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.