At the end of nearly a month of football extravaganza, now that the finalists have been decided and just before the most important clash, it is time to catch up with some of the lingering images. The shock defeat of holders Germany in the first match itself set the trend. In the initial league matches there were some refreshing talents on display. To those used to the English premier league and the German and Spanish ligas these young faces and their sprightliness were a breath of fresh air. Iran and Japan and Mexico and Peru were particularly interesting. But after the league and the knockout stages they seem to have lost steam and their freshness and most matches were reduced to defensive battles of attrition.
For experts and theorists they might have been fascinating, these mind games the coaches indulged in, most of them former players themselves. There were also the rival coaches, Martinez and Deschamps having played for France together. All this was interesting, but not for the lay fan.
As happens, from the knockout stage onward the tactics change and games become transformed into a battle of wits. As a result, goals had become scarce and most matches were won on a single goal margin, or during extra time or in the penalty shoot-out. It was amusing to watch players celebrating after scoring a penalty.The only hat-trick of the tournament was by Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. And he faded away thereafter.
After the knockout stage it was found there were no teams from Africa or Latin America or even Asia. It became a European affair, and even here favourites like Spain and Germany or the earlier dark horse Iceland did not figure. Just as Italy and Holland did not qualify for the main tournament, here too the semi-final line-up included two dark horses, Belgium and the late entrant, Croatia, that itself was born in 1992 from the breakaway Yugoslavia and admitted to FIFA six years later.
But the surprise package was Belgium which had at one time to struggle with two languages and many different identities. But they brought much enthusiasm and variation and that was not surprising because Roberto Martinez, ably assisted by Henry, no small name as France’s winger earlier, infused new variations in their style even when it was defensive. As a result their match against France was one of the most interesting. France had pedigree and style and they had last won the World Cup 20 years ago under Deschamps, beating Brazil in Paris by three goals. Before that under Platini too they had figured in the championship 1982 where, for the first time, television brought alive the matches into the drawing rooms.
Things have never been the same since then. According to one survey more women watch the matches now than ever before. And social media have been flooded with the trivia that the spin masters have been churning out. Digital artists have also been busy providing details, charts, powerpoints, bullets and other graphic pyrotechnics to make the game interesting and marketable.
Overnight every place is flooded with football experts and amateur coaches. Fashions and hairstyles are all geared towards this world event. Technology has also been summoned, and there are the video assisted referees (VAR) and coaching teams that look like space scientists with laptops and sign language and huge charts from which they instruct the greenhorn player who goes as substitute, the tactics.
The game has gone vertical, to use a marketing or management jargon. Now the ball doesn’t travel from one end to the other, lengthwise towards the goal posts. It is tapped vertically, breadth-wise, so you start wondering what is going on. You find the entire team except the goal keepers running through the middle and the rest of the field is vacant. This seems an improvement of the ‘truck tactic’ the Greeks have improvised and Mourinho perfected and employed to win the European championship sometime back. You pack the goal in front with nine players and it is hard to break through that wall. To counter that they evolved the set pieces. Here you score from a corner kick, or free kick outside the penalty box. This needs a lot of training and rehearsal. To make this dreary spectacle interesting the cameras start moving among the crowd and every emotion is captured graphically, a child about to burst into tears, a young woman jumping like a scalded rabbit, torsos of fat men from Trinidad or the Baltic region, Mexicans in huge straw hats...
Since the media have built up the excitement this has to be kept up and that becomes a problem when the players in the middle do not live up to the expectations. The commentators have to go on chatting in an excited voice and that becomes even more of a problem. Hence history is evoked, and psychologists step in to explain why some nations excel, and others remain laggards. Comparisons are made, whether Pele is greater than Giroud or Messi is better than Ronaldo. They pit one against the other, so you have Lukaku against Mbappe and Hazard against Pogba.
The visuals anyway make for great story. Football has become too technical and competitive and so homogenized it no longer has the spontaneity and surprise that it once had. And the reeling off of statistics makes for heft. So you have riveting details like France reaching the final for the third time and only two others, Germany and Italy, having done better before. Now the two of them are out much earlier. For Belgium, their semi-final defeat was the first international defeat since 2016 and France had beaten Belgium thrice before, more than any other team in any other competition.
More interesting are the goals scored; 44 per cent of the goals have come from set pieces, including penalties; despite possession of the ball for two-thirds of the time (66%) Belgium could only attempt nine shots at the goal and that is one short of what France did, ten. Griezmann had been directly involved in all the goals France scored, that is 20, and the break-up is 9 goals and 8 assists. In the World Cup his tally is 5 goals and 3 assists. Only Kane of Britain has done better, 6 goals.
Apart from the games and the happenings on the field, if one were watching the Russian TV channel one would have had a glimpse of the exotic cities like St. Petersburg, Sochi and Moscow in all their glory. You open a Russian novel, said Brodksy, and the vast Russian countryside is spread before you and the troika racing through. The Russian skyline, the smiling people, the supporters in their diverse costumes and the general carnival atmosphere all have belied the image of Russia that had been painted as a cold country of scheming people and spooks. As the writer John Steinbeck once said, the Americans can beat the Soviets in everything but not in hospitality. That warmth was all in evidence even if the football was not all that memorable.