It's almost all over
The arrival of the World Cup final is always a melancholy moment. It means no more lounging around the house in the knowledge that another game will be on in a minute. More than a month of wall-to-wall football gives way to a little bit of cricket and some desultory transfer speculation in the papers. It feels like the end of summer. Really it should feel like the start of summer – after all, it’s early July and the schools haven’t broken up yet. But when I was younger I used to resent the thought that there was now no excuse to stay indoors with the curtains drawn. I still feel like that. To make things worse, the final itself is usually a letdown. There hasn’t been a really exciting one for almost thirty years.
Some games are blow-outs, like France’s trouncing of Brazil in 1998 or Brazil’s all-too-easy takedown of Germany four years later. More often they are stilted and cagey affairs, waiting to be settled by a mistake or with the help of the referee. One of the very worst came the last time these two teams met in the final in 1990, when Argentina snarled and Germany postured their way through an ugly match that was only settled by a late penalty. The good news is that the last truly dramatic one was between the same two teams four years earlier, when Argentina led 2-0, Germany came back to level it, before Argentina snatched a winner thanks to an exquisite, defence-unlocking Maradona pass. Cue ecstasy. Here’s hoping it’s 1986 all over again. But I’m not holding my breath.
What makes the gloom worse this time is the thought of what comes next. In four years we’ll be in Russia and it’s hard to imagine that will be much fun. The performance of the Russian team at this tournament was one of the few unmitigated disasters. Russia came saddled with weighty expectations, along with the highest paid manager in Fabio Capello, who is reported to have been on more than £6 million a year, double what the next best paid – our own Roy Hodgson – was getting (the third highest salary went to Prandelli of Italy and since all three went out in the group stages it only confirms that this is not a managers’ tournament).
Cambridge University Press has done a data scrape of all English language reporting of this World Cup to see which words describe which teams. For Russia, the top three are ‘drab’, ‘error’ and ‘mediocre’ (by contrast, Colombia gets ‘exciting’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘attacking’; Australia gets ‘positive’, ‘effort’ and ‘spirited’; and Bosnia gets ‘injustice’, ‘defensive’ and ‘forceful’). Russia played like a team all too conscious of the impatient demands of its powerful patrons. They are hardly going to be less impatient in 2018.
There has been something of a bread-and-circuses feel to the tournament in Brazil but it’s also had a genuine innocence and exuberance to it. Fifa may be a corrupt organisation but this hasn’t been a corrupt tournament (Brazil’s exit confirmed that). Political presence at the games has been minimal. None of that is likely to hold in four years time. This year’s real bread-and-circuses event was the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia finished top of the medals table and Putin cropped up everywhere with his frozen, ghastly grin. It was fantastically expensive; it was stage-managed; it was sterile. That’s what we have to look forward to. Then, four years after that, if Fifa gets its way, we’ll be in Qatar. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.