Tryst with Telstar | The Daily Star

From Russia, with no surprise!

Being the most formidable among 32 teams, France won the World Cup for the second time. First-time finalists Croatia had a good shot at the ultimate glory in football. But the World Cup, at least for now, is meant to be shared by the elite club of eight countries who won it previously.

The final had the full package: controversial decisions, pitch invasions, a first own goal, first teenage goal-scorer after Pele, comedy of goalkeeping errors and even the first trophy-awarding ceremony in the rain.

Sunday belonged to France. And what a win it was for a team with ultra-defensive capability. A 4-2 triumph in the final is a goal-fest that the world last witnessed 52 years ago when England beat the then West Germany at Wembley in London. A hattrick from great Geoff Hurst and a controversial penalty helped England win the trophy (known as Jules Rime Trophy then) for the first time by a 4-2 margin.

No other teams were as talented and skilful as France in Russia. No other teams were as formidable as France in every position. They were solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. They were all young, hugely talented and highly adventurous.

So, it's only natural for the coach of the fearsome team to become the toast of France. Didier Deschamps has the right to bask in glory as he is only the third man after Mario Zagalo of Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany to win the famous cup both as captain and coach.

The former France defender may not be popular with his school of football that advocates for 'win, not how you win' is what matters. France might not have played beautiful football but they indeed have won the cup. The two spectacular goals by Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe in the second half should serve as a strong rejoinder to the critics of France's defensive and dour style of play.

Both goals originated through rare build-ups before attack and ended in shooting precision, with Pogba's left-footer finding the top corner of the net and 19-year-old Mbappe's scorching grounder from 25 yards catching the Croatian goalkeeper laden-footed. The prince of this World Cup, Mbappe is certainly a great in the making.

Croats were attractive and attacking right from the word go, showing no sign of fatigue after playing three extra-time matches and getting less rest in between. They ruled the first half but France ended up lucky.

In the 18th minute, the referee let Croatia down. Antoine Griezmann took a cheeky dive to win a free-kick 30 yards from the Croatian goal. Griezmann took it and Mario Mandzukic headed it into his own net. Croatia came back into the match in 10 minutes with a superb strike from Ivan Perisic.

Only 10 minutes later, France again got the lead through a controversial penalty converted by Griezmann. Perisic leapt up to head the ball but it took a deflection and hit his hand, which should have been let off as unintentional ball-handling inside the forbidden zone. But, Argentine referee consulted the VAR (video assistant referee) and judged it intentional.

Two poor decisions in less than 20 minutes proved too much to overcome for Croatia. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was justifiably fuming.

“We played well but the penalty knocked the wind out of us and after that it was very difficult," Dalic said after congratulating France on their victory. "I just want to say one sentence about that penalty: you don't give a penalty like that in a World Cup final.”

Luck indeed played a small but significant part in that match!

Captain Luka Modrich was once again in the thick of Croatian things to launch attack after attack on the French fort. The No. 10 was deservedly chosen as the best player of the tournament. His Golden Ball will remind him of how agonisingly close he was to lifting the Cup.

The Telstar comes to a halt with the final result: the best team, not the best player, won the World Cup.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Lady Luck plays a small but significant role in a World Cup that runs over a month.

Performance is of course the most important factor that brings the trophy. But then again, there are small things that at times draw the thin line between winners and losers on some days. The god of small things is Lady Luck, which may swing this way or the other in any of the seven matches, on any of the seven days that a team turns up to lift the coveted cup.

The best of teams may not win a World Cup if they are not a little bit lucky from tournament's first fixture to the final.

A deflected goal. Ball hitting the post and staying out. A player's slip-up at a crucial moment. A key player sidelined for unnecessary bookings. A misdirected spot kick from the unlikeliest footballer. A wrong pass to the opponent inside the box. A player not in the right place at the right time.

This World Cup in Russia has been witness to all these small things in one match or the other. At least one or two of the favourites -- Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Portugal -- that went home early would have played in the final had they been a little lucky.

