Paul Pogba started the tournament having his haircut condemned by BBC commentator Mark Lawrenson and ended it holding it the World Cup. He also ended it with Patrice Evra defending him on Twitter…. by vowing to get his own hair cut like the champion midfielder.
This follicular obsession is all very well but, much like final referee Nestor Pitana’s combover, it obscures the reality. Pogba might get his Hollywood passes wrong from time to time, but George Lucas made The Phantom Menace so on occasion you have to be forgiving with greatness. On Sunday, Pogba started the move for his goal with a raking drive of a ball to Mbappe that a metre either way could have been filed under “Nice try, Mr flashy pants” on the hard drive of his detractors.Here it was sublime and perfect, more short backlift and scythe than short back and sides. The vision to see it, the impudence to try it, the technique to do it. On the volley, no less. Towards the end he pulled off a hilarious air shot when attempting a relatively simple side foot finish and then later celebrated by doing a ‘dab’ with the trophy, doubtless curling the toenails of many. Pogba remains a tumult of contradictions, but his legacy will be his beautiful feet, brain, eyes and triumphs.
High foot to the heart
England’s unexpected surge to the semis was ended by Croatia on Wednesday night as the precision waves of red and white-checked attacking guile finally overcame the Three Lions. Gareth Southgate’s likable bunch have undoubtedly taken things on a level: the zen of their wingbacks in tight spaces, the Kroosesque midfield passes between the lines, the canny and shameless use of gravity to win free-kicks. In Moscow they were ultimately undone by the second best side in the world, but the nature of Croatia’s first goal suggested some English attitudes stay the same.
For years, one of the bugbears of older England fans was that the showing of studs in any situation resulted in a foul or indirect free kick. This was invariably seen as an example of cosseted, manbag-wearing foreign players being protected from the superior manliness of their Anglo-Saxon opponents. In Moscow, Perisic thrust his boot a good metre off the ground but only a few milimetres from Kyle Walker’s head as he skillfully guided a Vrsaljko cross into the net for Croatia’s equaliser. The rugged hands of England’s defenders immediately went up in appeal before going down again rather sheepishly.
The team have taken huge strides forward, both in terms of reconnecting with fans and embracing the more continental values of technique and canny subterfuge. But whinging vociferously about high studs, as surely Croatia would have justifiably done had the boot been on the other foot, was still a step too far.
Winter of discontent
So after what has a great World Cup, well-organised and well played, it fell upon FIFA president Gianni Infantino to announce the less euphoric news that the 2022 tournament, already awarded to Qatar, would take place in the months of November and December. While this may have pleased some sun-seeking players who already regularly pop off for winter rays in that part of the world — albeit in Dubai rather than Doha — the decision wasn’t universally well received.
This schedule will clearly play havoc with European leagues, squeezing or eliminating the winter break for those that have one and causing fixture chaos for the those that don’t, but they will all probably muddle through somehow. The stadiums will all have air conditioning in place which means the atmosphere will at least be rather less fuggy than that surrounding the award of the event to Qatar, which has constantly been tainted by the whiff of corruption.
People will inevitably need a lot of convincing all this is for the good of the game, but with a mooted 48-team tournament in the 18th country to ever host the event, football certainly cannot be accused of isolationism. One person who won’t be sniffy about the tournament being held in the region is Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic, who cut his teeth as a coach in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So maybe the Qatari World Cup will all be ok once, like VAR, people get used to it. It’s at least unlikely the dignitaries will need umbrellas during the trophy presentation.
The ugly side of beautiful?
Sports fans, particularly those watching cricket on South African TV, are accustomed to cameramen scouring the ground looking for female fans considered to be aesthetically pleasing. Those zoomed in on normally just wave up cheerfully at the big screen they’re pictured on although some, such as two Peruvian ladies during their team’s match against Denmark, show the camera a bit more than the palms of their hands.
This ingrained ritual of televised sport gets a few tuts at its objectification of female supporters, but there are few complaints about it on social media, the forum where instances of behaviour perceived as crass and unprogressive are usually mercilessly called out and where the entitled and misogynistic manhandling of female reporters by male fans outside grounds has been rightly shamed during this tournament.
Nevertheless, FIFA has now requested that cameramen focus a bit less on female flesh and a bit more on football in future, sparking furious claims of political correctness running riot. The game’s notoriously ethically dubious governing body appointing itself a governor of feminist ethics might be a bit much for some and it remains to be seen if TV producers heed their call. It might be better for Infantino to concentrate on reducing the number of shots of him glad-handing and gurning with world leaders of dubious repute in the FIFA VIP seats.
We’re going to need a bigger fridge
The rumoured decision to expand the 2022 tournament to 48 teams might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly good news for the specialist beer shops of Cheltenham. The English town is the home of “football hipster” Gus Hully, who for this tournament bought a beer made in all of the 32 nations and drank each one when said team was eliminated.
The Daily Mirror reported that Hully splashed out £500 and enlisted the help of Twitter to secure his stash, but with the Qatar tournament rumoured to be getting bumped up by sixteen teams, the big issue for the hops quaffer will be storage space. With the next host nation also having heavy restrictions on alcohol consumption and unsurprisingly not having any domestic breweries of its own, the 31-year-old will also have a bit of a quandary which Qatari drink to sup on in place of beer. One option would be qahwa helw, a local infusion of saffron, cardamom and sugar which is coloured bright orange. Take a hint, the Netherlands, and get your act together.