The only thing Russia 2018 has lacked so far is its own decisive sense of destiny.
After another madcap night saw Belgium's own brilliant and apparently cursed "Golden Generation" fight back from 2-0 down to win – with the last kick of the game – against Japan, thoughts turn to how this absurd World Cup might possibly improve from here, how as a spectacle it might find a way to make itself more compelling, more lauded, more immersive, more loved.
The answer – the only answer – is obvious. For all of its slain giants, underdog victories, last-minute winners, VAR microdramas, Balkan catharsis and Japanese cleaning parties, the tournament is yet to gather any coherent narrative force, the feel of stars aligning.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Away from the money-rigged hegemony of the elite club game, this World Cup has been a wonderful levelling of the field, as wild and free as a summer storm or a prison break. In many ways, its lead narrative so far has been the death of narrative, a farewell to so many familiar fixtures. If there is an assumption in today's club game that real, lasting glory is pre-ordained, dynastic, something bought up in a timeshare by a revolving cast of the same four or five superpowers, Russia 2018 has seemed on a quest to embarrass that stasis.
For a while, with Portugal and Argentina on course to meet in the quarter finals, it looked as though it might be their World Cup, one last shot for modern football's Easter Island heads to win – or at least deny each other – the biggest prize of them all.
Like all the most damaging arguments, it is difficult to remember how or where this one began. Was the internet full of people screaming at each other about Messi's key pass stats and Ronaldo’s shot conversion ratio by the time the latter rocked up in Madrid to do direct battle with his nemesis in 2009? Or were people already routinely losing their heads over the rivalry in 2007, when the pair racked up a 2nd and 3rd place finish apiece in the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year lists behind Kaka? It is an argument that has essentially been taking place for over a decade, and one that has always returned to the idea that a World Cup victory would be the only thing to truly settle it. Yet, in the space of just six hours on Saturday, all of that fell away. Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, Messi 35. It is hard to imagine either player ever getting their hands on the trophy now.
Alloyed with this is the impression that Russia 2018 has been the curtain behind which some wider shift is taking place, the first tentative baby-steps into a new footballing epoch. Tiki-taka has gone, outlived by Lawro; VAR has kicked the interminable debate about tech in football a little further down the road; the Germans really can be written off and fallible on occasion; suddenly the ability to shoot straight from the penalty spot seems a lot more important. Add to that the legion of mainstays, icons and indulgences for whom this surely represents a final World Cup – Gomez, Ozil, Neuer and Khedira; Mascherano, Aguero and Di Maria; Iniesta, Ramos, Pique and David Silva; Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Pepe, Quaresma and Lawro – and it's hard not to fear and thrill a bit at what kind of football lies ahead without these familiar bursts of human shorthand there to guide and ground us, old faces at the bar who one day, for whatever reason, just seem to disappear.
In this vacuum, who knows what will happen next? If the group stages always feel, to a screen-bound audience at least, like the World Cup in its purest, most addictive form – a whole planet’s worth of tactical, athletic and cultural differences screamed directly into your face up to four times a day – then the knock-out rounds are the slightly sad but necessary pause where the tournament becomes less about the playing and more about the talking and the dreaming, gaps in the schedule providing the requisite time and space for legends to be written into being, the story of how a tournament should be remembered to be winched carefully into place.
Currently, though, none of the teams or the individuals that comprise them seem totally committed to the idea that this is Their Tournament. It really does feel like it could be anyone's – it could be the one that anoints Kylian Mbappe or Neymar or Belgium's Golden Generation. It could be Croatia, shocked back to life by a succession of terrible penalties. It could be Russia scrapping their way to a host-nation victory. I personally have been plagued by a recurring dream in which Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin, Uruguay’s own departing trio of trophy-laden underdogs, goad me with their medals and piss all over my face from a motorway bridge.
Or it could be England, somehow – though with just ten matches of a 64-game tournament remaining, no one has any real idea just how good Gareth Southgate's squad are yet. Which seems ludicrous. Tonight they face Colombia – who, with last tournament's Golden Boot, James Rodriguez, cast the biggest emotional shadow over the last World Cup. With a maximum of four games remaining – which, if he keeps up his current scoring rate, ought to return another ten goals – might Harry Kane be able to do the same?
At this late stage, the competition is still populated by what in essence are ten stalking myths, each of whom are yet to make a convincing argument for membership of the game's greatest pantheon. It's a credit to the tournament that we are still waiting for its story to be written, its heroes to be cast, but at the same time the knockout stages desperately require them to step up – to provide some welcome definition, some retrospective logic to what till now has been a breathlessly surprising and chaotic spectacle.
Messi and Ronaldo are gone, lost to the winds of time, but if, as the media will have you believe, our grandchildren really are to be bored endlessly with tales of Russia 2018, it would be nice for them to grow up revering something a touch more heroic, and romantic, than VAR.
The competition deserves it. England, over to you.
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