Two FIFA World Cup finalists in its ranks – Mbappe (23) and Messi (35), both served up delectable assists for their teammates to ensure their progress to the finals. Image: Xavier Laine/Getty Images
The French club, Paris Saint Germain (PSG) boasts two 2022 World Cup finalists in its ranks – Mbappe (23) and Messi (35). In the semi-final, they both served up delectable assists for their teammates to ensure their progress to the finals. In the final, between them, they scored five out of the six goals that were scored before the game went to penalties. The manner in which they sliced up the defenses was reminiscent of Maradona, who in 1986, at the age of 25, led Argentina to its second World Cup triumph.
Over the quadrennials spanning these ten World Cups, technology advancements, ubiquitous rule changes, the accompanying tactical innovations and global talent migration have all had remarkable impacts on football. Yet, watching the semi-final assists and Mbappe’s refusal to yield in the finals, it became possible to speculate that what makes football the beautiful game—human agency—and that hasn’t changed much after all. Let us explain.
1. Technology advancements
We have come a long way from the ‘Hand of God’ to VAR. Six video screens manned by video analysts and overseen by the video referee observe the game in minute detail and with the benefit of analytical overlays that allow off-side decisions to be given (or not) by the proverbial hair’s breadth. The on-field referee is in constant touch with the VAR referee and should the footballing decision merit a re-look of the video by the on-field referee, that could happen too. Screens are set up on the touchlines for easy access and adds to the television drama. Since the 2018 World Cup in Russia, VAR decision-reversals have sometimes required a few seconds, suggesting that an on-field error was corrected, and sometimes they have required many minutes suggesting that the margins were razor thin—some potentially beyond current technological prowess to adjudicate on. For example, it took a few repeats of the 500 frames a second to determine that France was indeed to be awarded its penalty against Croatia in the final. In the 2022 final, the shoe may have been on the other foot. Angel Di Maria was deemed to have been fouled inside the penalty box, and Messi dispatched the ensuring penalty kick with aplomb. But some fan murmurs about the penalty call go on. Football’s continuous nature perhaps blocks an equivalent of cricket’s ‘Umpire’s call’ from being employed.
2. Rule changes
Over these 10 World Cups, it has become illegal for the goalie to handle the back pass and illegal for any player to have contact with the player ‘in possession’ of the ball. Games today allow a larger number of player substitutions as well as accommodations to address concussion risk. The back-pass rule has ensured that over time, an assured ball-playing skill has emerged as a critical component of the goalie’s repertoire. This rule has in many ways, saved football too from boring 0-0 matches, dominated by safe, defensive play. The stock of ball playing goalies like Allison Becker of Brazil has expectedly gone way up. Another rule that has changed football resides in the ‘grey’ area. Especially in the professional soccer leagues around the world and even on the World Cup stage, ‘contact’ has replaced ‘contact with intent and material impact’ as the determining factor when referees call fouls committed against players in possession of the ball. This subtle, yet far-reaching change along with the clear sanctions against tackles from behind and sliding tackles, it can be argued, have made the game ‘better to watch’ and protected attacking players in their quest to score goals. The penalty Livakovic conceded along with a yellow card sanction when it appeared that he hadn’t initiate contact, against Argentina in the semi-final, is stark contrast to Harald Schumacher’s flattening of Frenchman Battiston in 1982 which was not even called for a foul.
There have been tactical innovations galore in response to the seismic shifts outlined above. Brazil’s Allison Becker is just one of a large number of goalies who can be seen playing passes from close to their goal lines and sometimes even beyond the box. Back in 1990, only a few top-class goalkeepers ever did these things and they included ‘freaks’ like Colombian Rene Higuita. This dynamic response to the change in the back-pass rule has totally changed the skillsets demanded from goalkeepers and indeed how coaches set up their teams to attack and defend. The change toward ‘contact’ begetting fouls has had a huge impact on the way football is played at every level. The sight of players going down on the slightest of contacts may seem ungainly to an earlier generation of football fans but younger fans see it as something that ought to be expected. To some Angel Di Maria earned a penalty through a ‘dive’ while for others drawing the contact was skill and simply part and parcel of the modern game. But it is those who are ahead of their times, sometimes at the risk of being ‘freaks’, who capture the world’s imagination. Hernan Casciari’s 2012 blogpost titled ‘Messi is a Dog’ (‘Messi Es Ur Perro’) captures this spirit of a skillful player, single minded in his objective rather than clever to exploit the rules of the game as they stood. Even in the Qatar world cup, we have seen top players go to ground expecting a whistle in their favor. While simulation is roundly looked down on, staying on one’s feet may be too naïve in the hyper competitive World Cup stage.
|As important as technological upheavals, rule changes, tactical innovations and global talent migration have been in defining football, at the heart of the beautiful game is human agency. Some goalkeeping feats in Qatar World Cup 2022, by the Moroccan Bonou, Argentinian Martinez and the Croatian Livakovic, were heart-stopping. Martinez’s penalty shootout heroics notwithstanding, more eyes and minds may be fixated on the other end of the field. If you thought Hernan Casciari’s ‘Messi is a dog’ is disrespectful then let me allay your fears—he also calls him a “sick man”, but affectionately. Just after the semifinals, it appeared that by the time the weekend would be over either the 23-year-old Mbappe would have played a leading role in the France win or 37-year-old Messi would have played a leading role in the Argentina win. Or as in the 1986 finals, the biggest stars will be neutralised for large parts of the game, till they too like Maradona and Rummenigge sprang to life when it matters most.
As it turned out, Mbappe walked away with a hat-trick in the World Cup finals and the Golden Boot, and Argentina’s win ensured that there would be no easy resolutions of the Maradona-Messi debates. It was the author’s 10th World Cup and since 1986 and there have been changes galore that have made dramatic changes to the way a fan simply follows the World Cup. Yet, in this final it came down to simple human agency—though Mbappe was relatively quiet for large parts, and still scored three goals. Messi scored twice and was part of the Argentinian goal that will be shown to many in the years to come. Martinez kept two out in the penalty kicks. Even for those who will reflect on the absurdity of it all, like Camus, these and other matters of human agency colliding with razor-thin margins delivered a humdinger of a World Cup final, joining ’86 and in some respects even surpassing it. Now, as World Cup makes the long trip across the Atlantic and down past the Equator to Argentina, but not before earning its right to adorn the beautiful game.
- Deepak Dhayanithy, Associate Professor, Strategic Management, IIM Kozhikode.
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