or, to put it another way, is building a cloud civilisation. What we are alluding to here, of course, is the latest method of storing and sharing digital information: cloud services. Especially now that these cloud services enable us to instantly do things that hitherto required travelling great distances and a great deal more time.
Thus, online ticket sales for the World Cup utilised FIFA.com's cloud service. When we fly, we cover long distances in and above the clouds, as mankind continues to explore the knowable limits of our world thanks to aviation.
Apart from national teams, football is regulated by market forces and has nothing to do with national identity and origin. The most powerful clubs are transnational enterprises that manifest themselves through football. We call them English, Spanish or Italian just by way of habit. The UEFA Champions League final in May between Real Madrid and Liverpool featured no fewer than 11 different nationalities from five continents in the starting line-ups.
International footballers spend almost all their time with their clubs, where their training drills directly impact on things like tempo, variation of play, reading of the game and collective interaction. Before the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the Brazilian team were thus considered favourites not because of the individual skills of international stars like Marcelo, Coutinho, Alisson and Neymar. The best compliment one could pay them was that, under head coach Tite, they performed like a club side. It was as though the team had been working together all year without ever going their separate ways.
The development of satellite television in recent decades (another cloud technology) means football is available to a degree that previous generations could scarcely have imagined. Fans have every opportunity to watch Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United or Juventus playing live, sometimes twice a week, in every corner of the world.
Just as they do in a supermarket, consumers of this global phenomenon can choose the best quality on offer in terms of the products the clubs manufacture. Given how international football often plays second fiddle to the club game, which is what pays the players' salaries, one might imagine the World Cup being akin to a global festival of national crafts, a delightful but perhaps not a must-see event.
However, this was not the case. The universal business laws that govern club football are not applicable to the World Cup. The final in Moscow set a new record as the most-watched live broadcast in history: one in seven people on the planet, or 1.1 billion, tuned in for at least a minute of the France–Croatia decider. These figures do not even include those who watched the match outside their homes: in bars, restaurants and town squares where TV screens had been installed. In France, this numbered at least 5 million people (7 per cent of the population), while in Croatia the figure was around 500,000 people (12 per cent).
The global audience watching the World Cup final has grown by 1.5 times compared to the 2006 World Cup. This increase cannot be attributed to any cutting-edge technology or demographic situation. Broadcasting technology has not changed drastically in the intervening 12 years. What has is the world's population, which has grown by 15 per cent.
Yet for all this, and unlike some club rivalries, modern-day World Cups do not provoke a spirit of aggression in fans, but instead eradicates it altogether. No incidents of fan clashes were recorded in Russia, another milestone that was helped by cloud technology, which enabled fan monitoring like never before. The Fan ID system – that is, the document allowing admission to the fan areas – was tested at the World Cup in Russia for the first time. It weeded out practically everyone who had ever used football as a pretext for violent conduct or political demonstrations. As a result, several thousand hooligans from England alone were refused tickets, even at the initial application stage. Once the tournament itself started, inconspicuous preventative measures taken by the security agencies stopped anyone who might have been inclined to display aggression.
On, as well as off, the pitch, FIFA has focused its efforts on trying to eradicate violence over the last 30 years. The infamous hounding of Diego Maradona by Italy at the 1982 World Cup would be impossible these days under any interpretation of existing rules. The Italians fouled Maradona 23 times yet finished the match with a full complement of players. If one were to apply the football laws of today to that Azzurri team of 1982, they could have had two or three players sent off in the first 30 minutes alone.
In the 2018 final by way of contrast, France and Croatia made 27 fouls between them, despite the enormous stakes. Twenty-six fouls were committed against Neymar across five matches, the most against any one player at the tournament, while Messi received 15 in four games. Tempers have perhaps mellowed in football, as in other walks of life.
Violence is rightly punished and has no place in everyday life. In the 1970s, it spread like a virus through European and South American football stadiums. Some of the footage from just 30 years ago now seems to be almost from another planet. But, back then, stadiums were far more basic – grim concrete pits where spectators were separated from the players by deep ditches and high metal fences with sharp rods. In Italy, barbed wire was also installed as an extra layer of so-called security. All of that is drastically different from modern stadiums, which tend to be comfortable and clean, more inclusive and less restrictive for spectators, making them look more like theatres than correctional facilities.
Mankind is experiencing an era of unprecedented openness, and not just in football. Old border crossing points are dismantled, ditches that used to separate countries and nations and, in some cases, even the same nation are no longer visible. Travel visas are less ubiquitous. For example, to visit Russia for the World Cup, all you needed was your match e-ticket and the Fan ID you received before travelling. The way football stadiums have changed is a metaphor for the way the world has been changing: a new open world free of dark prejudices and full of new opportunities. However, individuals often find themselves alone in this new world, as everyone goes their separate ways, taking advantage of this newly acquired freedom.
This situation is unprecedented in history. Many are perplexed by it, which is understandable. What customs and rules of conduct make the present different from the past? Who am I? What kind of world do I represent? It is more difficult to find answers to these questions than it was before, especially in Europe today. The contemporary zeitgeist suggests that these questions are unimportant, a form of prejudice. You represent yourself and no one else – that is one way of answering. But best to keep this to yourself rather than share it with your nearest and dearest.
For the major part of world history, it has been human instinct to define oneself in terms of one's community. There was no better example of this than at the FIFA World Cup. One becomes a fully-fledged German, Colombian or Costa Rican in only two instances: when taking part in national elections and when watching your national team play – preferably wearing a replica football shirt or, better still, with a national flag in your hand. It is symbolic that wearing team colours and painting one's face is a relatively new phenomenon. An explosion in this trend coincided with the advent of cloud-based social media programmes, with their invisible and amorphous borders that resemble air mass.
