Greatest Game on Earth

The sun is setting on what has been a fabulous World Cup with shocks in abundance, a run which has united people up and down England and the emergence of some new talent. With every World Cup there appears to be something we take away from it which sets the narrative for world football for the coming years and this one is no different.

Italia 90 was a benchmark World Cup, certainly in England, as there was a resurgence in football interest following on from Gazza’s tears sound tracked beautifully to Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. T-shirts appeared on market stalls with pictures of Gazza, arms alternatively raised with pumped fists captioned “Let’s all have a disco”. 1990, despite all of that was, a fairly unremarkable tournament. With a few games aside, there was no little magician to blow us away as there had been in the previous tournament. There was of course a second hand of God as Diego’s paw stopped a goal bound Russian shot from nestling in the net; a goal which would almost certainly have eliminated Argentina at the group stage.

Maradona announced his international retirement at the end of that tournament and the conflict between playing for Napoli and playing for Argentina against Italy in Naples meant that his love affair with Neapolitan life was coming to a close. In the wake of the controversial yet mesmerising genius of Maradona, Paul Gascoigne announced his arrival. The old guard of 86 disappeared as an Argentina side beset by injuries failed to sparkle and yet managed to limp into an inevitable final defeat to West Germany. The Germans for their part revealed the strength of a determined midfield general in Lothar Matthaus, capable of holding the ball up and spraying it around at will without the necessary theatrics and vigour of a Maradona run. Klinsmann showed that a striker does not need to have the ability to leave defenders trying to untie the knots in their legs; he just needs to be in the right place and make sure he hits it in the right direction. The main artistry from Klinsmann came from his swan dives. Being brought up with the legend of Pele and Maradona it was clear that the beautiful South American artistry was on the wane in favour of organisation. World Cups have a habit of wiping the slate clean and ushering in the new dawn. One other thing happened in that world cup. In Argentina’s opening game Claudio Caniggia was fouled three times in quick succession; the third a midriff high scythe. Cameroon had arrived at the World Cup. The Milla shuffle lit up the World Cup and it wasn’t until Gary Lineker’s efficiency from the spot saw them off in the quarter finals that the world stopped believing that Pele’s prediction of an African team competing in a final would not actually happen. A new dawn though which sent ripples of hope through Africa.

Moving on to 94 and Maradona was back. Eyes pumped, veins bulging, screaming into a camera lens. We all drew our conclusions and a failed drugs test saw his World Cup end after just two games. A World Cup fondly remembered for Ireland’s endeavour against Italy and a host of new names to set the tone for the future with the Baggios, Larsson, Brolin, Hagi, Stoichkov, Hierro, Luis Enrique. That and of course Campos’s colourful goalkeeping shirts and Valderamma’s blonde curly locks. After the World Cup Colombia would be in the headlines again and for all the wrong reasons as Escobar was murdered. While 1990 had been about sweeping away the old guard, USA 94 was about giving the new stars a place to shine. Italy and Brazil contested the final and in many ways the stage was set for a period where the great Brazilian samba returned.

In France 98 it was still there and, barring a mysterious meltdown from arguably one of the world’s greatest centre forwards in Ronaldo another trophy would surely have been heading their way. Instead, The Monk announced his arrival. Guile, strength and grace from Zidane swept Brazil away in the final but have no doubt that Brazil were no longer prepared to sit on the side-lines as they had for some years before. Indeed, by the time the 2002 World Cup came about and England’s golden generation were ready to claim it as their own at last there was no chance that they could outfox the rangy Rivaldo or the magic feet of Ronaldinho and when Cafu lifted the trophy having been the first player to appear in three successive world cups you did wonder if anyone would be able to displace them, especially with the magic of Ronaldinho. Creeping back into contention however were Germany and it was them hosting the party next. As it happened that World Cup was the end of Brazilian dominance in any meaningful sense although I don’t think anyone saw it at the time. That team in the final had some individual brilliance but they also had key players reaching an age when they would no longer be effective. There were also players who no doubt had ability but did not necessarily have the presence or skill to lift the younger players on to the next level. Lucio was always a capable defender, Denilson never delivered on his early promise, Gilberto Silva was steady. An era was coming to an end and it was time for a new contender to arrive.

