If the World Cup was a sitcom, Russia 2018 would be the series finaleby Carl Anka / July 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
The 2018 FIFA World Cup will be the last of its kind. After July 15 2018, there will be no more 32 nation summer World Cups. Russia 2018 will serve as the series finale to a 20-year-long chapter of world football that started with France 98. And as with many well-received series finales, it’s packed full of throwbacks to previous episodes.
Put simply, the 2018 World Cup has quietly been a Greatest Hits compendium of all other World Cups from this period.
There’s a young mercurial striker tearing up the tournament. There’s a host nation mak-ing a deep run and bossing Spain; there’s vuvuzelas and African nations becoming every-one’s sartorial second team in the stadium; there’s the hosts of the pervious World Cup getting knocked out in the group stage. Time is a flat circle and the World Cup is an ouroboros.
As with many forms of fandoms, football sees people hand over their identity to a greater whole in the hope their investment is repaid in kind. In that sense, it is as much about storytelling as it is about the specifics of gameplay.
The World Cup takes stories from 32 nations and pits them against each other. Football fans open their hearts, minds and (very often) wallets, mix their hopes and dreams and stories with a few hundred thousand people’s, and hope their combined weight can allow those dreams to be spoken into existence.
Stories of national pride, international rivalry, and dreams of absolution are all set loose to clash, react to and inform each other.
Already (at time of writing, 60 out of 64 games have been played) this World Cup has seen, for instance, Argentina realising they only have one more tournament of Lionel Messi, and trying to use that story to beat the story of France—one in which the team makes up for a disappointing Euro 2016 final defeat by delivering another World Cup win 20 years on from their first triumph.
It has seen Brazil trying to tell a story that banishes the bad memory of the “Mineirazo” 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup, by beating the story of Mexico, who hoped to banish the hex of “Quinto Partido”—the so-called “fifth game” curse that has rendered them unable to reach the World Cup quarter finals since 1986.
Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” At its best, the World Cup is a confluence of the stories football fans tell themselves in order to keep believing. (“Thirty years of hurt/never stopped me dreaming…”) And be it by accident or design, some of the stories we’ve seen at 2018 are callbacks to previous World Cups.
Take France ’98, where the host’s unfancied side rose to deliver on an idea of a “black-blanc-beur” multicultural nation. Where a Croatia side, quietly bristling with talent, deftly maneuvered their way to the World Cup semi-finals. Where a dazzling Nigeria side found their spell in the tournament abruptly cut short in disappointing circumstances.
Or take the stories of South Korea-Japan 2002, where another unfancied host nation made an unlikely deep run to the knockout stages at the expense of Spain. Where the winners of the previous World Cup crashed out in the group stage due to a mix of stagnant football and, frankly, hubris.
Germany 2006? Everyone seems to figure out how to strike the ball properly early so we get a glut of fantastic volleyed goals. There is controversy due to an officiating decision—caught not by the referee, but on video elsewhere. (Do you see where this is going yet?)
Being the first World Cup to be hosted in Africa, South Africa 2010 is the outlier tournament. Many consider it to be the worst of the 21st century World Cups due it having no want nor need for the previously established hegemonies of world football.
It’s a lot harder to track see the stories that are being repeated in Russia 2018.
But there, again, are the winners of the previous World Cup crashing out in the group stage due to a mix of stagnant football and hubris.
Look closer, and you can see a heavily-favoured Brazil side lose 2-1 in the Quarter Finals to a European side finally putting it together.
As for Brazil 2014? Again, the winners of the previous World Cup crash out in the group stage thanks, again, to that heady mix of stagnant football and hubris. Nigeria and Argentina clash in their final game of the group stages, only to have Argentina come out triumphant thanks to goals from Lionel Messi and Marcos Rojo. The link in stories between 2014 and 2018—two neighboring World Cups—are almost profound.
Nicely spaced out every four years, World Cups offer us “the same but different.” Look to the interviews of players who have featured at Russia 2018, many of them were either young children (or, if you want a terrifying reminder of your age, not even born) when France ‘98 happened.
Perhaps they are subconsciously acting out the heroic stories of their youth. Kit manufacturers go out of their way to make new World Cup kits that reference ones of a nation’s yesteryear, as if wearing clothes similar to previous success will allow you to have future ones.
Nowhere is the narrative of then and now stronger than in the figure of Gareth Southgate. After Saturday’s game a friend posted on Facebook “The man who inadvertently gave me one of my first footballing heartbreaks is now giving me the best footballing summer I’ve ever had.”
Southgate’s penalty miss was in the European Championship rather than a World Cup, but its presence across punditry (and social media) speaks to how football and football fans consume, project and repeat the stories of yesteryear. A good World Cup tale can be one about the righting of wrongs, the returning of faith, the forgiving of sins. About coming home.
The World Cup is a confluence of stories. Some repeat. Some reject. As Russia 2018 ends and brings a closing to this chapter of 32 nation Summer World Cups, perhaps we will realise it has repeated its greatest stories in an attempt to put them to bed—and allow new ones to be told.