World Cup verdict: Vlad's big knees-up was bloody fun, a galaxy VAR away from football as we know it
Jack Lang reviews the World Cup finals in Russia, and attempts to work out where it ranks among the greatest tournaments in modern history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) caresses the trophy next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino (C) during the trophy ceremony at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium.
And..breathe. And sleep. And start talking to your loved ones and eating like a normal person again. And maybe cut the number of football podcasts you listen to religiously every morning down to two or three for a couple of weeks. And go and sit in the sun or something; you look absolutely awful.
Yes, friends, it's officially over. World Cup 2018 (or Vladimir Putin's World Cup 2018) has shuffled gloriously off into the sweet hereafter, leaving behind nothing but memories, montages and half-formed opinions about Russia's position in the geopolitical landscape.
All that remains is to sift through the ashes like the gruff yet enigmatic lead detective in the CSI: Moscow spin-off I've just invented in order to answer the question on every website editor's lips.
It is worth saying, at the outset, that World Cups are like pizzas or holidays: even the bad ones are great. Football, football-related excitement and temporarily diminished responsibilities – these are valuable commodities, especially at a time when so many other areas of human activity are going rather less than swimmingly. Arrange 64 (or more, right FIFA?!) matches in the space of a month and excellent things will occur. That's just maths.
France celebrate victory.
Image credit: Eurosport
There is also the temptation to be blinded by recency, so do sprinkle a liberal amount of salt onto the remaining 800 words of this tournament review, written at 24 hours' remove from Croatia's long-postponed death rattle and France's party in the rain. But while a little distance will no doubt be useful when it comes to assessing 2018's proper place in the pantheon, the lingering adrenaline from the Luzhniki's great microcosm-final does provide a us with some handy background music.
Thrills, spills and dead-ball drills: it was a World Cup that entertained because of its quirks rather than in spite of them. Between the refereeing controversies (on which more presently), madcap individual errors and set-piece mastery that bordered on the military, it's a wonder that there was any room left for actual football at all, yet the swirl of novelty was largely exhilarating. Among the 12 own goals, 29 penalties and 233,503 times England scored from free-kicks and corners, there was only one real snoozefest of a match, which is a fairly solid balance sheet.
Diego Maradona at the World Cup.
Image credit: Eurosport
International football can suffer from the comparison to the club elite: there is little time to build coherent sides and the best players often arrive at major tournaments looking in desperate need of a lie-down after the marathon European season. Yet a World Cup – and especially the group stage – remains a foolproof antidote to cynicism and overkill. The colour, the fans and the event-glamour always stack up in favour of joy, and it never hurts when the action reflects the mood.
Vladimir Putin and Conor McGregor
Image credit: Twitter
It did in Russia, from the early washing-machine jumble of Spain 3-3 Portugal to Croatia's ice-cold humbling of Argentina and Germany's bizarre hangover waltz. With so many pre-tournament favourites struggling, plus Italy and the Netherlands watching from home, there was at times a very palpable feeling that the old order was crumbling, leaving everything up for grabs. Or maybe that was just the setting encouraging ambitiously lofty historical allegories; it's hard to say.
Speaking of revolution, this will – oh, hang on, I'm actually just going to need to double-check the transition between those two paragraphs with the video assistant writer who lives in the van on my drive; OK, he's given me the all-clear – always be remembered as the first VAR World Cup. Even the most advocate for video technology would have to admit that there were certain... teething issues, especially in the opening weeks, when merely being the owner of hands seemed to be punishable offence. Yet things improved in the knockout stages, and in recognition of the fact that the worst thing about VAR is having to talk about VAR, we shall move swiftly on.
What else was good? The ball, for a start – no physics-defying Jabulani nonsense all summer – and the ephemeral silliness that social media, for all its annoyances, brilliantly magnifies. From roly-poly throw-ins and Mexican fans repatriating South Koreans, to the stray plastic bag that outshone most of Germany's players in the Sweden game and random South Americans trying to break up fights between Russians by shouting 'tranquilovski', there was plenty of weirdness to enjoy. And that's before we even get to the It's Coming Home memes.
Yet for all the good times, it would probably be a stretch to describe this World Cup as an all-time classic in pure footballing terms. Upsets are cool, but the bonfire of the heavyweights did deprive the latter stages of their usual frisson, not least because one entire side of the knockout draw packed all the peril of a candy-floss cutlass. Brazil vs Belgium was perhaps the zenith in terms of pure, thoroughbred quality, but that game was the exception rather than the rule.
Image credit: Getty Images
Even France, worthy winners come the final reckoning, were very often workmanlike, Didier Deschamps sailing his battleship in the shallow end of football's most ludicrous talent pool.
On an individual level, too, Russia didn't quite touch greatness. There were some excellent contributions: Kylian Mbappé was electric against Argentina and in a few other moments; Luka Modrić sprinkled stardust on an overachieving Croatia team; Eden Hazard played like a man who has the Madrid version of Rightmove bookmarked on his internet browser. But no player made the tournament his own like, say, James Rodríguez did four years ago, and the real heroes were defensive-minded, France's Raphaël Varane and N'Golo Kanté chief among them.
Maybe it is unrealistic to expect historic performances and games for the ages. Perhaps a little breathing space will add some gloss to what we've seen this summer. For now, though, as we prepare ourselves for the mental torture of readjusting to normal, non-World-Cup life, Vlad's big knees-up at Russia 2018 stands out mostly for its helter-skelter qualities. Which, of course, is more than fine. It may not have been a new high-water mark for football, but it was bloody fun.