Football, particularly at high profile events such as the FIFA World Cup, often becomes less about the game and more about the result. For Didier Deschamps’ France this idea seems to be working, for now. But will it define his legacy?
There are times when football speaks languages we cannot understand. When it communicates concepts and constructs we cannot, or are not ready to, immediately comprehend. It becomes not about who played at what position, or how; not about the player’s physicality; his form; his intelligence even. There are times when football becomes a sport that has little to do with playing, and everything to do with winning.
The Russian word fanat refers to millions of people who tune in, all over the world, to watch games such as the one that took place at the St Petersburg Arena on the night of July 10. Most of us fanats were drawn to football because we saw, and felt, a player’s search for the beauty, poetry and joy that lies at the heart of the sport. And we were hooked.
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The first semi-final provided plenty of evidence that us fanats are little more than addicts. The world stood transfixed as France cantered past Belgium in the first semifinal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I say ‘cantered’ at the risk of being mildly offensive to the players on the pitch. Many of them, most of them, put in a long and hard shift.
But, though the stadium seems to have been the architect’s rendition of a science fiction spaceship, the football stopped well short of taking off. The effort a footballer puts in is not enough to create the magic of football that makes the fanat’s heart leap for joy.
For Deschamps’ young French side the objective was different. The search was different. The same can be said for Roberto Martinez’s supremely talented Belgium. Each side was looking for an opportunity that comes very infrequently—if at all—in the life of a footballer. To say you are going to play in the final of a World Cup. In that achievement itself is the fulfilment of billions of childhood dreams.
Why despite war, and disastrous climate change and humanitarian crises that have few parallels in recorded history, children still live and breathe and fight and dream. It is true that at these heady levels the sport has been rampantly commercialised. But despite the philosophical opposition to these ideas, the fact remains that the World Cup final occupies a special position in global culture that has no comparison, nor any competition.
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Adil Rami, who we have not seen, nor likely to see, on the pitch at the World Cup explained their approach to TF1. “It’s a crazy thing. The team is composed of very talented players. Some have discovered another talent today: fighting spirit. I saw Paul Pogba , Olivier Giroud, defend in the penalty area. They fought. We understand that to win such important games or a World Cup final, you have to fight for 90 minutes. We do not care if we are not beautiful, we must go to the coals (Aller au charbon) and that's how we win.”
Going to the coals is a French expression that can be understood as doing whatever needs to be done, irrespective of the hard work, or the dirty work, involved. And doing it without complaint.
The fanat, particularly the neutral, will find little joy in this approach. This much was evident from the mix of Russian, Brazilian and Argentinian majority of the 62,000 people that came to St. Petersburg Arena. They whistled and booed in united response to France’s interpretation of football. Deschamps set his team out to play this way. Where we thought this group of players was incapable of an out and out defensive mode of football, the French took everyone, including Martinez, by surprise. After the win over Brazil, Martinez said he had never "lost a game on the tactics board". Only in the execution of the tactics. On Tuesday he had no tactical response to France and his players were frustrated out of the competition.
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Thibaut Courtois, a standout performer for Belgium on the night and through the tournament, was suitably angry after the game.
“It was a frustrating match, France played nothing, played to defend with eleven players 40 meters from their goal,” he said to the reporter from RTBF. “Played a counterattack with [Kylian] Mbappé who is very fast. It's their right, they know that when the opponent plays very deep, that's where we had problems. The frustration is there because we lose against a team that is not better than us, we lost against a team that does not play, that defends. Against Uruguay, they put one goal on free-kick and another on a mistake of the goalkeeper. Today, a corner. It's football, everyone plays with his qualities. But it's a pity for football that today Belgium did not win.”
There will be those that agree with Courtois. But in homes and cafe and offices and streets all over France people are singing, “We are going to play the final”.
In Belgium, they are not. A giant screen will go up on the Champs de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And, most likely, at similar public venues throughout that country. Everyone in France knows exactly what they were doing on that day in 1998. The nation will have the opportunity to create, maybe, some new memories. In Belgium, the semi-final defeat will, soon enough, be remembered only in the record books.
And for Deschamps, a wildly polarising figure in France, thoughts will now move to bigger matters. First, the expectations of a nation. Second his own legacy. In whatever order he might choose. Will he again play in a similar fashion in the final against Croatia on Sunday? Or will he send his players out in search of the holy grail — the joy of playing beautiful football. The technicalities are now out of the way. A final should, ideally, only be played to win. But will winning come in the way of football? Either way, we will know in Moscow on July 15.