MOSCOW — There has been a tendency in soccer circles in recent years to look down on the international game—and, by extension, the World Cup—as an inferior brand to the European club game. The reasons are straightforward. Players are together more often with their clubs, the coaching is better, and the rhythms are more regular. The club game is the spouse we see every day. The international game is our best friend from college who visits once a year and knows how to have a great time (but is a little flaky on the fundamentals).
World Cup 2018, which ended on Sunday with France’s second title, delivered an inspiring rejoinder to the Debbie Downers who have maligned soccer involving national teams. Was the level of play as high as the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds? Probably not, but it was plenty high—thanks largely to the quality of the world’s finest players, from the old standbys (Croatia’s Luka Modric, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi) to the newly-emergent A-listers (the French 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, Belgium’s Eden Hazard) to the tournament’s one-man telenovela (Brazil’s Neymar, when he wasn’t writhing on the ground like a Pentecostal parishioner speaking in tongues).
What made this the most entertaining World Cup of modern times—and the best since at least 1986—was the relentless drama, surprises and emotions of it all. It was a World Cup of Overflowing Feelings, which closed any gap in technical quality with the club game. We’ll never see a player crying tears of joy after a Champions League group stage win, but that’s exactly what Neymar and Mexico’s Javier 'Chicharito' Hernández did after World Cup group stage victories. Germany became the fourth of the last five defending champions to go out in the group stage, making you wonder if it might be more than a coincidence. Heavyweights Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Portugal were all gone by the quarterfinals. Croatia, the little checkerboard engine that could, was the best team during the group stage and erased deficits in all four of its knockout-round games, from the round of 16 to the final.
Goals may not have been at a record high, but late game-winners were. Buoyed by set-piece goals (another trend), England went all the way to the semifinals, won a penalty shootout (!) and was (gasp) totally likeable as a team.
Then there was Russia. On the field, home-fan expectations of a national embarrassment gave way to deserved pride among ordinary Russians, as their team advanced from the group stage (predicted by some), eliminated Spain on penalties in the round of 16 (predicted by almost nobody) and played some terrific attacking soccer in a quarterfinal exit on penalties against Croatia.
Off the field, the World Cup organization was solid. There were no significant instances of hooliganism. And the visiting fans from around the world—most of them from Latin American countries, not from Europe—appeared to have just as big an impact on the host Russians as Russia did on its visitors. Moscow’s Nikolskaya Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare near Red Square that was lit up at night like a winter wonderland, became a festive gathering place where fans and locals chanted and sang until the early-rising sun was already high in the sky by 6 a.m.
For someone who might have questioned whether they should come to Russia—that included me, a first-time Russia visitor, at one point ahead of the tournament—the answer, ultimately, was yes. Travel is, as ever, human connection, understanding, barriers broken. Ordinary Russians were terrific: Warm, welcoming and genuinely curious. Yet it was hard not to be made uncomfortable by FIFA president Gianni Infantino cozying up to Vladimir Putin, acting as though this World Cup had changed everyone’s opinions about the Russian dictator, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
In historic terms, World Cup 2018 will be remembered for the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee. After fears before the tournament that VAR—we like saying vahr, not the less efficient vee-aye-ar—would be an unmitigated disaster, it turned out to be a net-positive. Nearly all the big calls were done right. Even if you disagree with referee Néstor Pitana’s handball penalty call on Ivan Perisic in the final (and reasonable people could be found on both sides of the debate), at least Pitana had the chance to use all the available evidence to make his decision.
Video review is not perfect. Referees were reluctant to use it to call wrestling-move penalties in the box. And with the prevalence of set-piece goals, we were left frustrated that VAR is not allowed to review plays that lead to dangerous restarts—such as the nonexistent foul on Antoine Griezmann that gave France the free kick that resulted in its first goal in the final. Whenever a goal is scored, every moment on the play leading to the goal is reviewed by VAR; that should be the case for moments that lead to goals scored on set pieces, too. Getting VAR right is an ongoing process, though, and there’s no denying that it’s here to stay.
At least France, the champion, did enough in the rest of the final to show that its victory was owed to its play and not to the decision of a referee. France was not the most entertaining team at this World Cup—that would be Belgium, the third-place finisher, which was undone by a French corner kick in the semifinals—but how often does the most entertaining team ever win the World Cup? The pragmatism of French coach Didier Deschamps meant this would be a balanced team, one that often relied on the counterattack and willfully chose not to maximize its overflowing attacking talents.
The French collective was what mattered most. Paul Pogba bought into what Deschamps was selling and became a rock, the leader. N’Golo Kanté had a forgettable final, but his overall contribution was immense. And there were some sublime moments of speed, vision and skill from Mbappé—particularly against Argentina and Croatia—that signaled this teenager might really be the heir to Messi and Ronaldo.
France was the second-youngest team at the World Cup (behind Nigeria), and Les Bleus will now have the chance to create their own era, much as Spain did from 2008 to 2012 and France itself did from 1998 to 2000. The talent pipeline in France is established, almost industrialized at this point. But there are no guarantees. One of the greatest things about this World Cup, and about soccer itself, is its constant ability to surprise, to show that nothing is inevitable or preordained.
That’s why we watch.