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Column: The World Cup? Fan-bloomin'-tastic

NEWS
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93   //    14 Jul 2018, 20:56 IST
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MOSCOW (AP) — There was high drama even before the first game, when Spain fired its coach. There'll be drama, promise, at the last game, too, with France aiming to block Croatian membership in the small club of World Cup winners. There were upsets so massive they shook soccer's established order — Auf wiedersehen, Germany! — and teams so bad — Saudi Arabia in its 5-0 opening-game loss to Russia — that they made a poor advertisement for the future expansion of the showcase tournament.

There was the beauty of Cristiano Ronaldo's curling free kick that completed his hat-trick against Spain and the not so pretty spectacle of him hitching up his shorts: Behold my thighs. There was pathos, when England's coach, who knows from bitter experience how mind-warpingly painful letting down one's country can be, consoled Colombia's Mateus Uribe after the distraught player smashed his penalty shootout spot-kick into the crossbar.

And there were laughs and more memes than ever from the globally devoured spectacle that not only reaffirmed its magic power to bring families, friends, neighbors, pleased-to-meet-you strangers and entire nations together around TV screens but also dominated our digital lives.

Take a bow Michy Batshuayi. Timelines loved the comedy of the Belgian player's goal celebration gone wrong. Tournament organizer FIFA says World Cup content has been viewed 11 billion, yes, with a "b," times on digital platforms these past weeks when soccer was the only game in town (no offense Wimbledon and the Tour de France).

Comparing one World Cup to another is pointless, because the experience is so subjective. The Spanish, for example, loved 2010 because they won it, even though the tournament in South Africa had the shoot-me-now irritation of vuvuzelas and one of the lowest-ever averages of goals per game.

But the 21st World Cup has been, in a word, fan-bloomin'-tastic. Perhaps the best measure of how addictive the games and multiple story arcs have been is that Monday is going to feel empty without the daily fix from Russia.

Tinged with concern, too, because it is possible that we'll never have it this good again.

Definitely from 2026 and possibly from 2022 in Qatar, future editions will be bloated by the addition of another 16 teams. That's great, of course, for nations that rarely or never get to cheer for their colors. But don't let FIFA kid you that diluting the quality of the football is positive for anything other than its coffers. With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA has forecast the equivalent of $1 billion extra income from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales.

There'll be more lopsided blowouts, like England 6, Panama 1 this time. There'll be more teams cowering in their own half, with all 10 outfield players forming a block in front of their goal, because they don't have the depth of talent to do much else tactically.

And there is a higher likelihood of group-stage games where teams won't need to give their best effort or field their best players to qualify for the next round. That happened this time when France and Denmark, bound for the knockout stage, had second-choice players pass the ball around in their last group game, producing the tournament's only scoreless draw.

That ugliness aside, ambitious, positive football lit up the tournament . The gap between small and big teams narrowed. The likes of Peru, at its first World Cup in 36 years, hounded 1998 World Cup winner France and narrowly lost 1-0 on a goal from Kylian Mbappe, the electrifying 19-year-old whose star rose in Russia while those of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi faded.

Iceland, the least populous World Cup nation ever, secured what it considered to be a 1-1 victory with two-time champion Argentina. A record-high 24 group-stage games were decided by just one goal. This was also the first World Cup where every team scored at least twice. Games were engrossingly uncertain.

Legions of fans, particularly from South America, bathed the tournament in color and riotous good humor. Russian hooligans stayed home. Video-assisted refereeing made a largely successful and, thankfully, not hugely intrusive debut, but also saw players and coaches adopt the annoying habit of drawing TV shapes in the air with their fingers, to ask for VAR review.

But at the tournament's tail end, after so much praise for the smooth organization and the warm welcome from enthusiastic Russians, a reality check. Hours after Croatia's quarterfinal victory against the surprisingly resilient Russian team, British police announced the death in an English hospital of Dawn Sturgess, 44, poisoned by a military grade nerve agent, Novichok, produced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Then, two days before Sunday's final, the U.S. Justice Department announced charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking the Clinton presidential campaign in a sweeping conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

No amount of goals, games and gleaming stadiums could wash away such sinister developments.

The World Cup is entertainment, a glorious month-long diversion. Nothing more.

Come Monday morning, the clear, present and very real concerns about the behavior and motives of President Vladimir Putin's administration will loom as large as they did before the first whistle was blown in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on June 14.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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