A compelling but contrary affair

A CHAOTIC and controversial final that was a fitting climax to a compelling yet contrary tournament.

Whilst you don't want to take anything away from France, only a curmudgeon would deny that Croatia were the better side for much of the game – but ran out of luck after an epic run that defied logic.

The analysts will say that France triumphed because of their organisation: reaping the rewards of both their youth network, academy and tournament strategy of tempering the flair of individuals for the common good.

But what will they say of Croatia, with just four million people, who had none of this: their team was hated by many of their own fans who had turned on Luka Modric; they had a manager parachuted in to scrape through the qualifiers and a player sent home for refusing to play.

Nope, organisation obviously helps but so does fighting against the odds and no one fought harder than the Croats. And to fight that hard, you must have something they can't teach in academies.

National pride is one thing but in Croatia's case, it was a new spirit forged in a war recent enough for many of their players to remember. And it overcame the bitterness caused by the corruption in the running of their domestic game.

The events of a dramatic final day summed up the tournament and make it devilishly difficult to come to any conclusions about style, method, VAR, new trends or the tried and trusted.

There were contradictions at every turn. But the biggest shock is that international football, so long maligned, has made a comeback. Club football may be of a superior standard but for drama, you can't beat nations going head to head.

It was a triumph for Europe – and one the EU gloatingly tweeted. All four semifinalists were European to leave Africa and Asia further away than ever from winning it. Yet no less than 17 of France's 23-man squad are the children of immigrants – mostly from Africa.

England's unlikely lads managed to win back a lost public; Spain, team of the pass masters, committed hara-kiri.

Germany, of all people, got it badly wrong with complacency, cliques and poor selection to fall victim of the curse of reigning champions.

Japan were guilty of shamelessly killing their final qualifying game yet won through on the fair play rule!

Russia, the hopeless lowest-ranked team in it, reached the quarterfinals. Dubbed racist, violent and not a football nation, they were fantastic hosts. Putin really can turn it on like a tap.

Brazil were just not Brazil – pale shadows of former incarnations and victims of the Neymar circus. And Lionel Messi was just not Messi, the burden of carrying a desperate nation being too much. Ditto Cristiano Ronaldo.

Just as the little maestro and CR7 enter the twilight zone, Neymar is in danger of missing out on the succession. Kylian Mbappe could steal it while even Paul "cameo" Pogba did more than he does for United. So did Romelu Lukaku and even Victor Lindelof, but not Phil Jones.

Goalkeepers made some phenomenal saves but also some howlers; Croatia's Danijel Subasic turned to stone for the last two goals while Hugo Lloris turned into Loris Karius.

VAR may explain why there were more penalties, but not more own goals. Nor did it stop play-acting, rather it encouraged it.

And after starting the tournament as an interfering busybody, it ended it hardly being used – apart from persuading the ref to change his mind – and the game – in the final.

Making the referee's job easier? It puts pressure on him to change his decision and slow motion is a distortion as we saw with the decisive penalty. It is also nowhere near ready.

There were goals in every game but one yet not that many overall. Harry Kane won the Golden Boot but the announcement was booed after his increasingly poor tournament. Of his half dozen, three were pens, one a deflection and two from two yards.

Luis Suarez, the Devil Incarnate at the previous two World Cups, was like a choirboy. In Kieran Trippier, an unheralded Tottenham right back, England discovered a new Beckham – without the baggage.

A former nomad of an Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand became a national hero.

Russians can play football and they found a gem in Aleksandr Golovin. All in all, the hosts seemed to like what they saw and so did we.

It's just a pity we can't look forward to the next one with much optimism.

But let's savour the contradictions, not least of which was FIFA making Putin look like a liberal, England winning a penalty shoot-out and, for France, the water carrier turning the stuff into wine.