Football Fancy, WorldCup 2018: Lessons of a Dream

Photo credit: Twitter @FIFAWorldCup

Photo credit: Twitter @FIFAWorldCup

The stage is set for the big showdown on Sunday, also known as this year's World Cup final: France vs. Croatia. There are many football fans who didn't expect Croatia going all the way, but when taking a closer look at the four teams that made it to the semifinals and those who went home early - including Germany, Spain and Brazil - it shouldn't come as a surprise.

Belgium, England, France and Croatia are four teams that have shown something on the pitch that many of the others, especially the favorites, seemed to be lacking: the indomitable will and hunger to win and the simple understanding of the fact that football is a team sport. 

Of course, the class and talent of individual players are important and can make the difference in specific situations – when they destroy a whole defense with that one clever pass, or when they create magic on the pitch through dribbles, free kicks and stunning goals. But in the end, one single player can have all the skills in the world – if he’s not able to fit in the overall structure of the whole team, it’s going to be hard to win trophies.

Watching Belgium’s offensive trio Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku was a feast for the eyes: not only did they seem to have a blind understanding on the pitch, most of the time they also played rather selfless; not selfishly going for glory, but always keeping an eye out for their teammates that might be in a more promising position to score a goal.

France, with quite a few stars in its midst, also took to the field as an entity, while the Three Lions were willing to go the extra mile for one another and Croatia never lost its fighting spirit until the final whistle, no matter how exhausted, no matter how tired – and tired they must be after going through extra time three times and a penalty shootout twice on their way to Moscow.

Seeing the performances of the four semifinalists, it suddenly becomes easier to understand why Brazil, Spain, Germany and other countries like Portugal and Argentina struggled in comparison.

The Spaniards made headlines when the Royal Spanish Football Federation sacked the manager of the national team two days before their World Cup campaign – say what you will, but the chaos that must have followed this blatant decision surely had an impact on the team as well.

Portugal and Argentina have been struggling with the same problem for many years: they have the two best footballers of all time in their teams, yet both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, with all their titles and accolades on club level, can only do so much. Add in the trouble between the Argentinean team and its coach, and it is perhaps not surprising that the South Americans bowed out early.

Germany, oh Germany, was but a shadow of the team that won the World Cup four years ago. Internal struggles paired with arrogance and laziness and an overall poor and vexed atmosphere among the fans back home led to an underwhelming performance in Russia. It was the much-celebrated teamgeist that helped the Germans triumph in Brazil, and it was the spectacular lack thereof that sent them packing this year.

Neymar Jr. maybe thinks that he is some kind of football god, but his childish antics were certainly not helpful for the rest of the Brazilian team, both on and off the pitch. When he started bickering with Thiago Silva and objected to his teammate’s decision to follow the rules of Fair Play, it should have been obvious to anyone that this concept is lost on Brazil’s golden boy.

The four semifinalists, on the other hand, dared to dream, they believed in themselves and their fans had their back, both in victory and defeat. In this regard, they have all won big – and even though Belgium and England didn’t make it to the final, they will go home with their heads held high, and rightfully so.

My dream final (in the absence of Germany) would have been Belgium vs. Croatia, simply because both teams have never won the World Cup before, and it’s a joy to see smaller countries succeed in a sport that has long been dominated by “great football nations”. Therefore, I will be rooting for Croatia on Sunday – but even if France should be the one lifting the trophy, I won’t be disappointed either. Win-win.