In its own way, every World Cup is a kind of supernova. A four-year cycle of international soccer comes to a bright and fiery end, as it burns up, outshining everything for thousands of miles around it. It’s unique and comes to embody its own time and place, never to be replicated again.
There have only been 20 World Cups in a century and a half or so of what we now identify as soccer – or association football, from which “soccer” is derived, if we really must have that discussion again – with the ongoing one in Russia being the 21st. Those editions have all been special and distinctive and strange and titillating.
And in some way or another, they can all lay a reasonable claim to having been the best World Cup ever, by the endless metrics you can apply to that question – as the FOX Sports crew seems to be intent on branding this Russian World Cup as.
Sure enough, it’s been eventful, like all the others.
As we head into the sharp end of this thing, with three-quarters of the games somehow already played and half the teams eliminated, you have to concede that it has been an unexpected World Cup. In the way that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi toiled to drag their declining Portuguese and Argentinian powers into the knockout stages. In how defending champions Germany collapsed utterly, sent home with just one late-won victory out of three.
And how a deeply flawed Russian team unexpectedly cruised into the knockout stages, and how perpetually overpowered Iran came within a goal of getting there as well. How Croatia, with two of its stars in very serious legal jeopardy back home, smashed everyone in its path, and how Mexico got off to a flying start, only to scrape through by the skin of its teeth. How a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-less Sweden won its deathly group and South Korea dealt the final blow to Germany and Poland flamed out and Japan survived because it had the fewest yellow cards.
But more so in the way that politics has played an outsized role. FIFA, hilariously, continues to insist that politics doesn’t and shouldn’t play a role in the signature tournament that has, by itself, kept a craven organization in business – no matter that its leaders continue to believe that it’s their own inspired stewardship that’s kept FIFA in charge of the sport, in spite of overwhelming evidence that it’s in spite of them.
At any rate, pitting nations against one another in sport is inherently a political act by the sheer decision of who you allow to compete and who you don’t. Who you agree to play and who you won’t. What role you play in a nascent country’s self-determination – and FIFA, ironically, has a track record of recognizing new national federations before even the United Nations acknowledges that territory as a new country.
But even by the supercharged geopolitical standards of the World Cup, there’s been a lot going on. First, of course, the very raison d’etre of this edition of the world’s biggest sporting competition is as a propaganda tool for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. And, so far, it’s a very successful one at that. The justifiable concerns that Russia’s poor track record of racism, homophobia and soccer-centric hooliganism would stain and disrupt this tournament have been entirely unnecessary until now. Sure, those things are still very much issues in the grand scheme of things, but the authorities have kept a tight lid on it all for the duration of the tournament. All in all, it seems everybody in Russia is having a lovely time of it. And it’s all looked great: nice, full stadiums; spirited fans; entertaining soccer.
But then there’s the other stuff.
Before the tournament, the Egyptian soccer federation failed to prevent its superstar striker Mohamed Salah from being co-opted by Chechen warlord and accused human rights-abuser Ramzan Kadyrov for a photo-op, basking in the refracted fame and popularity of the world’s biggest Muslim athlete. Salah was apparently dragged from his hotel room and completely powerless to stop it. According to several reports he was so unsettled by all this that he’s threatened to quit the Egyptian national team altogether.
When Switzerland beat Serbia 2-1 in the group stage, Albanian-Swiss goal-scorers Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka – Shaqiri was born in Kosovo and Xhaka’s father was a political prisoner there – both flashed the winged eagle handsign representing the Albanian flag. It was a direct jab at Serbia, for convoluted political reasons we won’t get into it. For this non-verbal political outcry, they got away with a $10,000 fine, rather than a two-game suspension. The Albanian prime minister has already promised to raise money and pay it on their behalf.
Meanwhile, Iranian women had to travel at least 2,000 miles or so from home just to watch their national team in person. However, for the first time, women were let into Iranian stadiums to watch Iran’s games projected onto big screens. It represented a rare gesture toward women’s rights by the country’s ruling religious elite, brought on by the World Cup.
These episodes all will transcend the World Cup in their scope and impact. And in that sense, these last few weeks have changed the world a little bit, the way all World Cups seem to, in some small or large way. All of that, too, is the legacy of a momentous group stage. Like any other edition of this tournament, much has happened.
And to think that the World Cup begins in earnest on Saturday.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Bushnell: Power ranking the Round of 16
• MVPs and LVPs of the group stage
• Dates, kickoff times for the Round of 16
• What could replace yellow cards as FIFA’s last-ditch tiebreaker?