Sports is occasionally compared to war, without the weapons. With the World Cup ending, it is not only the win that is to be remembered, but the life lessons too.
Well, the Football World Cup has come to an end, and what a game it was: Full of excitement, surprises and some great football in between. It was also an amazing advertisement for Vladimir Putin’s Russia and for the Russian President himself. Having travelled to Russia for an early group game between Germany and Mexico in Moscow, I can safely say that the image of the sour Russian was well and truly demolished. And while South American countries flattered to deceive at the World Cup, their fans arrived in Moscow and other host cities in thousands. There were more Latin fans walking through Alexandrovsky Garden than there were Russians.
The tournament had the world hooked. Even in the United States, which isn’t a traditional ‘soccer’ nation, bars were opening doors at 8am for the early kick-offs, the joy of time-zones, and guess what, they were packed. Not just by the immigrants that Donald Trump wants to keep out but even in the deepest, whitest parts of America, bars were full of folks, cheering for Iran against Portugal. Yep, I saw that with my own eyes. But what lessons can be drawn from the World Cup? I’m no football analyst, but I thought there were some important life lessons to be drawn.
It’s about the team, stupid!
Make no mistakes, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two greatest players of their generation. And both of them scored some utterly brilliant goals. Messi’s goal against Nigeria was sheer class and no one can forget Ronaldo’s free-kick against Spain that gave the man his hattrick. But in the end, all four semi-finalists were teams which prioritised the team and teamwork over the individual. Players, who have in the past acted like divas, notably Paul Pogba of the Manchester United and Eden Hazard of Chelsea put in everything once they put on their national colours. Was this because of a sense of patriotism that one does not have when playing professionally or because of the better man-management of their coaches?
The one man who acted like a diva during the World Cup, Nikola Kalinic, who refused to come on a substitute in a game Croatia played against Nigeria, was sent home by his coach. Of course, we all know what Croatia’s 22-man squad went on to do. But more importantly, and emphasising on the team in important and making players like Pogba adapt their game to the team instead of the team revolving around them also possibly helped the young player of the tournament, Kylian Mbappe, shine. The fact is that the pressure of performing can easily get to a 19-year-old and the support of the team made a player already a superstar as one of the globe’s most recognisable faces.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité (+Unite)
France’s unity and team-ethics over individual flair makes many of the comments about France’s ‘inclusive’ team a bit strange. France is a violently secular state. Sure, their notion of secularism is more of a Christian notion of secularism, but no country practices the separation of church and state as much as the French. We have pointed out that the individual flair of French players was subjugated by the system practiced by French coach Didier Deschamps, the French played just as much as they needed to. Think of them as a 600-horsepower V8 supercar pottering around town, using less power than produced by two cylinders. France has been welcoming immigrants to a degree but insists that they become French. The football they learn at the French academy at Clairefontaine is the French way. Not necessarily exciting but effective.
And that is what Deschamps did with his team as well. It has not always worked very well in the country; France has been the victim of some of the worst terrorist atrocities in the Western world recently because forced cultural assimilation does not always work. Even with the football team, France’s best striker, the Real Madrid player Karim Benzema, refused to bow to Deschamps’ system. But at the end of the day, nobody is arguing with the second star on Les Bleus jersey. France is a multi-ethnic country and while immigrants from North Africa and West Africa have brought their culture, that has become French; listen to French rap nowadays to get an idea. So is France truly a multi-cultural country? No. And attempts by Twitter trolls to paint it as an ‘African’ success was quickly shot down by the likes of French defender Benjamin Mendy.
There is nowhere to hide, hello VAR
The first World Cup broadcast in India was in 1986 though we consider anything in standard-definition fuzzy today. That the World Cup is remembered for two goals by Diego Maradona, one of a brilliant move through almost the entire English team and the second one which will go down in infamy as ‘The Hand of God’. Well, 32 years later Diego is his usual self; i.e. being a totally self-obsessed man-child, crude and racist. He made a ‘slant eyed’ gesture at the Koreans and put his middle fingers to great use. In 2018, the controversial goal of ‘86 would never have stood, thanks to VAR.
We live in an age of the camera. Everyone has one. There were an estimated 33 television feed cameras being used for every match at the World Cup, possibly more for the knockouts. Eight of these cameras were super slow-motion and four were ultra slow-motion and all of them recorded in 4K definition. There was no angle that could possibly be missed and nowhere to hide for any player. Kind of like real life nowadays. Look at it this way: We all celebrated Maradona’s cheating antics and even forgave him his cocaine habit but Neymar’s flopping made him the butt of jokes across the world and seriously tarnished his reputation as a global superstar.
And there is VAR inside the penalty box now. So no more defenders channeling their inner Hulk Hogan can get away with it. We saw that as the tournament progressed, defenders, who were initially aggressive inside the box, suddenly began to behave themselves. While, as with most things, a happy middle will likely be found, the moment you start getting judged for your actions post-facto suddenly make everyone more responsible. Now, how will VAR play out during the club season remains to be seen.
Europe in the ascendancy
In a post-Brexit and post-Trump world, the European Union might feel a little small but other than Europe’s powerhouse Germany failing at the first hurdle and another power Italy not even making the show, this World Cup highlighted the dominance of the European game. Partially because virtually all of the world’s best players play for Europe’s top clubs with their world-class coaches, training and medical facilities as well as level of play it allows even smaller European nations to rise to the top. Croatia is a case in point, so what if the country only has four million people but their top players are in Europe’s top clubs.
This also means that playing international games, which are usually continental games is easier for them, whereas Argentinian and Uruguayan stars have to take 12-14 hour flights each way to and from South America. This makes it easier for them to play for their countries during week-long international breaks but many top clubs don’t even let their South American players leave to play games for their country. While FIFA has pointedly placed the next World Cup in winter, slap-bang in the middle of the European season, it is almost certain that the 2022 World Cup will see a fifth European team win the trophy in a row.
(The writer is Managing Editor, Special Projects, The Pioneer)
Writer: Kushan Mitra
Courtesy: The Pioneer