CAPE TOWN - Great players do great things during times of crisis. When the ordinary - you and me - turn and head for the hills, that is the time when the greats roll up their sleeves and deliver the moments that inspire those around them. Like it or lump it, Paul Pogba is such a great - and, if you never believed it before, you will now as the midfielder dragged France from the depths of gloom and struggle to the heights of a World Cup victory.
He gets a lot of unnecessary flak, does Pogba. He is often the scapegoat when his team loses - but, at Russia 2018, he demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, his class, his commitment to the team, his defensive nous and, let’s say it again, his greatness. With Croatia piling on the heat in the second half, France needed something special - and they got it: from Pogba.
A scintillating, unerring pass, threaded through the eye of the needle, found the lightning-quick Kylian Mbappe out wide - and, when the cross came in and the ball fell loose, who was there, having feverishly dashed up in support? Pogba, of course. And, then, what a finish; the wonderfully-fashioned goal loosened France’s shackles, gave the team confidence and belief, and they were able to easily manage the game to be crowned world champions.
For France’s Didier Deschamps, history was written, as he joins Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the third man to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach. But, more than that, the most important message to take from Deschamps’ success - whatever the critics may think about his defensive approach and cautious tactics - is this: in an interview during the World Cup, he said: “One should live in one’s time. I never ever talk to the players about my story. I’m with them to write a new story. Looking in the rearview mirror - I’m not like that.” Well said, coach. And that new story has now been written. Congratulations France: a job well done, and well deserved.
I guess we need to talk about VAR. The Video Assistant Referee system, introduced by Fifa at Russia 2018, has its backers and knockers. And, after it intervened for a critical decision in Sunday’s final, there’s no doubt VAR will be a hotly, and angrily, debated topic.The system is not perfect - that’s a given - but I’m a supporter of VAR and think, in the main at this World Cup, it has assisted in ensuring that on-field referees make, by and large, the right calls.
Football at this level is about small margins - and, if the officials can get the big calls correct, more often than not, then surely it can only be good for the game. In fact, Sunday’s decision on Ivan Perisic’s handball is not so much a VAR issue as it is a general flaw in football’s laws around the handball rule. What is intentional and what is not? What is a natural hand position and what is not?
Ranked third in the world, Belgium finished third at the 2018 World Cup with Saturday’s victory against England. It may seem to be just a consolation - but, truth be told, the Belgians have been, by far, the best team on show. They animated the World Cup, played with verve and energy, and with supreme attacking panache. And, if anything, it reinforced the obvious talents of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard: there’s Messi and Ronaldo, and Modric the Magnificent and rising star Kylian Mbappe - but, make no mistake, the two Belgians are right up there with this lot.
Every World Cup tends to have a particular trend, a shift in the way football is developing. In this regard, if there’s something to take from Russia 2018, it’s the fact that, overall, the sport seems to be going back to its roots: the team has become important again. Over the years, World Cups have been dominated by individuals - Kempes, Eusebio, Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Platini, Maradona, Rossi, Matthaus, Ronaldo, Schillaci, Milla and Zidane - but this has been a tournament dominated by the team ethic: France and Croatia had great individuals, but they made the final because of their team culture and structure; England played above themselves because of their team spirit and unity; Minnows Russia, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, Iran, Denmark, Nigeria, Iceland, Switzerland, Mexico and Senegal all impressed at some stage at Russia 2018 because of their organisation and shape, and their emphasis on the collective.