Remember the curling free-kick of Messi that barely touched the fingers of the France goalkeeper to stay out, the deflected own goal of Brazil's Fernandinho, the injury of Edinson Cavani in Uruguay's match against France or the perfect dummy of Romelu Lukaku in the last minute that edged Japan out.

However, it's not because of luck alone that France and Croatia moved to the final out of the 32 teams in the tournament. Both teams are gifted with depth and talent. Rival coaches have also showed good tactics as well.

If France and Croatia fail to write their fate, the god of small things will for sure.

The writer is former sports editor of The Daily Star


Warriors! That is the word that describes Croatia the best.

Croatia has a short yet spectacular football history. A country (56,595 square km) half the size of Bangladesh has stormed into the final of World Cup for the first time. A nation that has five times less population than Dhaka have produced 23 footballers who have taken the country to the brink of becoming world champions.

How only four million people could build a team good enough to make it to the World Cup final, beating Argentina (43 million), England (66 million) and hosts Russia (144 million) along the way? What makes up Croatia? Why is Croatia so combative in football?

The answers lie in its history. War has made Croats tough, and football has given them a life. Croatia is football-crazy like Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Italy. It is the only sport people play, go to watch, care about and root for.

Croatia, however, did not even exist when Diego Maradona lifted the World Cup for Argentina in Mexico in 1986 and fell short of retaining the trophy in the final against Germany four years later.

Croatia's existence as a national team began in 1990 with a friendly match against the United States, which wasn't recognised by Fifa, the game's governing body. It was still a part of Yugoslavia then along with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Kosovo. Croatia finally split in 1991 through a bloody war in the Balkans that witnessed the horrifying ethnic cleansing and bitter enmity between the nations which spoke almost identical languages and had been part of the same country for most part of a century.

Fifa recognition came in 1992, and the war-ravaged country caught the world by surprise within four years in the Euro 1996, where they were beaten by Germany in the quarterfinals. Yugoslavia had a long legacy in football dating back to 1913. Croatia certainly inherited those football genes and could come out strongly even as a fragmented country. It's just amazing how quickly Croatia got good, from a fledgling football nation to a formidable force.

Greater achievement came in the 1998 World Cup, when Croatia unveiled its first Golden Generation of footballers including Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker to the global audience, racing up to the semifinal against France. Unfortunately for them, there they came up against Zinedine Zidane, the new king of world football. Croatia were stooped with 2-1 defeat, but not before making their red-white chequered jersey famous on world stage.     

'Yes, we can do it!' was the great example they set for future generations. They showed that it is possible to become a force-to-reckon-with in world football even with a limited pool of players.

Interestingly, it's time for another Golden Generation from Croatia that will take on France again, this time in the final today.

Most of their star players -- Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Vedran Corluka -- were directly affected by the war. As children, they lived through horrifying events. They had to fight for their life, spread across Europe and grow up in war hang-ups. All these experiences have made them tough and highly nationalistic. Younger players were less directly affected, yet they remained highly motivated by memories of war of their families and friends.

That's why Croatia is a group of warriors: a dangerous side to defeat. And, inspiration from the 1998 game may not be enough for France this time in Russia. The match is certain to go down to the wire.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Here comes a game that no one wants to be involved in. What glory can two losers achieve from a third-place deciding game? For teams, nothing but the World Cup matters. It's just cruel to ask one of the losing semifinalists to lose again.

Crushed emotionally, both Belgium and England badly needed a break from football. For frustrated fans, it would be all the more difficult to get over their disappointment and be reminded again how close their teams were to the final and the Cup.

All they want right now is to hide themselves somewhere for some time and lick their wounds. But Belgium and England have no choice. They have to take the field once more and play out the frivolous formality on July 13.

It will take Belgium years to get over the heartbreak in their semifinal match against France. The margin of 1-0 will never tell how unfair the defeat was! Belgium dominated proceedings, played an exciting brand of football yet went down to a chancy header on the counter.

