Was This The Weirdest World Cup Ever?
Kevan James/Alex Scott
Not Quite the Weirdest, But A Little Out of the Ordinary
For once, let's leave aside the still ongoing discussions over whether or not the tournament should have been played in Qatar and all the other debates that go with it. Let's talk about the football.
It was indeed a fine tournament. It had unpredicted results, and it had controversies too (it wouldn't be a World Cup without). But overall, one of the better events to have taken place. The final has been hailed as one of the best ever, Argentina 3 France 3 AET (Argentina won 4-2 on penalties). Jason Burt of The Telegraph wrote: 'This was the greatest of all-time. The greatest World Cup Final of all-time involving the greatest player of all-time and the player who could one day rival him for that honour. The GOAT debate is at an end.'
Carried home - Messi, the World Cup and Argentina
Many others expressed similar sentiments. Nevertheless, this World Cup, and again only in football terms, was a little out of the ordinary. Hot weather has always been one of the factors to think about but never before has a tournament had to be played in the European winter and with match times as these were. Most leagues have had to schedule a break in the middle of their seasons to accommodate it. And it didn't end there - the sight of the winning team captain donning a robe before being presented with the trophy was also a first (it was a Bisht, a traditional victor's robe, for anybody who doesn't already know).
The tournament was also noted for Women referees finally making a breakthrough and by all accounts, all performed well.
Referee Stephanie Frappart, centre, with Assistants Karen Diaz, left and Neuza Back, warm up before the Germany v Costa Rica match - the first time an all-female match officials team took charge of a men's World Cup tournament game.
Phil Foden celebrates scoring against Wales
Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
And what of England and Wales? It would be nice to see all four Home Nations at the same tournament and even nicer if all could make the latter stages. Perhaps one day... In the meantime, Wales may not have progressed beyond the group stage but they didn't let anybody down. Not really - one thing many don't get is that these days, there are no 'bad' teams at a World Cup. Despite the occasional high-score result, most teams that qualify do have merit and deserve to be there. The so-called 'super powers' no longer have the divine right to win. And that includes England.
Like Wales, England didn't let anybody down. The loss to France was by the finest of margins and it could have been different. England have hovered on the edge of glory for some time now and have yet to find the way of taking the last step. But it can be said that England now at least look the part and do not flatter to deceive. Once that final push has been made, it may - only may - herald the start of a new era for English football.
One can only hope so.
© Kevan James, 2022.
The future's bright for this England team
Jude Bellingham heads home for England against Iran
The what-ifs are the worst feeling that you can ever have as a player. In the World Cup quarter-final against France, England produced everything that we've wanted to see – both the heart shown and the ability to get on the ball and create. Games like that, when you run top opposition close and know you could have won, are the ones that sting the most. It hurts, because on another day they could easily be preparing for a semi-final.
I know how that feels. Before you know it, you're back in your own house wondering ‘did that all happen?’ Everything that you've trained for, been building up to and then… it's over.
Leaving the tournament bubble is a struggle. You're around the same people, you know what time you're eating breakfast, you know what time you have to train, everything is such a routine. When you leave that, real life comes at you quickly: you even have to think, ‘Oh, what am I going to have for dinner today?’ It sounds strange, but it's the simple things like that – at the tournament, everything has been done for you, so you can perform at your best.
After this tournament is different as the players need to click straight back into domestic season mode. It might therefore be a little easier for the England players to handle, as there's less time to linger. Over this week, however, the hard thing will be exploring those what-ifs. You have to just push it aside.
Marcus Rashford scores against Wales
I thought England played really well [against France], especially in a dominant second half. I think we were watching the two best teams at this year's World Cup, in terms of both the squad depth and the quality on the field, and England were the better team on the night but France chose their moments. It comes down to taking your chances, and we weren't clinical enough.
That's the nature of fine margins: one quality cross from Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud finishes it and punishes you. That's the difference between winning and losing at this level. France will know that England dominated possession and carved them open multiple times, but does it matter? No, they won – and people remember the winner.
Declan Rice toe-ends the ball away from Kylian Mbappe
You've seen this across the tournament. Croatia, for instance, know their strengths. That might not embody Brazil's Samba style that everyone likes to see, but Croatia don't care – they are here to win. There's no way we should be surprised Croatia are like that, as it was exactly the same in 2018. Their strength is having a great game plan and everyone executing it correctly to get them through to the next round. They progressed through three knockout phases in 2018 that all went to extra time. When we talk about them being fatigued, we shouldn't, because they're used to it.
We've seen so many exciting young players this tournament, but the old guard, with Luka Modrić and Lionel Messi, for example, is where we've seen the game's pure class. They've recognised that while they might not have the legs to run around as much, their football brains are beyond anyone else's – they can inflict damage in the most decisive fashion.
England's stars continue to shine
I feel like a broken record, but Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka were the star players once again. I thought Saka reached another level – he had France so worried that their fullbacks were actually doubling up on him. The number of fouls committed on Saka – including in the build-up to the first goal – also shows you how scared the French were.
Bellingham continues to run the show in midfield, exhibiting a spirit of competitiveness and experience beyond his years. His maturity and natural leadership qualities make it so easy to forget that he's 19. He was the one that ran straight up to Harry Kane after the penalty miss; the one approaching the referee after every foul and demanding that he went to check VAR. That's normally the role of your older, experienced players, but Jude proved how integral he is to this new England team.
