“I can’t believe I’m missing this game,” Andy Murray grumbled. Murray is one of Britain’s greatest living athletes, a former World No 1, and yet he was discovering that while the life of a sporting icon has many predictable burdens, it has a few unpredictable ones too. What he really, really wanted to be doing was sitting in the players’ lounge watching one of the greatest games in World Cup 2018 history. What he was actually doing was sitting in a windowless press conference room at Wimbledon, answering yet more questions about his injured hip.
Outside the Kazan Arena shortly after the final whistle, Argentina fans were literally laid out flat on the ground: drained, traumatised, emptied. Many had travelled halfway across the world, spent fortunes they didn’t have, sold cars and televisions and items of furniture, slept on airport floors and park benches, all to be there. You hoped that they would take some sliver of consolation from the grand and wondrous spectacle they had just witnessed. But you doubted it.
Great World Cup games have an intense, centrifugal gravity that you don’t really get anywhere else in the game. The Champions League may have more of the best players and a higher overall standard, but it doesn’t get Reese Witherspoon tweeting about Kylian Mbappe from her Californian front room. Outside the spheres of politics, war and natural disaster, it’s hard to imagine another single event that means so much to so many people, that fixes so many eyes on the same spot. In a way, it’s futile trying to get your head around how big they are. All you can really do is take your seat, and hope that the match unfolding before you can remotely live up to the hype and heft surrounding it. Every so often, you get lucky.
It was Benjamin Pavard’s equalising goal, I think, that was the point where you realised that this wasn’t going to be a regular World Cup knockout game. The business end of tournaments, common wisdom had it, were going to be cagier and tauter than the knockabout group stage. Teams massing behind the ball, petrified of giving away an early goal. Chances hard to come by. Unbearable tension. But Pavard’s deliriously good volley, smashed into the top corner with just a hint of wicked swerve at the end, put all that to bed. The normal rules, we realised, were ceasing to apply.
It was the first 4-3 in World Cup history not to require extra time. Of the eight shots on target in the game, seven resulted in goals. The only man to have a shot saved? Lionel Messi, who exited his fourth World Cup empty and broken, still without a knockout goal, still without an international trophy to his name. You can’t write this stuff. You can’t imagine that a talent like Mbappe’s will bloom so spectacularly and so simultaneously. You can’t script goals like Pavard’s or Angel di Maria’s. You can’t dare to hope that elite football – a sport where it’s easier to destroy than to create, where the fear of failure so often reigns supreme – can possibly produce something this good.
What makes a great game of football? Goals, obviously. But not just any old goals. And you can get too many. Portsmouth 7-4 Reading in the Premier League in 2007 isn’t remembered so much as a great game as a fairground curiosity, a malfunctioning football vending machine that short-circuited and began spitting out goals almost at random. Great individual performances are another prerequisite, but if that was all to it, then any Pantheon would surely have to include the stone-cold classic Rajiv’s Team 15-18 David’s Team from the school playground in 1993: a game best remembered for Jonathan Liew’s career-defining double hat-trick, which at one point included an unprecedented three consecutive nutmegs.
So scale and stage are important too, but not every goal-fest at the elite level is an immediate classic. You also need characters and plot, ebb and flow, a recognisable storyline, order amid the apparent chaos. And here France’s goals seemed to make sense in a way Argentina’s did not; they emerged from recognisable patterns of play, from an established gameplan rather than speculative enterprise; even Pavard’s blockbuster came at the end of an attractive flowing move and a cross of the utmost athleticism. Argentina, meanwhile, were game but deserving losers, contributing to the game but importantly failing to define it. Individual brilliance looks great. Collective endeavour looks great. Knit the two together, and you’ve got greatness on your hands.
Was it the greatest World Cup game of all time? Italy 3-2 Brazil in 1982, in which Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick eliminated one of the most charming and gifted sides Brazil has ever produced, will have its advocates. Those of an older generation may submit Italy 4-3 West Germany from 1970, the Jahrhundertspiel, the Game of the Century, whose five goals in extra time set a record that is still yet to be beaten. And there can’t be many better ways of winning a World Cup than the way England did it in 1966: going behind, taking the lead, conceding a last-minute equaliser and then finally snuffing the game out in extra time, all in front of a disbelieving home crowd on a warm summer’s afternoon. You can’t really blame the English for banging on about it for all this time. The sensations of that day could power a lifetime.
Germany 7-1 Brazil from 2014? Too one-sided, too bloody, too ritualistic. Holland 2-1 Argentina from 1998? A brilliant finish, but actually a fairly slow burner for the most part. Ditto Italy 2-0 Germany from 2006. Holland 5-1 Spain in Salvador four years ago was stunning, as well as Spain 3-3 Portugal in Sochi, back in what seems like another lifetime. But can a group-stage game really be considered among the greatest? Brazil 3-2 Holland from 1994 was an underrated delight. But overall, it’s a measure of how sterile, dry and occasionally downright terrible the modern World Cup has been that you’d struggle to place a single game from the 21st century in a top-10 of all time.
Until now. This was only a last-16 game, of course, and one that may prove utterly inconsequential as the tournament shakes out. But it was certainly the best game of the tournament so far, and it’s not a ridiculous stretch to anoint it as one of the best ever. Perhaps it’s just the warm glow of having seen it in the flesh, to have heard the songs, felt the vibrations, experienced the vacuum of incredulity that temporarily greets a brilliant goal. But what is football for, if not to make you feel things? And from start to finish, whether you were witnessing it from the stands, following it from your sofa or missing it in a Wimbledon press conference room, this was one of those games that made you want to give sweet thanks for the wild, wonderful, mad, bad, graceful, glorious gift of football.