Belfast Telegraph

To France the glory, Russia the plaudits and England need not look back in anger

Russia 2018 has been hailed as the “best ever” World Cup and while it may be better to let the confetti settle before agreeing, it has been very good.

If journalism really is the first draft of history, later editions of the story of Russia 2018 will be starting from the premise that this was the “best ever” World Cup.

It must be. That is what FIFA president Gianni Infantino thinks, it is what the Russians think and it is what numerous coaches, players and pundits have said over the last few days.

And if there were any waverers, well, how do you like a final that finishes 4-2, has a video-replay nasty, a pitch invasion by a Russian feminist protest punk group dressed as bus drivers and sees Kylian Mbappe become the first teenager to score on this stage since Pele in 1958?

Oh, we also had Ronaldinho on bongos before the match, the World Cup trophy arriving in a Louis Vuitton travel case and the winners receiving their medals under umbrellas as the heavens opened.

But it has been a bit like this – bewildering, exciting, surprising – since the start, when Robbie Williams gave a massive global audience the finger and the worst-ranked hosts in history put five past Saudi Arabia, in front of a purring Vladimir Putin and fuming Crown Prince.

Since then, we have seen Germany forget how to score, England win a penalty shootout, Neymar launch a million memes and a nation swoon for Gareth Southgate.

We have also seen a different side to Russia. It has, of course, always been there, hiding in plain sight and in hundreds of travel books. But it has not been in our breakfast newspapers or television news at tea time.

The how and the why of that is probably best left to the second drafts of this history as it is very hard to make an objective assessment of how much a sports event matters when you are watching France’s worthy winners do belly slides on the greasy Luzhniki Stadium turf and generally look really, really happy.

Croatia’s players have traipsed back to the dressing room but the majority of their very impressive support is still in the stadium and the overriding impression you get from them is one of pride. That a young nation of four million people can produce a football team good enough to beat sides including Argentina, Russia and England is, if not quite a fairy tale, very impressive.

So the World Cup mattered to them and it certainly matters to the thousands of Russians who have helped make every bus turn up on time, every stadium look state-of-the-art, every training camp run seamlessly and every broadcast work.

Most of them have done it with smiles on their faces and while trying desperately to speak your language so you do not have to Google Translate the menu or tube map.

Does this mean we have been getting Russia wrong? Maybe, but if we have some blame lies on both sides and no amount of good sport should ever be allowed to magic away the various items on the Russian regime’s charge sheet.

And what of England? Well, they did both considerably better than we expected but also not quite as well as they made us dream.

Yes, they are young and they will get better. But France are young, too, and their generations overlap. To put this in school terms, the likes of Lucas Hernandez, Kylian Mbappe and Benjamin Pavard have been playing a year up and they are still winning.

And do we really think Brazil, Germany and Spain will make the same mistakes they made here again? What about the teams that did not even make it?

Cameroon, Chile, Italy and Holland all look like the type of last-16 opponents that would send an expectant England into a crisis of national confidence in Qatar in four winters’ time.

So England must improve. I am sure they will.

The DJ is playing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” at the stadium now and the fact that very few can look back at anything that has occurred in Russia over the last five weeks with that emotion – frustration, regret, worry about the credit-card bill, sure, but not anger – is surely testimony to a World Cup for the ages.

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