In the end the final was a microcosm of Russia 2018, a barnburner of a contest in which both teams went at it like kids in the school yard, and with a dose of VAR thrown in. Not since 1974 have we seen three goals in the first half of a final. That old terrace staple, ‘attack, attack, attack’ could go the way of the Sunday sermon should club football take its cue from the ravishing upgrade in template.
What a pity VAR is not to be rolled out in in Scotland and England next season. If nothing else it would give the pundits something to sink their veneers into at half time. Alan Shearer morphed into Buster Blood Vessel so convinced was he that Nestor Pitana was in error in identifying Ivan Perisic as a basketballer in the box. It will always be divisive since the referee must interpret the act. The point is the offence was interrogated, which is a huge advance.
The introduction of technology and the front-foot football transformed the World Cup experience. The real surprise, indeed charm, was the way Russia restated the credentials of an international game thought moribund under the advance of club football. Like the fans who travelled in great number, draping Red Square and the arteries feeding out of Russia’s capital city in 50 shades of colour, the players, too, have been fully invested in the tournament.
In a number of ways, the World Cup has stripped the game back to fundamentals, and in so doing reminded us why we love it. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. This was a tournament brought to Russia by a regime engaged in the greatest perversion of the sporting ideal in the history of competition [Sochi Olympic drug scandal], and a governing body, Fifa, riven by corruption on an industrial scale. Yet somehow, between them, Russia and Fifa fluked a winner.
The material circumstances underpinning this rebirth were created by the avaricious march of the club game, super-rich Champion League clubs siphoning off the talent and producing a competition that recycles the same contenders every year. The Premier League likewise. Predictability is death to sport. Here we had 32 teams who had to make do with homegrown talent. There is no buying your way to World Cup nirvana, or out of the World Cup midden.
The shared identity and common interest that once characterised the great metropolitan teams, the sense of belonging and representation, has been reclaimed by the national teams in a way none predicted or thought possible. This is Russia’s great triumph. We shall have to see how the scene in Europe evolves through Uefa’s new League of Nations tournament, should it indeed restore the meaning that had ebbed from friendlies.
Whether the party atmosphere engendered in Russia survives is another fascinating question. From a purely anecdotal point of view I can vouch for the commonality of habit and purpose between peoples. The Muscovite men and women I met were engaged in the same mundane slog as we are. Strip away the politicians that stand between us and the world might be a better place. It remains to be seen if the state apparatus applies the same squeeze on liberty and public expression as it did before the many thousands of Mexicans, Colombians, Argentines and Brazilians brought carnival to the streets of Russia. I wonder, too, if the left-field rendition of the Benny Hill Show signature tune will have much of a life in the Moscow Metro now the football music has stopped. It certainly cheered up this traveller on the way back to the old Alekseevskaya billet from the Luzhniki.
Finally, Vladimir Putin meets Donald Trump in Helsinki today. It is another measure of the success of Russia 2018 that we can’t identify the bigger bogeyman, the Russian Premier or the President of the United States. That tension would have been unthinkable had Barack Obama been the liberal leader attending the pow-wow on behalf of the ‘West’. Sure, Trump is an easy hook on which to hang offence, but he is still the elected president of the biggest democracy on earth.
No wonder Putin was chuckling through the Luzhniki passing out parade. France believe theirs was definitive victory at this World Cup. Putin, stroking his cat all the way to Finland, begs to differ.