It was possibly the best chance for Belgium to lift the trophy for the first time, but it slipped away. The style of play and the skill of their footballers enthralled the global audience since the World Cup kick-started about a month back. Skipper Eden Hazard established himself possibly as the most valuable player of the tournament. Also the best player to wear the No. 10 jersey, the playmaker was just phenomenal in almost every match. Hazard is truly hazardous for opponents.

They were so close to embracing the ultimate glory in football after dispatching five-time world champions Brazil in the quarterfinals. Against France in the semifinals, Belgium again started where they had left off only to be denied by the super-defensive game plan of Didier Deschamps' men. Quite unabashedly, Belgium footballers wept and vented their frustration openly, with fans on the stands booing France off the ground.

Going back to play a match three days into the heartbreak will be like getting punished twice for no good reason. And what if they lose again? May God bless Belgians!

England too will get little solace from the match. They were in the quest of the Cup they did not win in the past 52 years. This England side was youthful, highly energetic and hungry for success, something that all the previous squads lacked. They were attacking and attractive, playing so aggressively that England started to believe that the trophy was coming home finally.

However, that was not to be. England choked under pressure against a never-say-die Croatia in the semifinal. The quest for their second World Cup after 1966 ended in agonising manner.

Harry Kane, the mercurial marksman and England skipper, fired blanks when he was needed to fire the most. The top scorer with six goals, Kane would feel the pain again if he scores and then remembers that he had failed against Croatia. England should dread playing in this meaningless match.

Neither the teams nor the fans are interested. But Fifa, the game's world governing body, has a pervasive reason to keep the tradition of the third-place play-off going: more revenue. Fingers are crossed for the losers.


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star 


Sorry, England! It's not the World Cup, but the footballers who are coming home.

England's 52-year wait for a World Cup was further extended by Croatia on Wednesday night in an exciting semifinal that seemed headed for penalty shootouts. But the Croatian footballers stepped harder on the gas to clinch the winner with only two minutes to go for the penalty decider.

In the dying minutes, the two opponents were in contrasting mood: England worn-out and Croatia reinvigorated. Winning the ball from a header, Croatian marksman Mario Mandzukic swiftly capitalised on lapses in concentration at the back. He drifted in behind an England defender before beating an otherwise rock-solid custodian Pickford with a cool, low strike into the net. 

Quite understandably though, expectation was running high among England fans at home and in Russia as this youthful side of Gareth Southgate played some high-octane games on way to the semi final. 'It [World Cup] is coming home' was the wave the 66-million population of England were riding for the last three weeks.

But little did they know what fate had in store for them. A team from a 27-year-old country of a population of only 4 million burst the English bubble with a display of constantly attacking football. The score could have been 3-1 had Pickford not deflected a goal-bound jab by Mandzukic minutes before the decisive goal.     

Unlike the knocked-out pre-tournament favourites, England had not come up against quality opponents till Wednesday. It was undoubtedly a high-pressure game that tested team character. Under pressure, the character of both teams came to the fore: Croatia delivered and England choked.

Coach Zlatko Dalic inspired Croatia to their first ever final in their fifth appearance in World Cup finals. And the ultimate glory is now one match away and with one team standing in the way. Croatia came out the better side in all aspects of the game Wednesday. But, on July 15, they need to do even better against the more fancied France, who knocked them out of their previous World Cup semifinal in 1998.

Morning shows the day... but not always. England took the lead only five minutes into the match from a scintillating curling free kick over the defence wall by Kieran Trippier, and held on till Ivan Perisic steered a cross into the net in the 68th minute.

Croatia just went on to lord over England after the goal with forays of attacks. England had no clue about how to counter the skills of the midfield duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Happy final, Croatia! 

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


France won the match, but not the hearts.

The first semifinal between the two best sides of the World Cup failed to live up to its Battle Royale billing. It was a good match but could have been great had France not played negative football. There was no reason for France to play defensively.

