While France and Croatia have the ingredients to whip a thriller, the shadow of dreary of finals looms large.

Bunyan is a cuddly brown-furred Siberian bear locked in the Royev Ruchev Zoo in Krasnoyarsk, some 4000 kilometres from Moscow, where before midnight on Sunday either France or Croatia would be uninhibitedly splashing bottles of champagne, or drenching in torrential tears. On Saturday morning, Bunyan scrunched a slice of water melon with a Croatian flag, convincing the zoo-keepers that Croatia will be crowned the champions of Russia.

Bunyan is the latest inheritor of Paul the Octopus’s legacy. Paul died three months after predicting Spain’s World Cup triumph—his last prediction, albeit, was the only wrong one it ever had, that England would host the 2018 World Cup (well, at least they came close to bringing it home). Whether Bunyan’s fluffy paws are divinely-endowed or not, it’s how World Cup final build-ups have expanded over the years, from old-fashioned tactical match-ups to predictions, team and formations, to a bit of soothsaying, not just by the chatty pundits from football fraternity but also those from caged animals.
There’s a nauseating gimmickiness about it, but it only heightens the fervour and intrigue as the month-long grandee trickles down to just one match, which would further spill down to one unabated moment, either of maddening genius or ingenious madness, either of Andres Iniesta’s stinging volley or Zinedine Zidane’s absurd headbutt, of Roberto Baggio’s heaviest touch of his life or Mario Goetze’s twinkling toes.

But there, of late, has been a steepling tedium about World Cup finals, recurring banality only illuminated by those madness-or-genius moments. Delink those enduring one-offish moments, and you’d be dealing with a whole lot of hollowness, of teams pampering themselves with an extra padding of woollen, of them firewalling themselves rather than looking to encrypt the adversaries’ cryptic software. It’s the new-age arcanery.

The beautiful idealism of the biggest match of the grandest sporting event in the world, thus, is a cause long lost in the sepia-tints of whirly-limbed men in yellow shirts and short shorts floating like spriteful orbs. Then was it ever meant to be? Should teams play to win or please? Belgium’s enterprising manager, Roberto Martinez, who worships in the altar of Pep Guardiola, doesn’t approve the players’ prerogative to please the audience. “I would say win, win, win…”

Few teams, in this millennium have achieved both — the last was perhaps the Brazil of 2002, though the tournament was lightweight after the mass exodus of strong teams in the early rounds. Fewer still look to actually strive for it, and they’re fully justifiable, rendering even the argument out of context.

Not even Spain, considered the most aesthetic team since Tele Santana’s magicians, could weld beauty with business. Unlike their Euro triumphs — the World Cup was won with an equal amount of collective attrition and individual sparkle. The final against the Netherlands was, for extended patches, dreary, an endless ordeal of short passes. Four years later, Germany, after playing a thrilling brand of football for much of the World Cup, shrunk to their shells, as if forced by the ghosts of German cliches of fight and resilience, though they eventually got their schadenfreude.

No correct answer
Then again, the question of what makes a football match great has no objectively correct answer but ask a range of people and a few themes are likely to emerge: goals, end-to-end action, intensity, quality, drama, incident, controversy. It’s inconceivable to ask for all those heady ingredients to manifest in one single game, but even half of those preconditions would comprise a classic. But alas, look at how some of the finals have turned out to be.

The 1990 edition ended with a defender nodding home a penalty in the 85th minute for a neck-high tackle by Gustavo Dezotti, which the commentators felt was the lone dramatic moment of the match. Anyway, the overwhelming consensus was that the final was befitting of the ill-tempered drudgery that was the central theme of the tournament.

It was matched, if at all marginally, by the succeeding World Cup final, a 120-minute snooze-fest enlivened by the last touch of the match, when Baggio whistled the ball into the upper tiers of the amphitheatrical Padasena stadium, making him a soul-crushed tragic hero of Shakespearen proposition. The next four installments, in comparison, were livelier, though the older generation would dispute the very definition of what makes football lively.

Depending on the age, they would unfettered fondness narrate every piece of nostalgia-embellished action that unfolded in Mexico City in 1986, which Argentina won 3-2, which they might have watched in a crammed room on the neighbour’s telly.

Or Clodoaldo’s inscouciant backheel, which set the move to Carlos Alberto’s famous goal in the 1970 final and a thrashing of Italy, or Franz Beckenbauer-inspired comeback after the total football-esque goal against the Holland.

