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FOOTBALL, WHAT A GIFT IT IS!
HEROES COME HOME: France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, holding the trophy, and his teammates celebrate upon their arrival in Paris.

FOOTBALL, WHAT A GIFT IT IS!

As a month of sporting hedonism slips from present tense to past, real life and its hard borders re-sharpen their focus, bringing with them a cruel reckoning: It was only football, after all. Or was it?17 Jul 2018 | 1:51 AM

MOSCOW: Monday morning dawns with a grim and crushing inevitability. Unless you’re peeling yourself off a Paris pavement, or drowning your sorrows in a Dubrovnik dive bar, the 2018 World Cup is over.

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Moscow, July 16

Monday morning dawns with a grim and crushing inevitability. Unless you’re peeling yourself off a Paris pavement, or drowning your sorrows in a Dubrovnik dive bar, the 2018 World Cup is over. As a month of sporting hedonism slips from present tense to past, real life and its hard borders re-sharpen their focus, bringing with them a cruel reckoning. It was only football, after all.

It felt like more than that when Kylian Mbappe was burning through opposition defenders, or Lionel Messi was fighting back the tide, or Russia and South Korea were pulling off the unfeasible, or when England’s town squares throbbed with rasping songs and nervous tension and the prickly spines of a faint dream. But no: ultimately, it was only football, no more and no less.

And so a world on a comedown seeks meaning in its ecstasy. What did we learn? What, ultimately, was it all for? France were worthy champions, no doubt about that. Eleven goals in four knockout games and a second World Cup were no mean feat for a team cast ahead of the tournament as a ghost in a shell, a squad of illusory talents shackled by indecision and defensive tactics. Instead, they provided a sparkling lesson in what happens when you persuade outstanding individuals to submit to a collective structure, when you wait patiently for the game to break and give away as little as possible. Every adversity they faced, they negotiated. They came through a monstrous draw: Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium, Croatia. Their triumph should brook no mitigation.

Croatia on song

We should be wary, too, of assuming that European football’s big powers have cemented their grip on the competition. Yes, the last four World Cups have been won by France, Germany, Spain and Italy. But Croatia’s spectacular run to the final — and run is the operative word, given they barely stopped all month — should give pause for thought. A shambolic footballing infrastructure and the pall of institutional corruption proved no barrier to a team who cohered and believed and were prepared to back up their faith with guts and experience. They were closer to winning the final than history will remember.

Meanwhile, Belgium, Uruguay and Sweden all showed what can be possible with teamwork and a little momentum. Brazil played perhaps the best football in the tournament, only to be undone by Belgium in half an hour of pure inspiration in Kazan. Teams like Japan, Colombia and Serbia will all return stronger in four years’ time. The likes of Italy, Holland, the United States and Ivory Coast will surely return to the ring in Qatar. A renewed focus on international football and the projected increase to 48 countries should give medium-sized teams a better shot. In time, Croatia may become not the exception, but the rule.

Russian party  

The real team of the tournament, however, was Russia. And not simply Russia the playing XI, a limited but eager unit elevated to the quarterfinals on a diet of inexhaustible running and chasing that only barely passed the naked eye test, but Russia the country. The most expensive World Cup in history proved also to be the best-organised, with virtually no violence or unsavoury incidents, immaculate transport and stadium infrastructure, and a concerted charm offensive that you sensed was only partly confected for foreign eyes.

Russians seemed genuinely bewitched by the hordes of outsiders in their midst, dancing and singing and lining their cafes with flags and hope. A country that has always viewed the rest of the world vaguely askance was confronted with the vivid pageant of globalism, and didn’t entirely hate it. 

So, football does bring people together. Football does awaken our collective spirit like nothing else on earth. And in a troubled world, as long as there is a ball and a field and people to play and watch, the reservoir of human happiness will never quite run dry. It’s only football. But when it’s done right, what a gift it is. — The Independent 

Rise of new stars

For the world’s two greatest footballers, the future seems bleak. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exited the tournament within four dramatic hours of each other, their international futures uncertain, their legacies — whatever that means — still open to interpretation. They will be 35 and 37 by the time the next World Cup comes around, and so it is tempting to conclude that this was the last time we saw them both at their peak on their stage, were it not for the fact that neither got remotely close to their peak in Russia. Oh, there were moments, of course: Messi’s geometry-defying goal against Nigeria, Ronaldo’s insouciant hat-trick against Spain. But after an era that has been shaped, warped, almost defined by these two great superheroes, perhaps this was the tournament when the idea of the star player single-handedly dragging his team over the finish line finally ran out of locomotion. In any case, the next age will boast not two superstars but several. That was the other side of this World Cup: the anointment of a new generation of champions, players we always knew had potential but now began to deliver on it in a very serious way. If the 2010s was the decade of Messi and Ronaldo, then the 2020s will be the decade of Mbappe and Pogba, De Bruyne and Hazard, Torreira and Betancur, Stones and Pickford: men of enormous individual talent, but with a defined tactical role, rather than tactics in their own right.

Short Passes

Legion of Honour for World Cup winners

17 Jul 2018 | 1:51 AM

PARIS: France’s victorious World Cup players will all be awarded the Legion of Honour, the office of President Emmanuel Macron said today ahead of their visit to the Elysee Palace.

Iceland coach steps down after 7 years in charge

Iceland coach steps down after 7 years in charge

17 Jul 2018 | 8:27 PM

REYKJAVIK (ICELAND): The coach that led Iceland to its first World Cup has stepped down. The Icelandic Football Association says Heimir Hallgrimsson has decided to leave at his own request, ending seven years in the role.

Croatians give heroes’ welcome to World Cup squad

Croatians give heroes’ welcome to World Cup squad

16 Jul 2018 | 9:33 PM

ZAGREB: Tens of thousands of Croatians gave a heroes’ welcome to their team in Zagreb on Monday after the squad returned from Russia following their World Cup final defeat.

Paris renames metro stations to honour World Cup stars

Paris renames metro stations to honour World Cup stars

16 Jul 2018 | 9:13 PM

PARIS: Six Paris metro stations were temporarily renamed in honour of France’s World Cup winning champions after their 4-2 rollercoaster victory against Croatia.

Macron cheers from the stands—then ‘dabs’ in the changing room

Macron cheers from the stands—then ‘dabs’ in the changing room

16 Jul 2018 | 7:48 PM

MOSCOW: President Emmanuel Macron was pictured cheering from the stadium, got drenched in the rain on the pitch, then attempted to “dab” with the players in the changing room Sunday after France’s victory in the World Cup.

Modric wins World Cup Golden Ball, Mbappe young player award
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Modric wins World Cup Golden Ball, Mbappe young player award

16 Jul 2018 | 6:38 PM

MOSCOW: Croatia captain Luka Modric won the Golden Ball award for the World Cup's best player despite being on the losing side to France in a thrilling final in Moscow on Sunday.

Clashes, road accidents mar French World Cup partying

Clashes, road accidents mar French World Cup partying

16 Jul 2018 | 2:46 PM

PARIS: Dozens of youths shattered windows at a popular store on the Champs Elysees avenue while hundreds of thousands of fans celebrated France’s World Cup victory, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory

With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory

16 Jul 2018 | 1:40 PM

PARIS: It was a victory for all of France and the home crowd did it justice, pouring into Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue by the tens of thousands to celebrate in an explosion of joy.

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