Commentary

World Cup 2018 Part 1: The French Revolution

The signs that the 2018 World Cup was not going to be business as usual came early. No Italy, no Netherlands, no Chile -- three potential finalists, all three failing to qualify. Maybe you can add to that list the USA -- not a potential finalist but a team that unthinkably failed to emerge from a supposedly weak qualifying group.

Even so ... with Germany, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and France all present this did not, in any way, look like revolution. But that’s how it turned out. Out they went, one by one, knocked off by lesser teams. Teams that were supposed to be lesser, that is, but it was the traditionally superior teams that failed to prove their superiority.

Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil got what they deserved. They never looked good enough. Spain maybe deserved better. Losing on penalty kicks to a vastly inferior Russian team in a game where the Russians hardly even tried to play soccer was harsh.

But the route to victory that the Russians took, the anti-soccer route, is available to any team as long as FIFA persists with the fatuous shootout. Russia chose it and made it work. Spain had nearly two hours to settle matters, but their futile efforts to break through the Russian bunker never looked exactly inspired.

Only France weathered this slaughter of the far-from-innocents, so we got the threatened revolution. The French Revolution. Of which more shortly.

Along the way we got the usual mixture of really sparkling games (Spain 3 Portugal 3 the best of them, while France 4 Argentina 3 certainly had its moments, as did Belgium 3 Japan 2) and absolute snoozathons (any game featuring Australia or Sweden or Iceland).

The goalscoring -- 169 goals, at 2.64 per game -- failed, as usual, to rise to 3 per game. We haven’t been in that heady land since 1970. Also, as usual, there’s no sign that things are improving -- that 2.64 figure was a step downward, slightly below the 2014 figure of 2.67.

These stats are always misleading, anyhow. Low scores continue to dominate the games -- 33 of the 64 games in Russia (52%) had 2 or fewer goals, 52 games (81%) had 3 or fewer goals. Only six games featured 5 or more goals. Take those six games out of the stats, and we get the attenuated -- but more realistic -- picture of 2.24 goals per game.

Nonetheless, entertainment value was quite high -- particularly, as noted above, in the higher scoring games. But what we didn’t get was any team playing consistently super soccer. France came closest, but overall this did not work out as a showcase for all that is best in the sport.

All the blather about this being the best World Cup ever is hopelessly off target. Sure, upsets provided much to get excited about in Russia, but the key consideration when assessing the level of this tournament -- any tournament -- must be the overall caliber of the soccer. The caliber was certainly not outstanding. Above all, the tournament lacked a team that could be relied upon to produce brilliant soccer.

Things were a lot different back in 1970, which is why that tournament stands out as the best, and why so many people regard the glittering Brazilians who won it as the best World Cup team ever. And why Pele is still widely regarded as the greatest.

Frankly, this latest tournament, for all the upheavals and the flops and the surprises -- not to mention all that meretricious “best ever” propaganda -- doesn’t even come close. France was, quite definitely, the best team and the deserved winner. But to compare it to Brazil 1970 ... oh, come on. Only in the final, against a tiring Croatia, did France look like a dominant team. Before that final, France had given us the only 0-0 game in the tournament and had won 4 of its other 5 games by 1-goal margins.

Did the French do anything new on the field? Not that I could see. But probably I am not the person to comment on that -- I gave up taking soccer tactics seriously years ago. I can comment that France seemed -- to me -- to be playing with only one forward -- Olivier Giroud, a goalscorer who finished the tournament not having scored a single goal.

Those who feel that tactical formations are the key to everything have only to wait for the FIFA “Technical Study,” which will be arriving soon. Such studies have been published after each tournament since 1966. Written by a panel of distinguished (predominantly European) coaches, they aim to present an assessment of the game on the field -- how it is played, what’s new and what’s out of date, in particular what tactics are in vogue.

A word of warning about these reports: Don’t expect any opinions. I have read all of them and have never seen, for instance, any comments expressing concern at the relentless downward trend in scoring, or any suggestions on changes that might be beneficial to the sport. Were a team to win the World Cup playing boring, clumsy soccer with a new formation that contained nothing but huge, hyper-active 6-foot-6 250-pound monster players, there would, in the Technical Study, be not a word of criticism.

The tournament MVP award went to Croatia’s Luka Modric -- thoroughly earned, but the competition for the award was almost non-existent. A playmaking midfielder is always likely to claim the crown, but who else could one pick who made his midfield presence felt? Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne would have been a good bet ... before the action began. But De Bruyne was among a cluster of pre-tournament stars who failed to stand out. Where were Neymar, Messi, Iniesta, Ozil? And Giroud was not the only forward who had trouble scoring -- he was joined by Suarez, Lukaku and Kane (sorry Harry, but the less said the better about that hat trick against Panama -- two penalties and a lucky deflection) -- all of whom went missing when the crucial game arrived.

