Every four years, without fail, the FIFA World Cup becomes a perpetual motion machine unceasingly churning out headlines about tactical formations, niche national stereotypes, and outcome-predicting octopi. I imagine the totality of its dominance outside the sporting bubble is maddening for those not attuned to its foibles. The PGA Tour, the World Series, even the Olympics — nothing else in the calendar compares. 2018’s edition was an incredible vintage, certainly the best in my lifetime. For once, it’s not just because it jutted into the flow of current affairs, and not because it provided solace from the batshit crazy world outside, but because it complimented it so perfectly.
The World Cup is by its nature carnival of corruption, infighting and wounded pride, as much as all the good things. Some say you shouldn’t mix politics and sport, but when the two collide, it can prove delicious. At the last tournament in Brazil, scandal-ridden leader Dilma Rousseff spent the run-up making excuses for delays and graft, probably praying for her side to waltz to the trophy as expected, and take the heat off her. Instead she was deafeningly booed when attending one of the Seleção’s own games in Sao Paulo, and then paid witness to the team shipping seven (seven!) goals to Germany in a national humiliation. I didn’t think sporting carnage could get much better. I was wrong.
The statistics of 2018’s edition are telling. Records were shattered for the most own goals, the most penalties, and the most goals scored after 90 minutes — all key barometers for high farce and high drama. But this is only part of the story. The way we digest media, lap up shareable content, and look for increasingly salacious subplots to draw pause within the infinite scroll has evolved and deepened since 2014. Over the last month in Russia, we hit a chaotic apex which I am — and I imagine you are — still rushing off. Not just garden-variety chaos: full-bore, hyper-accentuated, cascading and gleeful chaos.
When you’re sickly fascinated by the infinite permutations that the 24 hour news cycle coughs up, the edges of different fields blur easily. Distinct caricatures of good and evil form, and you find yourself rooting for/against appropriately. I got the same buzz seeing hubristic hardman Sergio Ramos cry once Spain were dumped out early as witnessing the odious Roy Moore shell-shocked in Alabama’s special election last December. Everyone came under the spell of not just silky touches and slamming set pieces, but sheer schadenfreude. It felt akin to Lionel Hutz’ vision of a world without lawyers, except all creeds and colours joined arms to celebrate the magnificent fucking stupidity of this tournament. It became intoxicating, transcendent, universal.
In the group stages we saw Switzerland, the exemplar of national neutrality, somehow manage to ignite fresh tensions in the Balkans and parties on the streets of Kosovo as two of their stars celebrated a late reversal against Serbia in coded provocation. Swedish and Mexican journalists leapt around singing “Bye Bye Germany” after 2014’s winners came dead-last in Group F, while delirious fans back home in Mexico City rushed to offer the South Korean ambassador tequila shots, and the social media accounts of Brazilian TV networks were going rogue in open mockery of their conquered foes. The previous night, heavily remunerated FIFA ambassador Diego Maradona sucked attention away from countryman Lionel Messi’s thigh defying the laws of physics, by screaming to the heavens above and flipping the bird at the plebs below. Whether Diego can remember it or not, Argentina scraped through a must-win game against Nigeria — but his unholy hangover probably still raged on by the time of their next fixture. They lost.
In the knockout stages, favorites continued to fall left and right — literally, in the case of Neymar and his barrel-rolling ode to Star Fox 64. It takes a special kind of alchemy to smelt your reputation down from being the world’s most expensive player into a source of mirth, rolling on from children’s practise to Wimbledon doubles. By the time social media had absorbed both the fast-mutating Neymar memes, and Belgium’s last-ditch, full-pitch, instant-classic, match-winning counter attack against Japan, a new story was circulating. The heartbroken Japanese players had wiped away the tears, wiped down their own changing room, and left a thank you note to their hosts — in Cyrillic. This all happened in the space of four hours. It was hard to keep up, but harder to tear away.
