At the end, France were the worthy winners of a magnificent World Cup, which the FIFA president Gianni Infantino described as the “best-ever”. Croatia punched above their weight and had a golden run in the tournament, and they might still be smarting over the controversial penalty that tilted the balance in France’s favour in the final. But when the dust settles, Zlatko Dalic and his boys would admit that they lost to a superior side. Croatia were the better team in the first half. But they eventually ran out of legs.
From the fans’ point of view, it was indeed a World Cup to remember. A total of 169 goals had been scored in 64 matches – an average 2.6 goals per match. The tournament gave us only one goalless draw – a group league fixture between France and Denmark, where both sides had been booed off. And exhilaratingly, unlike the previous two editions, the final, too, wasn’t a cagey affair. This World Cup actually revelled in the trickle-down effect of the positive and forward-thinking approach in club football in the top European leagues. The philosophy of the Guardiolas, the Klopps and the Sarris has changed the whole outlook towards the game. Winning without style is no longer appreciated.
This World Cup also ushered in a generational shift. Kylian Mbappe, only 19, and the young player of the tournament, sizzled. Lionel Messi’s dreams, on the other hand, fizzled. Cristiano Ronaldo, too, slowed down a bit after a scintillating start. Messi would be 35 in 2022, while Ronaldo would turn 37. So even if the two greats turn up in Qatar, their best years would be behind them.
France, though, should build on their World Cup triumph and dominate world football for the next few years. A side that boasts of the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, N’Golo Kante, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti – all in their 20s – will only get better. Mbappe, the kid, has the world at his feet.
Brazil can match France, talent-wise. They were a tad unlucky to lose against Belgium in the quarterfinal. Belgium had only three shots on target and they scored twice. Brazil, on the other hand, had 23 goal-scoring attempts. After being taken aback by the Belgium manager Roberto Martinez’s formation switch – Kevin de Bruyne as a false-nine, with Romelu Lukaku in a wide role – the Selecao came back strongly in the second half. At one point, it became Team Brazil versus Thibaut Courtois. Woodwork denied them once. Another referee might have awarded them a penalty for Vincent Kompany’s mistimed challenge on Gabriel Jesus inside the Belgian box. Brazil didn’t get the rub of the green, but the young team have a bright future ahead.
Uruguay, too, impressed. They badly missed Edinson Cavani against France in the quarterfinal. But their performance showed serious progress. Argentina, however, will have to get out of Messi’s shadow. This is their biggest challenge, going into the next World Cup. And Germany must reboot, like they did following their Euro 2000 group stage elimination.
Belgium thrived on their golden generation, but they are not yet a complete side like France or Brazil. Gareth Southgate unfettered England and took the Three Lions to the semifinal. A corner has been turned but this is just the beginning.
The Asian teams gave a good account of themselves. Japan reached the knockout stage and had Belgium on the brink. South Korea beat Germany. But the Asian teams still have a long way to go to be a on a par with the world elite. Africa had a disappointing World Cup.
By the way, the VAR was a success despite controversies. It’s a step in the right direction. At a nascent stage, it was always prone to odd blips. But things will get better. When Apple-1, a desktop computer, was launched in 1976, it didn’t have the precision and performance of a MacBook Pro. We need to look at the VAR from that perspective.