WHAT do we want from a great World Cup?
That the best team should win it, with flair as well as tactical excellence.
That there should be several thrilling matches – and that one of them should be the final.
That there should be many great individual talents on show.
That it should be hosted by a nation which embraces the tournament, which is both welcoming and efficient so that hundreds of thousands of passionate fans can travel and mingle with ease.
We’d also hope that this, the pinnacle of the world game, should feel like a significant point in football’s wider journey – a shift in generations, perhaps, and a showcase for what’s new.
Finally and parochially, we’d hope that England should grace the greatest show on Earth rather than act as human stink-bombs as they have too often in recent years.
Well, if those are the factors which make a great World Cup then Russia 2018 was a truly great one – easily the best of the five I have covered and almost certainly the best since Diego Maradona ruled the
Azteca in 1986.
Sunday’s final chalked off the final two on that check-list – France were the best all-round team, with some of the most mesmerising individuals in the tournament.
Kylian Mbappe lit up the place with the pace of Usain Bolt and the grace of Roger Federer.
Antoine Griezmann was both ruthlessly effective and engagingly eye-catching.
Paul Pogba showed us why Manchester United paid a world-record fee for him but also why Jose Mourinho should trust him more.
And N’Golo Kante, who famously covered the third of the Earth’s surface not taken up by oceans during Leicester City’s Premier League title win, pretty much walked on water here. What an engine, what an
eye, what a player.
France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final exemplified this World Cup as the whole – there was brilliance and bedlam, drama and controversy and some very tasty goals too.
Croatia were worthy finalists and, but for the VAR decision which swung the final towards France, they might have carried off the trophy.
In Luka Modric they had the competition’s outstanding player, a majestic midfielder at the peak of his game, who was a deserving winner of the FIFA Golden Ball.
Belgium’s Eden Hazard was magnificent too, with Romelu Lukaku showing more obvious potency than Harry Kane – who won the Golden Boot with three penalties, one fluke and two from corners in England’s opening victory over Tunisia.
To be at any World Cup is to experience football’s power for uniting people in a way nothing else on God’s Earth can manage.
Except, of course, for the English. The rest of the world will still always tell us we’re arrogant even when we bend over backwards not to be.
But all that worldwide melting-pot stuff sounds like a cliche until you attend one of these carnivals, then it becomes an inescapable fact.
International football is never going to be as technically proficient as the business end of the Champions League or a crack fixture in La Liga.
But the sheer passion for it displayed by players is easy to forget between tournaments, yet impossible to mistake when you’re marvelling at it.
Croatia exemplified this. They came from behind in every knock-out match and were propelled with extraordinary zeal by a nation of just 4.5million.
Even before the final, this tournament served up several classic matches – Spain v Portugal was a belter, Belgium v Japan as dramatic a finale as you could see, while France v Argentina was not just the best of the bunch but also seemed to signal as a baton-pass between generations.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were both sent packing on that same middle Saturday – just as Mbappe announced himself as a new-age global superstar with the burst of pace which won a penalty and the grace with which he later scored himself.
The 2018 World Cup threw up some intriguing stories too – Spain sacking Juan Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament and Germany exiting at the group stage for the first time in history.
And while VAR’s supporters claim it proved an overall success, the system added to the sheer mayhem of the Spain-Iran and Portugal-Morocco matches at the climax to Group A, as well as providing a chaotic turning point for the final.
England, of course, were an absolute treat. A joined-up, grown-up, loved-up team who exceeded expectations and united a fractious nation.
They’re still nowhere near a great side but theirs was a great campaign.
Their star turns, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford, exemplified the down-to-Earth in-touch-with-their-roots narrative which Gareth Southgate and the FA were so keen to push.
England were less than half an hour from immortality when they led their semi-final against Croatia, having already made history with their first penalty shoot-out victory at a World Cup, after growing
hairs on their chests in an epic street fight against Colombia.
Beyond all the FIFA corruption and the evils of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and the myriad of reasons why they should never have actually staged it, Russia put on an extravagant party.
The rank-and-file Russian people were magnificent hosts. They were generous, welcoming, smiling wreckers of lazy Western stereotypes.
Their nation is as rich in history, culture and beauty as their oligarchs are in cash.
Their underdog team had a fine run to a quarter-final penalty shoot-out – however much we might wonder about Saudi Arabia’s performance in their 5-0 opening hammering or the ability of an ageing Russian team to dominate the running stats in a state which has sponsored doping programmes.
Russian fans supported the entire tournament but the foreign audience was overwhelmingly Latin American – Mexicans, Colombians, Brazilians, Argentinians and especially the tens of thousands of trip-of-a-lifetime Peruvians all still seemed to be in Moscow for the final too.
You’d imagine there will be Peruvians lost in Moscow’s magnificent Metro system weeks or even months from now.
Even though their team exited at the group stage, they’re still riding on every carriage and propping up every bar in their white shirts with red sashes, their team having qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 1982.
Their team chose a pretty good one to make it to. What a swell party it was.