Last look at Russian kaleidoscope

THE cup has been paraded along the Champs-Elysees, the players are on the beach or their pre-season tours, the pitch invaders already in jail. But we are still rubbing our kaleidoscope eyes.

Yep, that was some trip they gave us, the memories not just lingering but merging into a magical, if transient, blur.

Such was the impact of a World Cup that many feared would be blighted by thuggery, apathy and racism from the hosts, an African walkout and an English wipeout.

If that was the doomsday scenario, it could not have been more wrong: Russia is now back in Russian hands after the most exuberant occupation in its history. If Western Europeans didn't go, the rest of the world did – and had a ball.

But it wasn't just politics behind the pessimism – let's be honest, it was football. More precisely, international football. It had a bad name. The last three World Cups had been dire – you struggle to remember a decent game – and those international breaks drive us to distraction.

Club football is king, loyalties are to clubs that are more easily identified with than countries – especially for non-participants – and the standard is better anyway. All the best players are in the Champions League; many were missing here.

As it was, the two immortals left early doors and the pretender didn't even pretend. If Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo couldn't lift their mediocre teammates single-handedly, Neymar couldn't manage it even with a talented supporting cast.

If he is the undisputed winner of the Golden Raspberry, no one quite earned legend status. Kylian Mbappe is the anointed one but for all his pace, youth and exuberance, he has yet to belong to the same lofty pantheon.

Nor do his teammates. France were good but, playing with the handbrake on, not much better than Croatia, Belgium, Uruguay or Brazil. (Or even Spain or Germany if their managers had not screwed up). Yes, they have a structure where Croatia do not – and the Croats were the better side until VAR intervened.

So, if the best individuals fell short and the best teams failed to reach the heights, just why was this tournament such a blast?

Frankly, and from a vantage point no better than a fourth floor office along the Federal Highway, it was a favourable combination of factors, the biggest of which was our low expectations.

But the hosts put on a great show, the weather was good – few realise how home failure and winter cold put a dampener on the South African finals – the people were friendly, travel was free and the stadiums were space-ship sensational.

It also got off to a flyer. Every World Cup needs the hosts to stick around and Russia did – far longer than expected.

Scoring five in the opener was their dream start and it was quickly followed with a classic (Portugal vs Spain) on the second day.

Once up and running, things never really slackened off and there was the unexpected bonus of favourites falling. Of storylines and drama, there was no shortage.

The sacking of Spain's manager before a ball was kicked was an off-the-Richter own goal that wrecked their chances while VAR was a constant source of debate.

There was not a glut of goals but their timing and circumstances – late, great and own – with lots of penalties kept tongues wagging. And the way the results unfolded, there were few dud rubbers.

Previous tournaments had seen momentum drop but this time it never really did and the final had the most goals since 1966. Underpinning all this, football as a whole is enjoying one of its more attacking cycles and the coaches were mostly a more enlightened bunch.

Yes, France – and Brazil to some extent – never hit top gear but overall there was more freedom of movement than we've seen in decades. Only Spain played possession for possession's sake but that can happen when you lose your leader.

Credit for the overall tenor has to go to Pep Guardiola who has built on the late Johan Cruyff's football philosophy and shown the world just how the game can be played.

France are understandably crediting their scouting network and Clairefontaine academy but their clash with Croatia did bring echoes of Harry Lime's famous skit in The Third Man.

''For 30 years under the Borgias, they (Italy) had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.''

The point here is that while France had the democracy and peace, Croatia not only had bloodshed but their football is in chaos, blighted by corruption and, until quelled by reaching the quarterfinals, there was a rebellion against their own team.

Slogans like "We hope you lose" were daubed on the stadium walls at a pre-tournament friendly with Brazil only last month when the home side was booed.
Luka Modric bore the brunt having lied in court in support of a corrupt official who's in hiding after getting a six-year jail sentence.

To watching associations, the advice must be "don't try the Croatian method at home", but it shows that success is still possible even if all the algorithms and tea leaves suggest otherwise.