Didier Deschamps could not emerge as a coach of attacking and entertaining football despite having all the weapons in his armoury to do so. He brought the most talented and balanced side among all 32 teams to Russia. Thirteen of the 23 players are of African origin. They were solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. They were all young, hugely talented and highly adventurous.

Yet, the game plan of France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain was solely aimed at winning the match, not the hearts of fans who love beautiful football. He was an orthodox defender in his playing days and has brought that defensive football gene into his coaching. What a disappointment!  

It was a sore sight during most of the first half when play was limited to France's half, with Roberto Martinez's men attacking and Deschamps's young talents defending. Thanks to a chancy header by Samuel Umtiti from a curling corner by Antoine Griezmann after the break, France could get away with their ugly game and reach the final for the third time. A goal came from a set-piece in an unlikely France way. It was the first goal by France from a set-piece in this tournament.

My heart really goes out to Belgium, and I can't agree more with captain Eden Hazard for feeling so bitter about France's style of play.    

"I prefer to lose with Belgium than win with France," said Hazard after the match. "We know Deschamps' France. We expected that, but we couldn't find that little spark to score a goal. I didn't find it. France scored first and it became difficult.”

Belgium indeed played brilliant football. They had far better ball possession (64 percent), number of passes (595 against France's 345) and corners (5 against France's 4). The Red Devils ruled the whole pitch yet something went wrong when their marksmen entered the D-box and tried to shoot or head into the net --  just some small things they could not do right in front of the goal like Brazil, their opponents in the quarterfinals.

Lady Luck was with them against Brazil, but three days later, against France, she switched sides.

A reversal of fate it may seem. Against Brazil, Belgium chose to keep fending off waves of attacks before knocking the five-time champions out of the tournament on fast counters. Tuesday night saw a role reversal, with Belgium, like Brazil, on the offence and France, like Belgium against Brazil, on the back foot. Belgium dominated the match and France got lucky on the counter.

However, it was really eye-pleasing the way Eden Hazard played his game. He was always busy, doing something -- either winning the ball from his opponents' feet, making diagonal passes, dodging, turning and twisting to free himself from 2-3 chasing defenders or shooting on target. He was truly hazardous for France.

To me, Hazard was the best player with No. 10 jersey in this World Cup. And it is sad that he won't be the one to kiss the famous cup on July 15. But thank you, Hazard, for making football beautiful.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


France, Belgium face off.

The two best teams of this World Cup lock horns tonight. A dream match that has every potential to live up to its billing as a Battle Royale.

A fierce fight is on the cards at many levels between the two attacking sides of world football. France are in possession of the richest talent and Belgium in the company of their Golden Generation. Both teams have already proved they can score, hold on to it and come back into the match after conceding goals.          

There will be lots of small fights within the fight.

A fight of class between No. 10s is one of those.

Although not always the case, the best player of the team usually puts on the number 10 jersey in football. The No. 10 jersey carries with it a sense of greatness, a sign of respect and a symbol of hope. The history of the World Cup is filled with magical players who, with this jersey on, put in amazing performances for their countries. The No. 10 jersey was popularised with Pele's phenomenal performance in 1958, and then almost all the greats including Maradona arrived thereafter wearing the shirt and made it more famous. In this World Cup, Lionel Messi and Neymar too wore the No. 10 but could not do much.

It would be interesting to see how the No. 10s of France and Belgium fare. Eden Hazard is not only the best in the Belgium camp but also one of a few top playmakers in the world eligible to wear the number. He is the heart of Belgium that never stops. Either he is scoring or making intelligent assists. He is active all the time. On the other hand, a French wonderkid is wearing the No. 10 in his debut World Cup. And Kylian Mbappe has already more than justified the decision. Interestingly though, Mbappe has invoked memories of Pele by becoming the first teenager since the Brazilian legend to score two goals in a World Cup knockout match.

There will be a battle of wits between two coaches -- France's Didier Deschamps and Belgium's Roberto Martinez. The game plan is all too crucial. At this stage of the tournament, they have adequate knowledge about each other's weaknesses and strength. So, the homework is done and the plot ready.        

