in Russia.
They are very different, of course. Kante is a defensive midfielder with a great tactical brain. If he is asked to do a job on someone he will do it but without resorting to nasty tackles or cynical play. No-one is better at making interceptions and, when we does get the ball, his ability to read the game means he can play quick, positive passes to get his team-mates into space and on the attack.
Modric does his fair share of defensive work too but his real value is as the visionary playmaker in the Croatian team. He’s the orchestra conductor to whom the rest of his team-mates look for instruction and inspiration and, for me, the fascinating battle between him and Kante will go a long way to determining the destination of the trophy this year.
In a tournament where there has often been little or nothing between quite a few of the teams, France and Croatia are deserving finalists.
The French have probably got more individual quality spread throughout their side and they have also reached the final with rather less stress than the Croatians who had to come back from going behind and extend themselves through extra-time in all their knockout games.
But what that shows is that they possess character in abundance, something that was especially clear in the way they recovered from a difficult first 45 against England to come off the ropes in the second half and take control of the game.
Speaking of England, not beating Belgium in their final group game worked hugely in their favour in terms of being able to reach the last four. Had they ended up in the other side of the draw, I think they would have gone home earlier.
Yes, they were organised and had a good spirit about them but, ultimately, their limitations were exposed against Croatia.
Not enough chances were created for Kane in Wednesday’s game, with Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and, when he came off the bench, Marcus Rashford all failing to deliver the creativity that was required.
Again, we’re back to the lack of even one world-class talent in the side, as perhaps most vividly illustrated in midfield where Jordan Henderson, a worthy operator but not much more, was utterly eclipsed by Modric.
Yes, Gareth Southgate’s team have age on their side but, on the basis of what we have seen of them in Russia, I wouldn’t be as optimistic as all those who seem to assume that their youthfulness means they can only get better.
Meanwhile, this has been a World Cup which has also seen past winners laid low.
Age catches up with everyone eventually and, in Russia, it definitely caught up with the 2010 and 2014 champions, Spain and Germany.
That and the fact that neither team had a centre-forward. Fernando Torres was the last really potent striker Spain have been able to call on. Diego Costa bashes people about but he can’t really link up the play. That puts an even greater responsibility on the midfield but we had already seen at Barcelona this season that Iniesta is no longer the great player he was in his prime. At the back too, I think we can say Ramos and Pique have seen their best days.
Like Spain, Germany also badly lacked a goalscorer.
With Miroslav Klose long gone and Thomas Muller seemingly over the hill, they had to rely on the limited skillset of Mario Gomez.
In midfield, Toni Kroos was effectively on his own. Sami Khedira was poor and as for Mesut Ozil, well, don’t talk to me about Mesut Ozil. All I will say is that, before this World Cup kicked off, I’d already had my fill of watching him playing for Arsenal.
On a much more positive note, one of the surprise successes of Russia 2018, at least for me, has been the introduction of VAR. I was sceptical beforehand but I’m a convert now, not least because of its positive impact in helping eliminate the pulling and dragging in the penalty area at corner kicks which has been the bane of football for so long.
I still think the authorities could improve things by allowing us to eavesdrop on how the referee reaches his decision. If they don’t, there will always be conspiracy theories, a concern that a decision might be based more on a player’s or a team’s reputation.
VAR has been shown to be right 90% of the time but a few things have been missed as well, and that does leave people wondering why. And if we can’t hear them talking about it, as in rugby, we’re going to continue to be left in the dark.
However as I said at the outset, the very best thing about this World Cup has been the thrilling nature of so many of the games. But whether tomorrow’s final will live up to what’s gone before, I’m not so sure. Both teams can be cautious in how they approach games, particularly France as they showed in their semi-final against Belgium.
Once they scored, they put the emphasis on defending their lead which, I have to say, they did in a tremendously disciplined and effective fashion.
I think that, as a former World Cup-winning midfielder himself, Didier Deschamps has been a big influence on how disciplined Paul Pogba has been in this tournament, something we haven’t always seen from him when he plays for Manchester United.
Pogba against Rakitic will be one of the key battles tomorrow as will, as I have already mentioned, Modric v Kante. And there are other intriguing match-ups.
How will the Croatian defence cope with the blistering pace of Mbappe and, at the other end, will the French rearguard be able to stand up to the physicality of Mandzukic, Perisic, and Rebic?
My heart wants Croatia to win. The story of this country of four million people, a young country with a troubled history, is an incredible one. Yugoslavia was always a great football nation and Croatia carry that torch now. But while I would love to see them win the World Cup for the first time, my head is telling me that a fresher France, if they make the most of the individual talent they have, will probably shade it.
It might not be the most sensational game of what has been a wonderfully entertaining World Cup but I’m pretty sure it will be nothing less than absorbing.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved