Maybe it’s unreasonable to feel cheated. This has been an excellent tournament. Giants have been slain, heroes have escaped doom, cows have been traded for beans. And I may have put too much faith in the idea that semifinal matches are the real memorable classics. When France appears, they’re usually a big part of those classics. The last time Croatia made it this far, they had a barnburner against France when Lilian Thuram led the hosts to a comeback win. The last time England made it this far, they played the best game of the (really bad) tournament in 1990 before losing to West Germany in, amazingly enough, penalties. The last time Belgium made it this far, Maradona posterized them. But still.
But I can’t remember being so irritated at two games I had no particular cheering interest in. For the incredible amount of talent advertised, we got the worst possible combination of cynical dives mixed with studs-up tackles. Croatia’s Ante Rebić exemplified this in the first half against England, doing both within seconds. He was shown a card for neither.
Referee indifference stalks big games like this, sadly. These were semifinals that made England sympathetic figures and vindicated the reputation of Mark Geiger. If the whole spectacle had been like this, we’d have cancelled the World Cup weeks ago.
I suppose we’ll always love Croatia for sending out Argentina and Russia, but this was not a game that represented their talents. The tying goal was a high kick, the winning goal a product of English exhaustion. Based on that semifinal, at least five teams in the other bracket can feel very upset that they failed to finish first (or second, as the case may have been).
I suppose I should be as annoyed with France as I am with Croatia, but Belgium was at least as willing to play crudball as France was.
I don’t expect better from France or Croatia on Sunday, because the stakes are way too high to rely on anything as unpredictable as talent. Both France and Croatia feel their muscles can take them as far as their skill, and muscle is a lot easier to summon.
And if the refereeing is like what we saw this week, both teams should rely on physical prowess. It’s not just that if fouls aren’t called, they aren’t fouls. Fouls are fouls because they work, otherwise they wouldn’t be fouls.
Okay, give me a chance to phrase that less stupidly. If brute force didn’t beat skill, especially in a sport where the skilled person must simultaneously manipulate a sphere while avoiding the person trying to remove said sphere, then no one would bother to make tripping or kicking ankles or elbows to the head against the rules. The skilled player would just skip by the clown.
But, especially in big games, there’s this idea that the ref should “let them play.” This almost always means “prevent them from playing.”
Oh, well. Let’s ignore the third place game as an abominable disgrace, and focus on the Final.
If you happen to know who is going to win the Golden Ball, well, you have a good idea who might win the World Cup. Or, rather, who won’t win. It’s weird, but the last player to win the World Cup and the Golden Ball was Romario. Kylian Mbappé was -4 years old. Luca Modric was a nine-year-old refugee. João Havelange was President of FIFA. The #1 song was “I Swear” by All-4-One. So, if you read this and Luca Modric has won the Golden Ball, bet body parts on France.
I think France is going to win anyway. Croatia, weirdly, has faced less and less talented teams as they have progressed. Croatia tore through Group D, helping make Argentina what they are today. But as soon as the knockout rounds started, the impressiveness stopped. Kaspar Schmeichel was the hero of the Round of 16 game, after stoning Modric on a penalty kick. Russia’s athletes in general have a hard-won reputation for chemical enhancement, so maybe Croatia needing another penalty shootout might have an explanation within WADA’s purview.
But England? I don’t think anyone got a “scientifically augmented supermen” vibe from England. After the extra-time win, Modric mocked a battery of pro-English press and pundits that wrote off Croatia because they had played two tiring games previously. Since the pro-English press and punditry seems to have existed in Modric’s imagination, I think Luca was making an inadvertent confession. England had no advantage over Croatia to speak of except that summoned by whimsy and sentiment. Croatia was nearly out of the game before you could cook and eat a three-minute egg.
France faced far more respectable opponents, and dispatched them in a timely manner. They also, and this is a topic that may or may not arise starting Sunday evening, had an extra day of rest.
Is there something to this? Weirdly enough, historically speaking there isn’t. Germany had an extra day to rest after knocking Brazil for sixes and sevens in 2014. But the Netherlands had this advantage in 2010, to no avail. Italy played their amazing semifinal versus Germany in 2006 the day before France played their own intense semifinal against Portugal – do you see why I resent not getting great matches this year? – and I guess it paid off.
But 2006 was literally the first time a team had an extra day of rest in the semifinals, and won the final. The Rested have gone, all time, 1-5-1. (The other tournaments either had semifinal groups, or semifinals played on the same day.)
Now, the game has changed over the years, so if Croatia ends up a gasping wreck by halftime, there will be some talk to put the semifinals on the same day for the first time since 1994.
I still think this is France’s tournament. Either way, this has been a great tournament without a truly great team. Unless this is the start of a French dynasty of course. Or a Croatian dynasty, for all I know. But I doubt it. France 1-0, Pogba with the goal just for the heck of it.