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FOOTBALL: A CHANGING OF THE GUARD

July 22, 2018

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France, the new football world champions | AFP photos
France, the new football world champions | AFP photos

The 2018 FIFA World Cup may have started in mid-June, and ended in mid-July, but its legacy was crystallised on a single day halfway through the tournament.

The 30th of June was the first day of the knockout stages. The previous two weeks had been spent praising the quality and drama of the tournament, the world rejoicing at Germany’s demise and, inevitably, more words on Ronaldo v Messi than what even Tolstoy would be comfortable with.

For much of the past decade, football discourse has been overly concerned with this “debate.” I use the word debate cautiously here because the dictionary definition of the word defines it as something formal — and there has been a severe lack of that on this topic in recent years. I won’t go much into that beyond saying that I am firmly of the belief that Leo Messi is the best player of the 21st century, and that this does not, and cannot, take away from Cristiano Ronaldo’s accomplishments. But as the case should always have been, the World Cup is not hostage to these mudslinging competitions. International football, particularly the chase for Silvio Gazzaniga’s masterpiece, cannot be subservient to things smaller than it. And thus the 30th of June was Independence Day for those who think of the World Cup as bigger than mere individuals.

The recently concluded football World Cup in Russia points at an important paradigm shift in the game: the rise of one generation at the cost of another, the power of a high-quality defence, the innocence and imagination of youth and a rejection of the individual

The day began with what will probably go down as the best tournament knockout game of this century thus far. The oldest team left in the tournament, Argentina, came up against the youngest team in the knockouts, France. And as the case has been throughout the tournament, youth won the day. But it wasn’t merely that they won — it was how they won.

Messi knowing he is going home. Mbappe knowing he is just arriving
Messi knowing he is going home. Mbappe knowing he is just arriving

Everything that Argentina lacked, everything that has been shunted aside — particularly in international football — in trying to ape the Spain of yore has left exposed. Argentina weren’t cast aside by death-by-a-thousand-passes, they were blown over by the talent and speed of France’s new golden generation — and particularly by the man best placed to take over the role as the leading superstar of the game.

For followers of the club game, Kylian Mbappé was anything but an unknown. He had been, even at 18, the best player in a team that reached the Champions League semi-final, and conquered Paris Saint Germain (PSG) domestically. That was followed by PSG making him the second most expensive player ever. But even then, especially after a morose group stage for Les Bleus, it seemed as if Mbappé was yet to announce himself to the majority of the world. On that afternoon in Kazan he certainly did that.

Sweet victory: Mbappe kisses the Silvio Gazzaniga-designed trophy
Sweet victory: Mbappe kisses the Silvio Gazzaniga-designed trophy

A day earlier, France’s captain Hugo Lloris had been frustrated in the press conference at the discussion revolving completely around Messi, which ended with him saying, “They have Messi, who is unique. But we have Kylian.” At the time it may have seemed a stretch to say that, a day later his words proved prophetic. Mbappé twice did what neither Ronaldo nor Messi have been able to do: score in a World Cup knockout game.

And with him dawned the realisation that this World Cup was the changing of the guard. Both Messi and Ronaldo, like so many other names that have dominated football discourse over the course of this decade, are now in the autumn of their careers. A few days before the knockouts, the Germans had been knocked out, perhaps breathing the last of the Müller-Özil-Khedira generation; a day after this momentous afternoon, Andrés Iniesta played his last in Spain’s colours, truly bringing the era to an end. What came forth was what football always does — it recycles, it produces a new class. Six of France’s outfield 10 in the final two weeks later were aged 25 or younger. They had gone past a Belgium side which was once considered the same way as France are now, but had failed to press home their talent.

A day earlier, France’s captain Hugo Lloris had been frustrated in the press conference at the discussion revolving completely around Messi, which ended with him saying, “They have Messi, who is unique. But we have Kylian.”

The evening of the 30th was as significant as the afternoon. Whereas Argentina had been bowled over by youth, Portugal were given a taste of their own medicine. They were reminded that two is always greater than one — while Portugal may have had Ronaldo, Uruguay had both the boys from Salto — Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez. They were reminded of something that Portugal had themselves showed the world at Euro 2016 — individuals win matches, defences win tournaments. That match had been a master-class by Diego Godín as he completely shut out Portugal from open play, and made Ronaldo as much of a spectator as thousands of others in the stadium. But a few days later Godín too passed the torch. At 32, he doesn’t have many tournaments left in him, but his Uruguay were kept quiet by Varane and Umtiti, 25 and 24 respectively, as they prepared to fight over Godín’s crown.

France’s coach Didier Deschamps is tossed by players to celebrate their victory against Croatia in the final
France’s coach Didier Deschamps is tossed by players to celebrate their victory against Croatia in the final

That was the day which defined the World Cup. The rise of one generation at the cost of another, the power of a high-quality defence, the innocence and imagination of youth, a rejection of the individual, the growing importance of set pieces and the game at its exhilarating best. It was what France would carry for the rest of the tournament. And while the final was a pretty decent sequel to their conquering of Argentina, like all sequels it fell a tad bit short. But it was a fitting end to the tournament, that had really crystallised itself in a soon-to-be-forgotten day in the middle of the event.

The writer tweets @mediagag

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 22nd, 2018