Search icon


19th Jul 2018

A love letter to Russia 2018, the greatest World Cup none of us saw coming

One of the greatest - if not *the* greatest - World Cups there ever was. For all the right reasons.

Simon Lloyd

This wasn’t in the script, was it?

Look at us. Just look. Practically falling over ourselves to say nice things about the Russian World Cup.

This, they said, was one to avoid.

The racism, the homophobia, the organised squads of full-time hooligans ready to swoop in on every host city, hell-bent on caving in the skulls of anyone who looked, sounded or acted vaguely foreign (or perhaps just English).

And then, all this aside, there was the Putin factor: Big, Bad Vlad with another opportunity to use a major global sporting event as a vehicle to show how powerful and not-to-be-fucked-with he and his country are.

Stay the hell away. Boycott it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t bother with the official sticker collection. This isn’t one we’ll look back on with fond memories….

As it turns out, they were wrong.

The racists and the homophobes stayed away, or at least didn’t raise their heads. The hooligans decided an afternoon of pummeling foreigners to within an inch of their lives with pavement cafe furniture probably wasn’t worth the potential punishment of seeing out the rest of their days in a  Siberian prison camp. Even Mr Putin didn’t seem that important for a change.

Of all the things that don’t really matter in life, football matters the most. Many of us love it so for that very reason. It’s a welcome distraction from the truly shit things going on on this planet of ours on a daily basis. And for five blissful weeks, Russia 2018 was precisely that.

Obviously, there were genuinely incredible footballing moments for us all to marvel over. The back spin on Benjamin Pavard‘s sweetly struck screamer against Argentina. Belgium rounding off a breathless 45 minutes against Japan with a perfectly orchestrated counter -attack. Cristiano Ronaldo almost singlehandedly dragging Portugal to a point in their opener against Spain.

This, however, isn’t to say the quality of football was always of the highest standard; it very clearly wasn’t. But of course, nobody really minds.

A World Cup of perfect football isn’t a perfect World Cup. As much as we crave the moments of beauty and brilliance from the world’s best, we get just as much satisfaction from seeing  the moments of sheer incompetence, or a team (so long as it’s not our own) getting absolutely annihilated on the biggest of stages. It’s all part of the drama, part of the fun.

For this reason, we enjoyed the way Saudi Arabia capitulated in the opener against Russia, we mocked Panama’s Mortal Kombat-esque interpretation of how to defend set-pieces and we laughed at that Iranian bloke’s tragic attempts at a flip throw.

Amongst the blend of quality and chaos, Russia 2018 was also rich in narrative. There was the distinctly un-German performance of Germany, dumped out at the group stages four years after being crowned world champions in Brazil, which dominated the early headlines.

There was the way in which England fans jokingly suggested football was finally coming home, only to genuinely believe that it might actually be the case as Gareth Southgate’s men progressed to the last four. And then, there was the sense that Kylian Mbappe‘s dismantling of Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the last 16 was a real changing of the guard moment.

There was other stuff, too. We grew fond of Ally McCoist’s mid-commentary guide to the history of Yekaterinburg or Kaliningrad; of Senegalese fans tidying up after themselves before leaving stadiums.

And with all of this, by the time Hugo Lloris lifted the trophy at the end of that bizarre, rain-lashed presentation, we’d arrived at the general consensus that Russia 2018 was one of the best – if not the best – World Cups there ever was.

When the inevitable post-tournament giddiness subsides, many of us will reassess and perhaps go back to saying that Italia ’90, or Mexico ’86 was better. In truth, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is that during those five weeks in Russia, football, for all the pre-tournament worries that it might not be, was the main story.