Here in England, the closing week span into overdrive. While a second couple lay stricken with novichok poisoning, it briefly looked possible that we would line up against Russia — the nation we are blaming for the trail of toxins, and also, conveniently, the hosts. Then, on the eve of our eventual (and highly improbable) semi-final, the Tory administration nearly collapsed, leading The Sun to run a front page scolding the government for being a distraction. England lost with honour in the end, but there would have been no time for burning effigies (as we did with David Beckham in 1998), as eyes of the land swivelled to an airborne Trump baby instead. As protests raged in the streets, the real and only mildly less bloated version told Theresa May to “sue” the European Union. The country we were due to face when that sage nugget of anti-Brussels advice hit the press? Belgium.
Real-life and sporting stories have simply never intermingled in this way. And in a rare twist, it has benefitted the armchair pundit like never before too. Divorced from on the ground experience, we bear no tales of open-hearted strangers in Moscow, or pageants of Peruvian pride. Yet the adrenaline rush has felt even more jacked-up from a distance. In the heat of this sticky summer, the football has melted into a surrealist Dali landscape. This cavalcade of incredulity has progressed shoulder-to-shoulder with that other supremely unpredictable thing: geopolitics. It has coated every newsworthy nugget with a patina of the uncanny. A tournament that would stand alone as great by the usual metrics — great games, great goals, great players — has been elevated into something approaching fantasy, and fantastically 2018.
2006, for example, was a particularly eventful edition on a disciplinary level. 28 red cards were doled out, including Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt heard across the world, a young Cristiano Ronaldo dobbing his Manchester United team mate Wayne Rooney in, and one record-breaking dust-up between Holland and Portugal so filthy it earned its own Wikipedia entry under “The Battle of Nuremberg.” Yet slapstick violence didn’t form some kind of global zeitgeist that year. Today, an unceasing barrage of jaw-dropping curveballs in current affairs does.
It's not even as if the specific 32 teams in this year’s World Cup were especially well-poised to mirror society. The headwinds of tumult sweeping across the world invariably would have thrown up other combinations. What if Italy, with a fractious new government squabbling over migrants, had been drawn in a group with Tunisia? Syria only narrowly missed a qualification place to Australia in extra time of a play-off — can you imagine the lurid plotlines opened up by them partaking? Or Ukraine competing in Russian stadiums, full stop? All things considered, be thankful the USA sat this one out.
Russia, naturally, added an extra wrinkle to the whole experience. It is fair to question whether the warmth of the hosts should reset relations — or whether, given everything that has happened since 2014, they even should have hosted it at all. The success of the tournament will surely embolden an autocrat who already seems to have gamed the simulation of life to his advantage. While the international press sang a song of soft sunrises over Saransk, Putin moved seamlessly to playing Trump like a fiddle in another stop-the-presses spectacle.
A lot of what clouds the news isn't funny – obviously. But we seem to have shifted from the abject horror of a roiling 2016 to a still dicey, but somewhat dead-eyed terrain — less “oh GOD what the FUCK now”, more “oh, what the fuck is it now?” By proxy the centralization of power in the political sphere is much higher than in sport. Idiots can, and still, do huge amounts of damage. A lot of the key players who caused alarm and upheaval a few years back are now, much like Neymar, sources of ridicule. If Steve Bannon, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage et al trip over their shoelaces and stumble into a mess of their own making, it scratches the same itch for retribution as in football. This year, we got that in spades.
The grand finale itself featured, amongst other things: a proud ex-Yugoslav nation with a talisman who may well be arrested on perjury now he has returned home; a staggeringly bad error that plausibly cost France's keeper the Golden Glove award with 20 minutes of the tournament left; members of Pussy Riot invading the pitch and high-fiving breakthrough teen superstar Kylian Mbappe; plus an overexcitable Emmanuel Macron leaping on tables, dabbing, and generally clowning around in torrential rain, next to a bemused Putin (the only dry man in the stadium). It was a ludicrous cherry atop a 64-layer cake of fun. Surely — surely! — it would be the most newsworthy event of the day? No. Elon Musk was having a quiet afternoon on Twitter, calling a rescue hero a pedophile.
That brought a beautiful, bizarre, bogus curtain down on a barely believable bonanza. The pervading feeling is: what have we done to deserve this summer? (To which you might plausibly say: survived the last few summers.) If you take Spain’s manager Julen Lopetegui spectacular shot to his own foot as the starting gun, today marks five weeks exactly since the circus began. It feels like five months. We might never have it this good again.