Maybe, it’s a trick of the mind that exaggerates the beauty of the past, what’s heard and read is sometimes more endearing tham what you see, a second-hand nostalgia, but World Cup finals have tended to be more lugubrious affairs, a dystopian trip, wherein players trundle about with the ball as if there’s a ticking dynamite fitted between the layers of rubber.

Idealism and romance
At least, the most romantic of football’s romantics, Johan Cruyff felt so.

“World Cup finals have boring because teams are afraid of losing. They can’t be blamed, because losers aren’t romanticised any more,” he lamented. It could be a self-lament, but it’s symbolic of the age, where tragic heroes are condemned than communed, where the prize you pay for losing a World Cup is getting heftier, emotionally and monetarily.

Maybe, France and Croatia would restore the idealism and romance of World Cup finals. They surely have explosive men to whip up romance—think of Antoine Griezmann, or Kylian Mbappe, or Luka Modric, or Ivan Rakitic It could be fitting if the final bucks the trend and turns out to be a thriller, for the Russian edition, for all the negative build-up and pervading cynicism, has thrilled the world.

But the skeptics-pessimists clique would crib that the final in Brazil had, besides Mesut Ozil and Co, a certain Lionel Messi. The one on Jo’burg had the finest assemblage of creators in this decade—from Xavi to Iniesta to Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Yet, both were far from thrilling fares—not boring, but not high-octane stuff either.

Both matches, inevitably, ended goalless in normal time, which’s fine if the goalkeepers of both sides were rattled. They would also point out that Croatia had won two of their three knockouts in shootouts, and the other in the dying minutes of extra time. They would throw in the inherent pragmatism of the French coach Dider Deschamps.

But football has the ability to surprise. If Argentina and Germany can collude to present a workman-like match, workman-like Croatia and pragmatic France can produce a humdinger for ages. The part of the joy of football, thus, lies in the unknown, the utter ignorance of what you’re going to see when you arrive at the stadium or turn on the TV. It’s what makes even an Octopus at the Oberhausen Sea Life Centre in Germany and a brown bear in a Krasnoyarsk zoo relevant and famous.

Out without a bang

Few World Cup finals since Italia ’90 have lived up to the hype, with matches being decided by the fines of margins. Here’s a recap

Italia ’90, Rome
West Germany 1 Argentina 0
Diego Maradona and Co’s approach against West Germany made the final one of the most ill-tempered games in the recent World Cup history. Argentina were reduced to nine men. Six minutes from time, Roberto Sensini fouled Rudi Voller, conceding a penalty. Andreas Brehme scored the winner from the spot.

1994, Rose Bowl, US
Brazil 3 Italy 2 on penalties, 0-0 AET
Italy’s Daniele Massaro had a clear sight at goal in the first half and Bebeto missed a sitter for Brazil during extra-time. Brazil held the upper hand but Italy started the shootout as the favourites. Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio missed, as did Massaro. And Brazil celebrated their fourth World Cup triumph.

1998, Saint-Denis, France
France 3 Brazil 0
Brazil were done in by Ronaldo’s convulsive fit ahead of the final. The uncertainty over his availability affected the whole squad. France pounced on the opportunity through a Zinedine Zidane brace, while Emmanuel Petit put the cherry on the cake, scoring on 93 minutes.

2002, Yokohama, Japan
Brazil 2 Germany 0
Germany had only one proper goal-scoring attempt, when Oliver Neuville was denied by the woodwork. Ronaldo opened the account for Brazil on 67 minutes. Germany ‘keeper Oliver Kahn’s error led to Brazils’ opening goal. Ronaldo doubled the lead on 79 minutes and Brazil annexed a record fifth title.

2006, Berlin, Germany
Italy 5 France 3 on penalties, 1-1 AET
Zidane’s head-butt on Materazzi overshadowed the action. Zidane had opened the scoring with a Panenka penalty before Materazzi headed home the equaliser. In the shootout, Italy hit their penalties to perfection while David Trezeguet missed for France.

2010, Johannesburg, S. Africa
Spain 1 Netherlands 0, AET
Referee Howard Webb awarded 14 yellow cards during the final – nine to the Netherlands and five for Spain. While Nigel de Jong escaped the red despite a kung-fu kick to Xabi Alonso, John Heitinga was sent off for a second offence. Spain capitalised on the extra man, as Andres Iniesta scored in the 116th minute to win Spain their first World Cup title.

2014, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Germany 1 Argentina 0, AET
Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi wasted chances while Benedikt Howedes’ header rebounded off the woodwork. Substitute Mario Gotze chested down an Andre Schurrle cross on 113 minutes and volleyed home the winner.

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