The World Cup Final Is Upon Us. What Have We Learned?

  • Football
  • Sunday, 15 Jul 2018

Here we are. The final match of the 2018 World Cup has almost arrived, and it has been as thrilling a tournament as I can remember. As Maximus, Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator,” famously yelled, “Are you not entertained?”

Over the past four weeks, 32 teams from across the globe have come to Russia to play their hardest and to try their luck. One by one they have all gone home, often in heartbreak. There have been some shocking results, for sure. Germany didn’t even make it out of the first round; the formidable Spain was knocked out by Russia. Brazil looked invincible, and then Belgium brushed them aside. My home team, England, made it further than expected, before a gallant and tearful exit at the semifinal stage on Wednesday. Now it’s down to France against Croatia, on July 15.

As we approach the fateful, high-stakes last match, it’s a good time to reflect on what this World Cup has meant and what it has given us. I’ve written before that this tournament is about more than football. It’s also about politics, economics, social issues and history. That’s certainly been true this year — the influence of colonialism on African football, the controversy over doping, the often fraught relationships between diverse national teams and increasingly nationalist European populations.

On the other hand, the World Cup can also be pleasantly not about politics. For the past month, much of human civilization, one match at a time, has gone on vacation. The final is like a royal wedding, a moon landing and New Years’ Eve rolled into one: You can’t avoid it. But don’t we all need a little escapism now and then? After all, these are bleak times. Asylum seekers are being separated from their children in the United States, while the European Union’s increasingly hard-line controls on its borders lead to the drowning of more refugees. I’ve enjoyed the chance to lose myself a little bit in the beauty of the game. You probably have, too.

Here’s the other wonderful thing about the World Cup: It really does bring people together. I’ll never forget some of my favorite experiences watching the tournament this year in Berlin. There was that afternoon when the owners of a Mexican bar, delirious at their team’s win over Germany, gave out free shots of tequila to fans of both countries. Or that night in my favorite restaurant when I watched as two Croats consoled a Dane, whose team Croatia had just beaten in a penalty shootout. Or the evening a beer garden full of international fans, in awe at the skill and sportsmanship of the Japanese, suddenly began to support them. Wherever you watched the games this year, you probably have your own similar memories.

But those of us who closely follow international football know that even amid the joy and excitement, controversy is never far away. And this World Cup, like several before it, has been tainted. There are many reasonable questions about what kind of corruption might have led to the games being held in Russia. There’s also the question of how much the tournament was used to gloss over some of the ugliest aspects of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, including torture. Yet the concluding game always manages to summon a unique thrill. This is FIFA’s enduring talent: to orchestrate the world in awe of the spectacle of international football. FIFA, every four years, presents us a wondrous multicultural feast, a series of vivid dishes from Serbia and Senegal and everywhere in between. Eventually there’s nothing we want to do but consume. On Sunday evening, we get the final course. I’m looking forward to it.

During the 2014 World Cup, I was lucky enough to be in Rio de Janeiro during the final. I’ll never forget overlooking Maracanã Stadium as Germany prepared to play Argentina for the title. Then, as now, billions of eyes were fixed on that small green stage, as the players prepared to perform, and perhaps claim their place in football history. There was a feeling of being a part of history.

Whether Croatia or France wins, the 2018 World Cup final will have brought us viewers together in unexpected community. It will have given us joy. It will have taught us about one another and about the world. And for all of that, I am utterly thankful. May the best team win.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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