Russia has been a feast for football philistines
Fiendish World Cup football fans, celebrate. Russia 2018 has not disappointed us philistines. In the first two weeks, as it raced on match after match, we heard from the experts decrying the bad standards when compared to the Champions League. When its tread became more deliberate during its hairy final ten days, we were told Europe has now taken over and regimented footballing culture around the world - urchins are being plucked out of favellas and bazaars by uber-efficient European academies who make them versions of themselves.
We believed every word but enjoyed the fact that Russia 2018 appeared tailor-made for our quadrennial thrill-seeking tribe. With its goals, boilovers, upsets, shocks, tears, lamentation, Ross-ee-ya, Ross-ee-yaa. If the World Cup without Italy and Netherlands seemed gloomy to true blue fans, imagine what transpired within two weeks - Germany was gone faster than ever in their history and a single weekend cleaned out Portugal and Argentina. Sorry amigos, that lot is coming home. Early.
World Cup 2018 must-reads
Those of us who do not follow European teams on their seasonal cycle (transfer-optimism-doom-revival-triumph-transfer) are not counted among the faithful of the high church of European club football. Every four years, the World Cup becomes our month-long pagan feast. We don't get into the GOAT fights (caprine contests?), but in Russia we observe that Messi looks worried all the time and that Ronaldo fellow is a showboater but boy, does he look like he belongs - to the lights and the noise and its hypermadness, becoming the star schoolboy who hitches up his shorts before taking a free-kick. As for Neymar (#eyeroll), what would Socrates have thought of him? The Bearded One from Brazil, that is, not the guru from Greece.
During World Cups, we are not embarrassed to ask the silly questions (which club does he play for?) or gloat over the emergence of the new prodigy as if he would never otherwise have been found. Or dive into the swimming pool of Schadenfreude when a clutch of big names go down to players from Tractor Sazi Tabriz FC.
It is not that we disrespect the pantheon, quite the contrary. When the learned speak, we bow our heads. During Russia, we were humbled by Jorge Valdano talking about the "premature escape" that has hindered Argentina or Louis Saha confirming the necessity of 'animation' in response to an equaliser. On Indian television, we pay attention when Sunil Chhetri speaks of having 100kg (each) legs as he walks to take a match-deciding penalty and Gurpreet Sandhu, who laments the pointlessness of creating expansive "walls" that give the goalie no time to see the ball before it is too late. (Read: The Kieran Trippier screamer). The pantheon does educate us but our hearts instinctively respond to more mischievous spirits. In Russia 2018, it was as if Siberian shamans had a speed dial into our souls.
Fundamental to the World Cup's zaniness is its artificial construct. The best available on planet football (sorry, Zlatan) are gathered, regional diversity acknowledged and then put into the FIFA global box. This shook-up then slots the players into the straitjacket of nation states. The sport's contemporary gods are lined up with their countrymen, who could possess, by godly standards, not merely feet of clay but even ankles of lead.
So it becomes time for pop psychology - the one where everyone wants everyone else to "step out of their comfort zone." That is what the World Cup is to the football's galacticos - their discomfort zone of utter mud. The sport's most intelligent playing minds and bodies are not clustered together in clubs that can afford them, they are liberally sprinkled across 32 teams. It means we can see how the aristocrats mingle with the plebs, when their country holds them responsible for the team's progress. Luka Modric, it is plain to see, doesn't struggle. Not with his head, nor with his feet, and in Russia, his team have dutifully marched in step.
World Cups, as everyone discovers in due course, are not won by teams of maximum skill, but by those who improvise those skills and adjust to the unfamiliar. At the far end of the scale, the event also presents football's reverse osmosis - of the plebs gathering strengths and wits to make their collective count. Like Iceland against Argentina and Messi, like Russia's siege of Spain. When it works, it is not beautiful. For those on the side of the strong, it is frustrating, distressing football. It is the anti-football, they shout, when this bus-parking seeks a nobility of purpose. Who can disagree in theory but there's a perverse joy in watching such cheeky takedowns and we fall back on a Didier Deschampsism: "The truth comes with what happens on the pitch."
It will be sad to see Russia 2018 go and we philistines will have our own favourite memories. There are two matches left and things may change, but for now I know mine belongs to my favourite goal. Conjured by the eyes and minds of Blaise Matuidi and Lucas Hernandez before it reaches Benajmin Pavard. His entire life built around that moment Pavard is waiting. He slices the ball off his foot, the outside of it, the imagination of it. Like a stream of silk emerged from a magician's wrist, the ball floats away towards the top left of goal before it curves wickedly into the side-netting and becomes a cold fist slammed down on Argentinian hearts. Equaliser, Kazan, June 30. Nine seconds, start to finish.
While trying to understand this gluttonous appetite for football World Cups (Russia is my 10th), a Canadian newspaper article introduced me to a Russian saying that appeared to have an answer. "You can't drink too much vodka. You can only not eat enough food." I'm already waiting for 2022.