I talked earlier of the French Revolution -- and there was one aspect of the French team that was truly revolutionary. Its youth. It has been established -- by using age stats from previous World Cup winners -- that the ideal average age for a World Cup winning team is 27.5 years. Yet here we have France with an average age, for the 11 players who started in the final, of 25.8. Nearly two years lower than the ideal.

The French emphasis on youth was underlined by the strong performance from the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe. Not since the 17-year old Pele shone so brightly in 1958 have we been treated to a youngster who can brighten things up with the overflowing joie de vivre (the French phrase is perfect) of youth.

I’m sure it is true that, in today’s soccer, teenagers do not get the chances for early stardom that used to fall to them -- back in the days when coaches would be willing to take a chance on a youngster. That happens less frequently now because an array of experts -- psychologists and statisticians and the metrics people -- can make a convincing case that it is better to wait, rather than run the risk of a teenager being crushed by a premature and unsuccessful debut.

Pele starred on the 1958 Brazil team because his teammates demanded that he be part of the starting team. They knew instinctively that he would be OK. Teammates do not select teams these days.

Back in 1958 we were astounded by Pele, and genuinely believed that his arrival meant that he would soon be followed by other brilliant youngsters. It hasn’t happened. It is as though an invisible ceiling that has almost banned teenagers from the World Cup has existed for the past 60 years. The French have dared to go with youth -- five of its starters were below the age of 25. If their move breaks the invisible ceiling, they will have brought about a huge, enriching -- and revolutionary -- change in the sport.

World Cup 2018 Part 2: The VAR Revolution

9 comments about "World Cup 2018 Part 1: The French Revolution".
  1. uffe gustafsson, July 19, 2018 at 11 p.m.

    I have to take umbrage on one comment.
    snoozer on Sweden?
    did you watch the Sweden vs Mexico game?
    that was nothing like a snoozer and scoring as well.
    Got to stick up for my country. LOL
    yes the England vs Sweden was not the best moment and I agree on that.

  2. uffe gustafsson, July 19, 2018 at 11:04 p.m.

    One more comment, people liked this WC because countries that you call so called lesser countries put away your big countries and to me that’s a good thing.
    tired of watching Germany Spain brazil etc. to win every tornament. Japan especially played great soccer really fun to watch. 

  3. Ric Fonseca, July 19, 2018 at 11:05 p.m.

    Apologies to Mr. C. Shulz's "Charlie Brown,"  OH GOOD GRIEF MR GARDNER!!!

  4. Gonzalo Munevar, July 19, 2018 at 11:29 p.m.

    The quality of the play, in addition to the excitement, should determine which was the best tournament.  And although this year's was better than some, there have been several that were better.  And Paul is right, 1970 gave us the best World Cup ever.

  5. Joe Shoulders, July 20, 2018 at 9:40 a.m.

    I can always count on PG to remind me that I’m not alone in my opinion of a major soccer event. He nailed my feelings about this this cup exactly. Well done 

  6. Kent James, July 20, 2018 at 1:05 p.m.

    While I don't have a problem with Paul's analysis of this WC compared to others (and certainly agree that the decline in goalscoriing is a problem), I think the comparison is a bit silly (mostly impossible), because there are too many variables (time being quite a major one).  Where this tournament stood out was the competitiveness of each game (aside from Panama v England, and Russia v Saudi Arabia, all the games were close).  And as Uffe said, a lot of people (including me) did not want the same countries winning the whole thing (Brazil and Germany have too many WCs already!).  I was disappointed that the non-European/Conmebol teams did not do better, but they are showing signs of life (Japan, S. Korea, Nigeria, Senegal). 


    But I do have to disagree with Paul's infatuation with youth.  Yes, a young new player (Mbappe) can be very exciting and it is great to get them playing time as they can handle it, but do you really think the sport would be better off if it were dominated by teenagers?  If players were stars at 18 and were washed up by age 20? Players thrive in their late 20s because it's a subtle game, and the more you play the more you learn how to play better, until you pass the point of peak physical ability and you start to physically decline more than you gain in soccer intelligence with each passing year.  And the ability of players to still be exceptional in their 30s (Modric) is probably a sign that modern training/nutrition is delaying the physical decline.  Extending the careers of exceptional players may improve the overall quality of the game, but it does make it harder for younger players to break in.  As long as players are not still playing long past their prime (admittedly a tough call), I think having mostly experienced players is good for the game.  

  7. beautiful game, July 20, 2018 at 3:33 p.m.

    Solid support players usually determine a great player's performance. WC 2018 had two of the greatest players ever and their support cast was mediocre at best.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, July 21, 2018 at 5:20 p.m.

    I really dislike your view of the game. The strongest teams consists of 11 great players all supporting the team effort.

  9. James Madison, July 20, 2018 at 5:18 p.m.

    Spain's efforts to brach the Russian bunker "never looked exactly inspired"?  In actuality, Spain never looked againt Russia like it was really trying.

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