There will be a battle of efficiency between two captains in implementing game plans. France's Hugo Lloris can count on his captaincy experience to prevail over Eden Hazard, Belgium's captain for this World Cup. Lloris will keep under the bar while Hazard will lead the attack from midfield. The captain's armband is a test of character. Some rise to the opportunity and become magnificent. Hazard is becoming magnificent.

It will also be a battle between midfield marshals to dictate the game. It would be a treat to watch how France's masterful duo of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante operate against Belgium's highly energetic trio of Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini.

And, of course, goals are all that matter in the end. So, the focus will be on two rival strikers -- France's Kylian Mbappe and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku. Both are of African origin: formidable, speedy and hungry for goals.  

But which team are going to celebrate in the end? It's a close call. But it is safe to say that the team that prevails in the majority of battles within battles would win the match!

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Football is played in cycles, although they do not change often.

Every country plays the game, but you will see little change in the rankings. Dozens of countries qualify to the World Cup finals every four years, but only eight countries have won the 20 World Cups played so far.

But this World Cup in Russia appears delectably different and signals a change in the cycle. It's about time for world football to embrace many changes, with the emergence of new dominant forces and stars.

Favourites have been sent home in tears, superstars made spectators, champions preys of also-rans, and the olden not always golden. Reigning champions Germany were sent home with a shocker of a 2-0 win by world minnows South Korea, five-time champions Brazil bulldozed by Belgium, two-time champions Argentina made to head home early, hot favourites Spain forced to perish in the first phase, and Portugal pushed out from the round of 16.   

The media focus was mostly on three club kings -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. And quite rightly so; since the trio shared almost all the major trophies, awards and most of the money their clubs spent on players between them for the last four years. Yet, on the world stage they failed to become world kings, with global media splashing more of their pictures in tears than in cheers. The reign of Messi and Ronaldo that many thought would never come to an end, and it's still premature to think it has, but this World Cup has shown there are players ready to take the mantle.

Expected to captivate the global audience, other star footballers themselves are being captivated and enthralled by the performances of the less famous, lower-paid footballers than them. Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and many others are now watching the World Cup from home.

It is too bad for their fans that they could not be like a Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Harry Kane, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe in Russia.

The month-long football fiesta in Russia entered the last week and more surprises may spring up tonight when France take on Belgium in the first semifinal.

Of the four semifinalists, only England and France know what it is like to kiss the famous cup. For England, that glorious moment of 1966 has almost faded into oblivion. But this England side is young and eager, ready to repeat the feat. Croatia and Belgium, on the other hand, have never won the tournament, with their runs ending at the semifinal stage previously.

Among the favourites, France are the only exception, rising up to its tag every time so far. Didier Deschamps has possibly brought the most talented and balanced side among all 32 teams to Russia. Solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. But 'beware of Belgium' should be the caution from the coach to his charges.

Against Brazil, Belgium proved they are not only about Lukaku. They are tall, tough and, most importantly, a team. A very dangerous and attacking team, this side loves to play total football, and the Red Devil's success under Roberto Martinez is a little less surprising.

This Golden Generation has long been regarded as one of the most talented groups of footballers at international level in recent years, but they've never before hit their potential. At this World Cup, everything seems to be going in Belgium's favour, including Lady Luck.

Almost all of their footballers are seasoned in prominent leagues, and their wealth of experience is contributing to the game plan.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Eden Hazard is one of the best No 10s in the world. His pace, superb dribbling and long-range shooting make him a phenomenal player.

Lukaku on the other hand, is always the man capable of causing the most damage. With four goals in the tournament so far, the imposing striker will be the forward to tackle for France. The life of Lukaku has made him tough as teak. Growing up in extreme poverty, the son of Congolese descendants developed in himself an attitude to succeed. Every match he plays is a final to him. And he will be up against France in yet another final of his life.

Lukaku never says never. He will try his best to score. If he can't, he will get his mates to score with assists. And Brazil can vouch for how good Lukaku is with assists.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star