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In this era of ‘modern football’, we’ve become all too acquainted with the outlandish branding, the gluttony of cash and the murky underworld of agents and owners, of doping and match fixing. The cringey transfer unveils, the multi-million euro contracts, the diving, the hairstyles, the silly celebrations, the ‘Russias’ and the ‘Qatars’, the dabbing.
And then, as Paul Pogba stood arms abreast with the World Cup in one hand and his shin pads in the other, he did what everyone was waiting for. He dabbed.
It may seem trivial, an easy Instagram filler for his 25 million followers and social media bloodsuckers alike, but it was more than that. It was Paul Pogba coming full circle. From a much criticized social media superstar first, footballer second, modern football finally collided into one iconic caricature of itself – the face of everything that is supposedly wrong with modern football, from his revolving hairstyles to his £89million price tag – became the face of the World Cup champions, the face of Paul Pogba, over the course of four weeks no longer was a brand – he was a player, representing his country on the greatest stage of them all, where only one thing mattered and that was winning games and loving football. And, ultimately, he led his team to the pinnacle of the game. The pinnacle of sport. Modern football has arrived in a form that we can love and it’s a smiling Pogba, a teenage superstar Kylian Mbappe, a lovable Ngolo Kante.
For a few weeks, we could forget about modern football the ugly monster and absorb ourselves in modern football the entertainment. The show, the stories and the history that wrote itself.
There was Panama, and the cheers and tears as Felipe Baloy scored his nation’s first ever Word Cup goal. They may have been 6-0 down against England, but that didn’t matter and nor should it – Panama had just scored in the World Cup.
There was the 3-3 between Spain and Portugal. An instant classic, with one of the most unforgettable goals in history as Cristiano Ronaldo crashed a free-kick into the top corner. There was little old Iceland holding Argentina to a draw. There was the return of Mohamed Salah with the weight of a nation on his back.
There was Russia getting to the quarter-finals and proving everyone wrong and making their nation proud against all the odds. There was Hirving Lozano and Mexico showing that all was not well in the German camp. Then there was Toni Kroos’s free-kick. And then South Korea, with nothing left to play for, put the final nail in German’s coffin.
There was Neymar being so good and so frustrating all at the same time. Senegal setting the pitch alight. Iran putting in the performance of their lives against Spain and that throw-in. There was Marcos Rojo’s amazing winner for Argentina, amidst the madness of Jorge Sampaoli. There was the sadness when you realise Leo Messi may never win the big one, but does it really matter?
There was every single team in the competition scoring a goal.
There was the outside of the boot from Ricardo Quaresma, the full backs Benjamin Pavard and Nacho scoring screamers, the brace from Edinson Cavani, all the headers and all the penalties.
There was all the VAR, so much VAR, but it was so bloody great at the same time. There was Batshuayi kicking the ball off his head. There was Kylian Mbappe.
There was Croatia hammering Argentina and getting all the way to the final, led by the best midfielder of a generation in Luka Modric. The brave Mario Mandzukic, Daniel Subacic’s saves against England, Ivan Perisic’s class and goals, the three extra times, the dreams and hopes of a nation smaller than Ireland and the heartbreak at the very end as France proved too strong.
And then there was football coming home. If ever there was a case of disillusionment in the game of football it lay in the England national team. But then came along Gareth Southgate and his band of modern football disciples – the dancing, double-tapping squad of ‘no-hopes’ that proved everyone wrong and won a penalty shootout.
That got to the semi-final for the first time since before any of them were born. That united a nation like never before, that became a living, breathing meme drenched in a line that was more than cockily proclaiming the return of the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1966 but rather returning football to the hearts of the people for the right reasons, for football finally becoming fun again, for being able to enjoy football for what it was.
There was the love of the game, the sheer unbridled joy and celebration that exploded in a cocoon of sheer and utter madness over a sweaty, melting summer that won’t ever be forgotten.
The 2018 World Cup ended with France winning the World Cup, but to take the most ridiculous of clichés there was only one winner – football.