In 2006 it was less a case of an individual country shining, more a continent. Just two out of the eight quarter finalists were from outside of European qualifying groups and neither Brazil nor Argentina made it further than that. Europe was dominant again. In the absence of an emerging force it was to an ageing France team and a resurgent Italian team that we looked for our eventual winners. France, beset as always by infighting and fractions were hampered by Le Pen commenting that due to the racial make up of the French team they didn’t look particularly French. A comment which angered many of the French players, none more so than Lilian Thuram who took to a press conference to pour scorn on his comments. The pressure gave in the end and Zidane’s infamous head-butt arguably gifted Italy victory. Robbed of their talismanic genius France did not seem to have much in response to the Italian determination. France just made it through qualifying for the World Cup prior to that and Domenech had to coax Zidane out of retirement; their qualifying run had included a 3-0 defeat to the Faroes. At the group stage, again, they struggled. A young Spanish team had swept the other opposition away before they faced France in their final game; France found their stride and squeezed into the knockouts. That Spanish team would return with gusto to reinforce European dominance in 2010.

By the time the Vuvuzelas were driving us all to distraction with the nuisance usually associated with mosquitoes in the night, Spain were Kings of Europe. That Spanish squad still makes me gasp in awe at the talent they were richly blessed with. Silva, Arbeloa, Alonso, Mata, Fabregas, Torres, Villa, Iniesta, Pique, Ramos…it is a stellar line up. England undone by a ruthless Germany who took advantage of incredulity from England as Lampard’s shot cannoned down the right side of the white line but was never given. The quarter finals famous for Suarez taking one for the team and celebrating as the penalty given for his deliberate hand ball produced nothing while he walked off the pitch following his red card. The final famous for Howard Webb losing the ability to count and an all out physical assault from The Netherlands on a Spain side intent on playing the game with all the style of the great South American teams. Justice was served eventually and Spain were world champions. The age profile of the squad made everyone think this was a period for them where they would be unstoppable. In 2014 however, they exited at the group stages in Brazil.

The 2014 World Cup had Brazil’s name on it. Home advantage, passionate support, European nations wilting in the heat and the altitude. The humidity of the rainforests sapping energy from English legs. As they say though, never write off the Germans and in one of the most shocking results witnessed in a World Cup Brazilian hearts were broken by a rampant German side. Messi walked away with the player of the tournament award despite everyone thinking he had once again failed to shine in the light blue and white stripes. The Germans were well and truly back. Spain perhaps expected another kicking against Netherland and they received one, albeit in a footballing sense as they lost 5-1. James Rodriguez became a household name and England failed to win a single game. Suarez was a more developed player but Christiano Ronaldo with all his talent could not carry Portugal past a group which seemed certain to see them reach the knockout stages.

And so to Russia. What is it that makes this tournament remarkable for setting the tone for international future for the coming few years? It is another World Cup where the changing of the guard has been marked. There have been some truly brilliant players on display at this World Cup; Messi with his mazy runs, Ramos the rock for Spain, Christiano Ronaldo the glittering jewel of Portuguese football, Modric the midfield maestro conducting the orchestra despite his physical challenges, Ozil so long the creator for a German team. These are all players who we may never see at a World Cup again. Once again, the canvas is blank for the nation who can mature at the right time. France go into tomorrow’s final with Mbappe; the real revelation of the World Cup. Yes, he has already come on to the radar of most fans, but it is rare to see a 19-year-old grab this tournament by the throat and make it his own. Jordan Pickford went from everyone’s favourite raver to being included in the conversation for the best goalkeepers in the world. Take your pick from the Belgian team. When England lost to Croatia the pundits all had their views on why. Chris Waddle emerged to say that they lacked a Modric style player. A player who could unlock doors. He is absolutely right, but what he also went on to say was that he didn’t know where England would get one from. That is unfair. Modric is 32. Dele Alli is 22. Raheem Sterling is 23. Lingard is 25. We all know that football is littered with players who stray from the path to greatness, they need mentoring, they need constant commitment. There was a moment in the Croatia game where the ball fell to Lingard, he controlled it with a single touch, pirouetted and moved away from the defender. In 4 years’ time the end product will be better. There is great hope for England for the future, the Lions are young and now that they have tasted the bitterness of a semi-final defeat you can be assured that they are hungry. We bid farewell to some legends whilst ushering in the stars of the future, and leading the charge is a young lad from Washington. It’s coming home, just not yet.