Thursday 31 January 2019

VAR the good of the game? France v Croatia World Cup Final 2018, July 15 2018

As much as I loved them being there, Croatia playing France in a World Cup Final represented to me the football equivalent of one of those makeweight Wimbledon finalists down the years ghosting their way to the final Saturday or Sunday before providing limp resistance to an established super power of the game; Marin Cilic of Croatia for instance, losing in three humiliating sets to Roger Federer in 2017, or Cedric Pioline of France, smashed in the same comprehensive manner by Pete Sampras in 1996.

Except that in today's Final, the established order, France, winner of a previous World Cup and two European Championships, were served notice of a serious challenge as Croatia gamely battled not only their on-field opponents, but also the meddling of Hawkeye, er VAR, and the faults of a referee, whose performance would have cast immediate aspersions should Russia have benefitted from it the way the French did.

Gary Lineker explained at the beginning at this World Cup that VAR was only here to correct "howlers" (Alan Shearer going on to helpfully cite examples such as Maradona in 1986 and Lampard in 2010 - although not Hurst in 1966, which as everyone knows was well over the line) and not interfere with, say, arguable ball-to-hand incidents that barely even register an appeal. But Lineker's understanding was proved incorrect as early as the first few games, with the tournament threatening to spill over into Christmas as VAR insisted on verifying a vast range of non-howler developments.

In the first half of today's Final, score at 1-1 and the grand spectacle thrillingly following the lead of this summer rather than of history, Antoine Griezmann's corner for France was headed on at the near post by Blaise Matuidi, and then bounced off the unobtrusive arm of Croatia's Ivan Perusic at close proximity. Like a man-marked striker staying sharp for his moment in front of goal, or a sniper patiently waiting to kill, VAR was ready and waiting for the call. The time had come to make it's mark in the Final. Today's' usurped man in charge, Nestor Pitana of Argentina, was summoned to perform the widest public display of high-stakes charades yet.

Some pundits go on about the importance of letting the crowd know what's going on in these situations, but even at home we could all join in the fun. Pitana stepped straight into the shoes of Lionel Blair or Una Stubbs, while on the sofa I was muffling the mouths of my kids to shout out his first clue via the now familiar index-fingers symbol:


Pitana then strode off to look at the actual television off the pitch, staring at it intently and at length.

"Hmm, where's he going with this: The Royle Family? No, something else...oh, he's heading back to the pitch he's going back again. Another look of intent. Meet Jo Black!  Oh no hang on, he's awarded a penalty...yes, The Muppet Show! Outstretched finger and touch on nose, got it, hurrah!'  

And so VAR was back where it began the tournament, prompting a penalty for France that would have been brushed aside as a trifling incident in the game had it been left alone. In these modern times of personalities surrending to the team ethic, there is less value, or emphasis on a player 'taking the game by the scruff of the neck', but VAR appears to be filling this void. Although Griezmann scored the penalty to put France 2-1 up, could we call this goal, The Hand of VAR?

Croatia had survived scares and ridden their luck to get to the Final but, now that they were in it, fortune deserted them. They started brightly today, like they had finished against England, but then Mandzukic, going from hero to zero, glanced the ball into his own net from a free kick won by Griezmann, which tv replays showed was earned thanks to a blatant dive (VAR opted not to poke it's nose into that one; note, it is the 'inconsistency of referees' that have led us to increased technology - when it feels like it).

Perusic scored a blistering equaliser, aided by a small deflection, to cancel out his team mate’s gaffe, and at 1-1 the game was then delicately poised. That it no longer was at half time led to visible steam puffing out of Roy Keane's ears, as if he'd been asked to take a training session with Alan Shearer without balls or cones.

"I'm fuming", he stared murderously. "I'm disgusted, absolutely disgusted".

Ian Wright, who was once prepared to fight Peter Schmeichel in the Highbury tunnel, chose this moment to say that, as a striker observing the 'handball', he would have "wanted that".

The little warriors of Croatia ploughed on in the second half looking valiantly unperturbed by their misfortunes of the first half, even trying to ignore the isolated Moscow thunderstorms that appeared only over the heads of their players. Rebic fired in a shot from inside the area that forced Lloris to tip over, but rather like the impact that second Geoff Hurst goal had on West Germany at 3-2, Griezmann's penalty forced Croatia to go for broke. Where Bobby Moore had casually played a beauty over the top to Hurst for 4-2, Paul Pogba hit a raking outside of the foot work of art to Mbappe down the right. The ball came into the box for Griezmann, who teed up the onrushing Pogba to score at the second attempt for 3-1.

