So this is what it all comes down to. You can be excused for thinking that the World Cup (which always means the football one, unless otherwise stated) final, set to capture the global zeitgeist from the moment it kicks off in Moscow’s hulkin Luzhniki Stadium tonight, is the culmination of over a month’s action, served up by the world’s best footballers, from 32 countries over 64 games that like always, ransacked the world’s reserves of emotion. Yet in truth, it is much, much more than that.
The technical bit first. You see the showcase event for the Beautiful Game is the only world championship event in all of sport, for which every spot is awarded on the basis of competition. Cricket as we know, hockey, rugby, all have a set of ‘permanent nations’, who are joined by others through qualification. Football is too universal, an opportunity to compete in it too coveted, to allow for such niceties. Only the hosts get a free pass.
And so whoever wins tonight, their defence of the title is not guaranteed to even make it to Qatar in 2022. It actually commences in two years’ time, when FIFA’s 210 members (yep, the FIFA General Assembly seats a good 15-20 nations more than the UN’s, such as Palestine) across 7 continents actually commence the World Cup. Bangladesh frequently exits at the first hurdle, mostly unnoticed against some peripheral Asian nations. Although this time around, one of the teams in our group, Australia (remember playing them, home and away, couple years back?), also managed to make it all the way to the Finals.
And there of course, they were drawn in the same group as one of tonight’s finalists, indeed the favourites with most bookies and pundits to lift the trophy tonight, France. Les Bleus, as the French lovingly call their team, have forged a generation of impressive talent one that is fit finally to carry the torch lit in 1998, when despite the advantage of playing at home (and failing to qualify for the two preceding Finals, in what must’ve been a post-Platini hangover), they surprised everyone by going on to lift the trophy, thrashing Brazil in a one-sided final. It signalled the arrival of the French as a latter-day footballing power. Their football itself would take some more years to truly flower, epitomised by the silken skills and incomprehensible range of Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players ever. His storied exit from the game (quite literally) in another final 8 years later, marked the end of that cycle.
It wasn’t until 2014 that they would impress again, even as they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Germany. But in players like Griezmann, and Pogba, and Matuidi, one could sense something was stirring. EURO 2016 looked set to be the occasion they ascended to the status of champions, as they lined up for another final in Paris, but this time it was their turn to suffer the sucker-punch.
In the build up to tonight’s game, a number of the players have harked back to that night, vowing not to allow a repeat, and to leave no stone unturned, in the quest for guaranteed Immortality. With the addition of the wondrous talent of Kylian Mbappe up front, they have grown stronger (certainly with the teenage star’s speed across the turf, some magnitudes faster). They took time to get going, but in the knockout phase, starting with that dismantling of Argentina, they have kept looking stronger and stronger. The guile and intelligence embodied by Griezmann is the perfect foil for Mbappe, and so pedigree is far from the only thing pointing to France as champions.
But where the French are packed with firepower up front, their opponents on the night, Croatia, tiny, tiny, Croatia, have an industry in the middle of the park. And old coaches will never tire of telling you, football games are won and lost right there in midfield. Much is made of Croatia’s run to the final this time, surpassing the semifinal appearance of 1998 (losing to France). Such a small, young nation, forged through the horrors of the multiple wars that ravaged Yugoslavia in the Nineties. Yet this small corner of Europe’s mainland on its Adriatic Coast, has always produced skilled, and imaginative footballers. Tonight in their 5-man midfield, you’ll see two of their very best, in Luka Modric-Ivan Rakitic, lineup in what is called a double-pivot. If a double-pivot of this calibre, with Modric the artist and Rakitic the assassin, is having its day, most teams in the world will fail to see much of the ball even, forget serving its frontline with needed fodder.
Buttressing the double pivot will be Brazevic behind them, but more excitingly offering them width, will be the adventurous and angular Perisic, so effective and impactful in the semifinal. The way the competition has gone brooks no predictions for the final, but this much can be said: either team would make for worthy champions. Along with Belgium,beaten by France in that pulsating semifinal, would make for worthy champions. There will be no shortage of joy, and heartbreak is inevitable, where they all fall is up for question. The football, as always, will conquer.