The changing of the tactical guard at the World Cup was marked by early exits for Germany and Spain, and now the pace and aggression of France shows the way forward
The last time France won the World Cup, in 1998, they brought cross-culturalism which in football is an augmented reality into the media spotlight. Winners again, they were one of three semi-finalists who had significant numbers of players with a mixed heritage, sons or grandsons of immigrants. That mix, that blend, is to football what poverty always was too: proof that the game itself discriminates according to a playersworth on the pitch, not his social status a true meritocracy. The fact that the marginalised continue to find paradise in a game thats ever more conditioned by money is not insignificant.
It is a relative conquest because the perspectives on this phenomenon continue to carry the same prejudices as ever. When Brazil failed to win the tournament in 1950, the narrative that won out was one that attributed that to the supposed impurity of their race. Eight years later, Didi, Garrincha, Pel and company brilliantly won the World Cup in Sweden in what was, you can only assume, proof that race could be purified in record time. Nowadays, depending on the score and depending too on who is talking, much the same things are said (or thought).
There is another, more telling message contained within the current sociological and cultural composition of national teams. This is a more purely footballing one. There was a time in which the way football was played was similar in some way to the place it was played. The theory held that we played as we were, and it found literary expression in Pasolini to whom we turned to hear him talk about the poetic football of South America and the prosaic football of Europe.
As globalisation imposes itself, in football too people and ideas are ever more mixed, identities fragmented. And yet within that, identities survive and shift: to take just the famous example, no one can deny that Pep Guardiolas teams play in verse, Diego Simeones in prose. I have no objection to that. I seek only to underline that football continues to reflect social pulses, heartbeats: there are tendencies here too. There are changes and challenges upon ideas and ideals. Nothing is inalterable.
Lets take that idea on to the fieldof play, because there the pitches of Russia showed no respect for even the slightest glimmer of greatness, whether thats national teams, players or dominant ideas. Itdidnt care that Germany, Argentina, Portugal and Spain departed to the thunderous noise that surprises always provoke, opening up furious, bloody debate upon their return home.
On the same day, the two Napoleonic leaders of world football were eliminated at a stroke goodbye to Messi and Ronaldo and the World Cup didnt care that their departure left a sense of emptiness among football lovers. The greatest act of disdain for the established order, though, was the merciless way Russia 2018 swept aside Germany and Spain, the previous two winners of the World Cup and also, more even than that, representatives of a way of being, an identity, that revolutionised the game, imposing an abusive domination of the ball over the last decade.
We came to the World Cup to enjoy it, to feel the excitement and embrace the emotion, to analyse the tendencies too, but the abrupt end that befell Germany and Spain left us disconcerted because it endangers something seemingly so significant as the tiki-taka style that conquered the last two World Cups and became a footballing yardstick by which the game was measured. This beautiful, winning style left mediocrity exposed but it always had its detractors and now they are dancing upon its grave. They would be mistaken to believe it is definitively buried, but those of us who adhered to an ideal which made the ball the heart of the game, the focal point of everything, would be even more mistaken to overlook its excesses and flaws.
Talent serves to make a virtue of vice. Players with natural deficiencies, those who lack the qualities others boast, find original means to hide their defects and thus, through embracing those deficiencies, they dazzle and often dominate. Players such as Xavi, Andrs Iniesta, Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos escaped from the obsession with physique and tactics, from the place where football was heading, to where judging by what we have seen in Russia it seeks to return. Instead, through exquisite technique in control and passing, an unusual intelligence and understanding of the game, they came to dominate to impose their superiority and even, eventually, to abuse it. It is true that they did so with more possession than goals but their opponents regretted becoming footballers when they spent the entire game running after the ball. And at the end of it, it was the owners of the ball who lifted the trophy.