Two months ago the thought of England walking out to face Croatia at Wembley in a competition nobody has quite managed to grasp yet would have sent eyes rolling skywards in many quarters. The UEFA Nations League may, or may not, prove a success but when its complicated, overwrought draw was made in January the overall reaction was less than positive. The club season was approaching its climax and a World Cup shrouded in controversy was already approaching; did anyone have the time, energy or inclination for yet more international football?
It is not hard to see why a rematch with Zlatko Dalic’s side – scheduled for November – looks appetising now and, even if that is a specific by-product of a certain storyline within Russia 2018, it speaks to a wider trend. International football was deemed in many quarters to have been close to its last legs prior to the World Cup – an irrelevance next to the highly refined, all-consuming upper echelons of the club game, whose pursuit of perfection and superstardom had left it trailing behind.
Next season’s Champions League will still feature games of greater technical quality than most of those on show this summer, but something seems to have changed: at a critical juncture in its history, the international game has been imbued with life again.
Why is that? The most obvious reason is the number of dramatic, see-sawing matches witnessed in Russia, where only one goalless draw was played out all summer. Most games were frayed around the edges but, ultimately, there is as much pleasure to be taken in wildness and unpredictability as in a relentless quest for quality, and perhaps that point has now been reinforced. Nobody will remember games like France 4-3 Argentina or even the final as technical or tactical masterpieces; they will, though, recall the twists, turns, flourishes, errors and all that makes sport a celebration of flawedness and mortality as much as one of brilliance.
Perhaps, also, this World Cup came at an apt moment in the wider political climate. Whether or not you think England’s success was overplayed – and in the end they reached a semi-final for the first time in 28 years, so it does not have to be about how you get there – it gave the country a common cause to get behind at a time when Brexit dominates the national debate.
Social media makes it easier to polarise opinion – where the club game is concerned too – so the form of Gareth Southgate’s team made this feel like a return to a simpler time where England could be followed in a pure way devoid of connotation or nationalist tropes. The weather was hot, the results were good, the prospects for a long time heady: at times like this nothing else matters, and can anything bar the national team provoke such an effect?
The same was true in, to take one example, Croatia, where an estimated half a million people flooded the streets of Zagreb to greet the runners-up. Croatia, a young country that has emerged from the ravages of war, perhaps has more obvious reason to feel unified behind the flag and the shirt; the lesson again, though, lies in what international football symbolises. In an increasingly atomised world, it is a chance to celebrate identity and togetherness in a positive, unabashed way.
And is there something else at play, too? The shift in emphasis from the individual to the collective during Russia 2018 was well documented. Neymar’s tumbles and histrionics, to take one example, were widely condemned; the competition’s best player was Luka Modric, traditionally viewed a notch below individual stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom went home early.
The World Cup remained a compelling, riveting spectacle to the end without any of its biggest draws – even if Kylian Mbappe may well have reached that status by 2022. Narcissism and solipsism had no place; this summer was hardly an unqualified rejection of those ills but, again, felt like a reversion to something more honest. Players gave everything: Croatia’s mix of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus stars dragged themselves through seemingly insurmountable mental and physical barriers, to take one example, and if it is good enough for them, who would not want to follow?
It would be wise not to go overboard. The World Cup, with question marks hanging over its bidding processes and its hosting rights, remains an event that requires intense scrutiny. It will come under huge strain four years from now, when the tiny petrostate of Qatar hosts a winter tournament that is unlikely to bring the diversity and sheer enjoyment that Russia’s host venues generated. Perhaps what Russia 2018 has done is give the competition a fighting chance of continuing in its current form – albeit with 48 teams from 2026 – and remaining the sport’s pinnacle in reality as well as reputation. A drag, shot-shy, incident-free tournament would have simply cast into stark relief the glamour and allure of the big domestic leagues – and would have made Qatar 2022, already dogged by significant problems, seem like nothing more than a roadblock.
Instead there is, at worst, a stay of execution and perhaps even some genuine curiosity about how, when it shakes down, the Nations League reflects the continental order. A global equivalent may not be far off. Perhaps that might be too much to sustain but for now one thing is certain: the death of international football has been exaggerated.
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Nick Ames - @NickAmes82