We live in a complex world, a multifarious world of politics and one-upmanship where every move is played with caution, every piece moved with a particular vision for the future already planned.
Sporting events — while providing nations a chance to glow in the collective glory of success and accomplishments that can gloss over the troubles that plague every country — can also be used as a medium to promote an agenda, to pass on a larger message to the world, changing the global opinion on many regimes who otherwise struggle to be on the right side of the perception battle.
The Olympics and the football World Cup are as much about the athletes and the results as they are about the chess moves by the power elites who use these marquee events to mould strategic advantages — both short and long term. However, the best laid plans can often not work as the universe not always agrees to be a part of these conspiracies. And results, both on and off the field, can go haywire, making every pundit, every powerbroker look like a fool — in no touch with the reality he claims to know and govern.
The on field actions from Russia 2018 — as indicated by Sportstar at the start of the quadrennial — were impossible to call and many a heavyweight name of world football failed to live up to his tag, leaving fans disappointed. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta and many more caught their flights early as the World Cup spawned surprises aplenty. Tiny nations — with little or no football pedigree — benefitted from the communication-led narrowing of the world, imbibing the knowledge of elite world football available to anyone who shows enough enthusiasm to get the best out of the resources available. Cohesive teams, without going for the spectacular feats of individual brilliance did better in this World Cup which had enough storylines to keep one interested despite the rather mediocre quality of football on display. Defensive organisation and pragmatism won games here even as ball-playing players and possession-hungry teams struggled with the opposition finding ways to hurt them with quick counters and strikes from set-pieces. 71 goals came from dead-ball situations — a World Cup record — and Andy Roxburgh, a part of FIFA’s Technical Study Group said: “Set pieces turned out to be an important asset at this World Cup. In the previous Champions League season, 45 corner kicks led to one goal on average; here at the World it was 30 corner kicks to one goal. That shows efficiency, speed of action and thought.”
France, not one of the early favourites, though a footballing giant, gained from the tight ship run by its manager Didier Deschamps. It was also happy to cede possession to maintain its defensive shape. France relied on the pace and ability of its marauding front trio with the young Kylian Mbappe particularly impressing in the 4-3 win over fancied Argentina and then again against Croatia as he became the first teenager — since Pele in 1958 — to score in the World Cup final.
“The teams which had maximum levels of possession were punished by fast forwards in this World Cup. When you defend well you can benefit from counters, set pieces. I don’t know if was a beautiful World Cup, but it was athletically a difficult World Cup,” Deschamps said. “France is the world champion and it means we did things better than others. The question is if France is a beautiful champion, it doesn’t matter as we are the world champion and we will be for the next four years.”
France curbed its attacking instincts and did defend better than most in this competition, just trailing once during the tournament — for eight minutes against Argentina in the pre-quarterfinals — and the triumph, its second world title, has filled the nation — which is grappling, like many of its neighbours, with the growing influx of immigrants from the African shores and the debate about their proper integration into the system — with hope.
The growing disenchantment of the immigrant class — a majority of the France team are first or second-generation settlers from Africa — and the lack of opportunity available has eroded the admiration for centrist President Emmanuel Macron, the latest Gallup Poll showing his popularity down to 41 percent. Macron was there to make the most of the win, cheering his rainbow team from the stands at the Luzhniki Stadium and soaking in the almost biblical rain that followed the title triumph.
The message was similar from Croatia, where Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic — coming from the right side of the political divide — used every opportunity to be seen with the team, stoking a nationalistic fervour that can very well now deliver electoral advantages.
This was indeed a Cup of European geopolitics, perfectly staged by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who won the perception battle, projecting a very new and very flattering image of his country, which was either earlier unavailable or obscured by the propaganda of the Western press. Even protests by LGBT communities or members of the Pussy Riot Band in the final failed to tarnish the image of Russia, which has come across as a merry, friendly and safe place and not the overtly security state that all of us had earlier envisaged. It’s still an authoritarian state, but a state where everybody looked genuinely invested in the image his/her country portrayed.
It was only natural that European teams did the best in such settings.
The team from Galle and the Balkan nation were among the four from Europe making it to the semifinals as the 15 European nations with most of their players playing in the elite leagues that dot the continent enjoyed this narrowing of gap at the top with Sweden, Croatia and host Russia making the most of the opportunity to stitch performances that looked beyond their means at the start of the tournament. Only five teams from outside Europe made it to the knockout rounds, with just two of them qualifying for the last eight.
The Africa teams were the biggest disappointment with all failing to move past the group stage. Former Cameroon international Emmanuel Amunike, spelling out the problems with African teams, said: ‘The World Cup was a disappointment for African teams because the expectations were much higher. Football has developed a lot and it will continue to change. If we don’t embrace youth development and just continue to dream then we won’t be successful. Raw talent alone doesn’t give you good results. We have the responsibility to not just rely on talent but teach the young players how to anticipate and read the game.”
The growing economic and social disparity of the continent compared to the world has now started to showcase in the sporting field as well with Africa falling further behind in stitching cohesion both in sports and politics despite the abundance of human talent and natural resources.
The South American and Asian storyline too looked muddled as teams from the regions failed to ensure their stay till the business end of the tournament.
Still, heroes emerged in the never-say-die attitude of the Croatian team perfectly embodied by the diminutive Luka Mordic and the powerful running of Ivan Perisic or the tactical annihilation of Brazil powered by the very creative Belgium spearheaded by the English Premier League stars Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. The EPL, the richest League in the world, was heavily involved in the World Cup with 33 players from England’s elite competition being part of the four semifinalists, despite the country’s politicians’ obdurate view of boycotting Russia even as a young national team reached the semifinals of the world event for the first time since 1990.
It was a World Cup of many defeats and many more wins and as FIFA President Gianni Infantino said football cannot solve all problems. But the game can and will be used for many gains and many more ends. And hopefully, the lessons will be more often positive for humanity at large.
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