Kyle Walker handled Kylian Mbappé well. Everyone was talking about that battle, and Mbappé was fairly quiet. When you have a team like France, however, it doesn't matter. You keep one player quiet and they've got other stars.
Olivier Giroud nets the winner for France against England
via GQ Magazine/Getty
When it comes to the officials at this World Cup, it's been a mixed bag. It's difficult to know how to improve consistency. You have Pierluigi Collina, perhaps the greatest referee of all time, involved in creating training regimes, spending time with all the officials and assessing them in every game.
Saturday was frustrating, as was the Netherlands vs Argentina game. When you get to this stage, you expect it to be about the players, not the game the referees had. I think that's the frustrating thing, but they just have to continue the training. I know FIFA spend a lot of time working with them – we can only hope Collina's efforts begin to bear fruit.
As a player, though, they're the things you can't control. You can't wake up and keep blaming the referee. You can be frustrated, but it's out of your hands. You can only focus on controlling the controllables.
I think back to the 2015 World Cup. We were in the semi-final against Japan, in extra time, and Laura Bassett scored an own goal with one of the last kicks of the game. She was distraught, feeling like it was all her fault. There's not much you can say, but providing support and just being there is absolutely everything.
It's not Kane who lost us a place in the semi-final at all, but he will be putting it on himself. That's a credit to the person he is, shouldering that responsibility, but with everything he's done in an England shirt, everyone's proud of him. Even with the penalty miss, Kane has again shown what he means to this team. He might not have reached the milestones he was aiming for at this World Cup, but he's contributed so much with his linkup play. Similar to Giroud in 2018, Kane has been integral to England's positive play.
Jordan Pickford and Kieran Trippier played an important role in protecting Kane at the end of the match. At the end of the day, we're all human. You've just missed a penalty, you're overwhelmed by the emotion of losing a quarter-final, and then the world's cameras are in your face. They were protecting him as a person and friend, not just Harry Kane the footballer.
Kylian Mbappe volleys home his second goal in the Final
Support and abuse
There have been reports of more racist abuse on social media, of Saka and Marcus Rashford. I experience it every day: it's draining and pathetic. It's hard, but I try to remember that it's not my problem – it's these sad individuals' problem. I try to not let it consume my energy, change my outlook or affect me, even though sometimes it threatens to. You have to work through the things that you have in place, to not let that minority try to ruin your day and who you are as a person.
I don't think Saka and Rashford will be thinking about the small percentage of people who are trying to do what they did after the Euros. They've both had an incredible tournament, so their energy will be focused elsewhere.
Morocco played their game against Portugal to perfection. They're a great, organised team, scored the goal and were able to stop a Portugal side that threw everything at them. One of the images of the World Cup is Morocco's Sofiane Boufal celebrating pitchside with his mother. It just sums up the delight of an unfancied team that has reached the semi-finals on merit – it's what you want to see at a World Cup. It's huge for Morocco, and as the first African and Arab-speaking country to reach a semi-final, for the continent, too. Imagine Morocco vs Croatia in the final of the World Cup. I don't think anybody in the world would have predicted that, if it had happened.
Messi scores v France
We need to remember that Morocco topped a group that included Croatia, Belgium and Canada. They've not just slipped through, they've knocked out Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. Walid Cheddira's red card, along with a growing injury list, cast doubts on their chances against an impressive France, but they gained such momentum and belief that they didn’t go into that semi-final fearing France at all.
Argentina scraped through against the Netherlands. They've been nowhere near the best team in the tournament, but when you add someone like Messi to the mix, to create a bit of magic, it's hard to beat. That can carry you through, as has happened. Messi looked tired in extra time, and with it, Argentina's attacking threat diminished. However, he knows with his experience when to rest in games, and when to turn on the magic and the style.
Complete with Bisht, Messi and Argentina celebrate
Gareth will go down as one of the best managers we've had. Whenever I think about my next steps, it's in the quiet moments that I make decisions and plan for the future. As he said, he needed that time to really evaluate and think, and he should be given it. I've spent a lot of time with Gareth and know that he won't be thinking about himself: he will be thinking about what's best for this England team, and if he's the person to do it.
One of the biggest things he's achieved is the culture shift. You now have a national side that feels like a club team. Players are excited to be called up by England and to meet up with national teammates, which wasn't necessarily the case with previous managers. He's also shown confidence in the younger generation, whether they're playing abroad or playing for a non-top-four team. He's made every young player believe that there's a place for them in the England setup.
English reputation restored
By showing such togetherness and putting in the performances, this group of players has made people look forward to a bright future. Yes, it's disappointing, but in 18 months, we have Euro 2024, and most of this team is so young: Saka is 21, Bellingham is 19, Foden is 22, and Rashford is still only 25. It's an incredible England team full of talent, and that's what we need to be celebrating.
The aim now for the Euros is to turn a silver medal into gold. They've had every sort of experience you need at the highest level: the heartache, the pain, the great performances against top teams. They've been there, they've done it; the next step is to win.
Before then, we have the women's World Cup in Australia