The World Cup is not a symbolic battle of nations. Placing a bet on your national team helps define yourself via football. Moreover, the World Cup enables you to experience a sense of unity impossible to replicate in any other walk of life, except maybe a Latin American carnival. Only a shared protest or mass mourning can make people gather in such large groups. However, unlike these, the World Cup provides a totally different reason for people to come together and has a completely unique energy.
The individual has fought for his rights for way too long, defended his separate identity for way too long, as well as the right to march alone to his own rhythm. When the battle reaches a critical point, he runs back into the crowd. But this is a totally different crowd. It does not form lines and does not follow the same pattern. These people can only follow each other's pace when dancing or singing together.
Nikolskaya Street in Moscow became the Russian symbol of this global carnival, this voluntary coming together of people. By the end of the World Cup, it had become the main tourist attraction of the largest city in Europe. The indefatigable Mexicans and Colombians had already returned home, yet Nikolskaya Street still generated huge crowds gushing with activity like a river during the wet season. Not only did the Muscovites enjoy diving into this human flow, but so did the inhabitants of neighbouring and even distant Russian cities. Most Russians had no idea how different life could be when not cooped up.
This feeling of being overwhelmed with joy, of sharing the rhythm of one's life with so many others, can be considered the main benefit of the World Cup for Russians. However, there is another benefit worth mentioning. It has to do with the excitement generated by the national team's performance.
Most of us are fairly convinced that the greatest achievements of Russian civilisation were made not through rational decisions based on experience, but rather through some kind of impulsive breakthrough when faced with overwhelming despair. In fact, many people all around world have the same idea about themselves.
But we could contend for the world championship in this conviction. If the Russian national team did not deprive us of this conviction entirely, it surely dampened it. The Russian team managed by Stanislav Cherchesov proved itself very adept at negating opponents' skills and had a clear idea of how to succeed without resorting to drastic measures, tempting as that might have been. The team achieved its best result ever in World Cup history through discipline and patience.
Having said that, it is not only the result that matters but also the manner in which it is achieved, taking into account what suits individual countries best. Thus, Saudi Arabia, not the most prominent country in football terms, hired a Spanish-Argentinian head coach to prepare for the 2018 World Cup, who instilled a sophisticated playing style based on ball control, complex inter-play and intense pressing. Despite all the obstacles in their way and inevitable mistakes owing to their lack of technique, the style of play they had in mind was the football of Pep Guardiola, perhaps the game's prime innovator and tactician. Thus, the Saudi Arabians dominated all their opponents in terms of ball possession, were eye-catching, put together combinations and created threats on goal. They gave Uruguay, with their world-famous superstars, a lot of trouble and beat Egypt easily. Indeed, it was only in that opening match against Russia that they paid for such a high-risk strategy in terms of how they wanted to play. Saudi Arabia adopted a radical strategy, which was both unfamiliar to them and too clever to put into effect. The result of this 'borrowing' was similar to how the Arabian Peninsula evolved, with cities adorned with flowering gardens rising from the incandescent sands.
The World Cup is like a magic lantern. It speaks of old legends and myths through a prism of its own. I watched my first World Cup as a young boy in 1982. I was so enchanted by the French with their champagne-football that I cried, seemingly with the rest of the world, when they lost to Germany in a penalty shoot-out late in the Seville night. Without realising it, I was mourning the delicacy and subtlety of French culture as most people on earth imagined it back then, and still do now. The team had something of Dumas' The Three Musketeers, which I had already read, about it.
The most recent French triumph had none of the same kind of romanticism. It reminded me (I had read other books by now) that they developed a pragmatic style no different to, say, Germany or England. The France of 2018 won in the same style that Germany won in the 1980s and 1990s: cold and calculated, high on stamina, biding its time. That was the way, for instance, to beat Belgium, who had something of the same beauty as that 1982 French team.
Belgium had never had such a team before. Why did this golden (all right, bronze) generation emerge today and not some 20 years earlier? Can we consider it the result of the open immigration policy Belgium has pursued in recent decades? In that case, what happened to their neighbours, the Netherlands, whose team did not even qualify for the World Cup in Russia?
And what on earth made the Japanese resort to blindly going forward instead of tightening up at the back and defending their lead against Belgium?! Is it possible that the Samurai spirit blurred the minds of the players, who took a gung-ho approach instead of one based on their renowned reputation for scientific calculation? Or maybe these two images of Japan do not actually contradict one another?
The results of the 2018 World Cup seem on paper to be in keeping with what one knows about football. However, most World Cup spectators would agree that this was not always the case. For instance, it's a fact that, after the Croatia–England semi-final, the Wikipedia section on Croatia was viewed more times than during the whole of the country's existence. Perhaps people wanted to try to gain some kind of insight into what enabled this indefatigable team in the chequered red and white shirts to find new bursts of energy after seemingly being out on their feet to come through 120 minutes and a penalty shoot-out against both Denmark and Russia. How did they manage to find the determination to change the course of the match against England?
It is a very old kind of pleasure, trying to understand genius through learning about the origins of something, even if it doesn't necessarily provide a proper answer.
Nevertheless, it makes the World Cup beautiful by creating rather than unveiling mysteries. The final score of a match is one of those mysteries, celebrated and lamented in equal measure. Still others are astonished by the result as if they had discovered some secret about their own lives. No other sports event can give fans such a strong emotional experience and such a connection to others overwhelmed by the excitement of the same spectacle.
There will come a time when our era will be named the Golden Age of football and of the World Cup, just like there is a Golden Age of tragedy, painting and Russian literature. But in 2018 it seemed as if the magic lantern of the World Cup was going to shine forever.