That fourth goal of the game arrived with a small bag of goodies: first goal scored outside the penalty area since Marco Tardelli's for Italy against West Germany in 1982: first Premier League goalscorer in a World Cup Final since Pogba's fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Petit against Brazil in 1998: third out of the three goals in this Final scored with the foot coming off the left one. Pogba declined the opportunity to mimic, or pay tribute, to either of the two players named above, which perhaps demonstrated the difference between the great and the good. When master Playmaker No.10 Zinedine Zidane scored a Golden Goal winning penalty for France against Portugal in the semi final of Euro 2000, his bent left arm celebration was surely an homage to master playmaker No.10 Michel Platini's last minute winner for France against Portugal in the semi final of Euro 84. In that moment of pure ecstacy, ZZ was able to show the kind of self-awareness that you just can't teach, while PP, formerly of Juventus like ZZ and MP, couldn't find the resources to shake his head like a Tardelli mad thing, or fall onto his knees and roll over, like Petit. Mark Lawrenson said it right at the start: "just an enigma, I'm afraid".

Croatia's label as most hard-done-by finalist since Holland (in 74 or 78) edged closer to reality when marauding left back, Lucas Hernandez, found Mbappe, who slammed home a fourth. This was the first goal scored outside of the penalty area in a World Cup Final for six minutes, but Mbappe declined to replicate Pogba's celebration. Admittedly, had Pogba impersonated Tardelli or Petit, things might have become complex. This was also the first goal in a World Cup Final scored by a teenager since Pele, better known as Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, for Brazil against Sweden in 1958. Mbappe didn't bother with him either, merely executing the weird arms-folded thing that Sheridan Shaquiri does.

Mbappe was quite right to dismiss Do Nascimento, as there was a much more obvious comparison available. After Mbappe's now four goals and brilliance in Russia, the question had to be asked: Which teenage product over the last 20 years has smashed onto the scene to greater world acclaim - Mbappe or Mmmbop?  Despite the PSG striker's output, it may be unfair to saddle him with unreachable expectations. 27 millions copies sold worldwide, and a uniting of Visage nightclub's loaded spirits on Pound-a-Pint Monday nights, suggests that Hanson's marker may be forever untouched. Still plenty for Kylian to be proud of, though,

Finally, four minutes after Mbappe's debate-sparking goal, Croatia came across some luck when forthcoming lifter of the grand prize, 'Ugo' Lloris, received a back pass, only to flick it straight onto the foot of the hunting Mandzukic, who deflected the ball in for 4-2. With no time to dwell on being the first man to score at the same end for different sides in a World Cup Final, the previously known 'Blooper Mario' raced back to the centre circle, where Croatia would have another go at resurrection. Meanwhile, an excited VAR was ushered back to it's seat; it wasn't this kind of 'howler' that Gary Lineker had believed it was brought in for.

We now had the highest scoring Final since 1966 - and without needing Extra Time or a purposefully nodding Russian lino. One more goal would equal the seven goals in that 5-2 Do Nascimento-inspired win for Brazil over Sweden in '58 (if you really want to see a goal being 'walked in', watch Sweden's opener in that game) but to Guy Mowbray's delight no more arrived, allowing him his own big moment at the final whistle.

"Tonight in Paris, they're going to party like it's 1998!"

The missus was unimpressed: "That wasn't rehearsed, was it?!"

I too, suspected a lack of spontaneity. Without ever being a fan of John Motson, I can appreciate more his clearly stumbled-upon response to the end of the Euro 92 Final: "It's's's Denmark!" At least, he made it sound accidental. The best lines are the ones unexpected from even the commentators' mouths themselves: "It's up for grabs now!" (Brian Moore, Anfield 1989) "They think it's all is now!" (Kenneth Wolstenholme, Wembley 1966) "Where were the Germans...but frankly who cares?!" (Barry Davies, Seoul, 1988).

So, the established order triumphed again, France's second crown leaving the World Cup winners' toll at 8 nations spread over 21 tournaments. Lloris became the fourth goalkeeper to captain a World Cup winning team (following two Italians and a Spaniard; Combi and Zoff of Juventus in ‘34 and ‘82, and Casillas of Real Madrid in 2010), although he had to wait 20 minutes after the end of the game to lift that hallowed trophy. To me it was an apt end to this historic tournament, as the delay represented the average time of a VAR check.

In the middle of a torrential rainstorm, soaked presidents Macron and Grabar-Kitarovic (in national shirt), embraced the players of both teams, while host president, Putin had a man hold an umbrella over him. Early reports suggested that he wouldn't be given the 'Wally With the Brolly' treatment that the lesser feared dictator, Steve McLaren received in 2008 following another match involving Croatia. Sadly for Dutch Steve, it is another former Middlesbrough manager - his successor at The Riverside, in fact - who has captured the hearts of a nation instead, helped by not having to handle Russia as well as Croatia in a qualifying campaign.

Typical, how petty of me to end this on an anti-England note, but actually I won't, because next up is my light-hearted/insight-lacking review of the tournament, so deep breath, cheeks puffed, you thought it was all over, but it isn't yet...



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