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Whose World Cup Is This?

Could 2018 mark the first tournament without a truly defining individual performance? Are Luka Modric and Kylian Mbappé worthy of the honor? Or have we finally understood that soccer is a team game?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Football might not be coming home, but this should be Harry Kane’s World Cup.

After a few years dominating the Premier League, the 24-year-old showed the wider world why we’re all freaking about a guy who looks like an apprentice magistrate from Bleak House and speaks like his mouth is filled with marbles covered in peanut butter. Kane’s six goals are two more than anyone else in the tournament, and even if you add assists to everyone else’s tallies, Kane has still produced more than all of his competitors. The reemergence of the England national team as something close to a world soccer power will likely go down as one of the defining stories of the 2018 World Cup, and it’s Kane who got them there: He wore the captain’s armband for all five games he played in, and he won the Man of the Match award in three.

England sputtered out in the semis against Croatia, but the Golden Ball winner hasn’t actually won the World Cup since before Kane’s first birthday, back when Brazil’s Romário took two trophies home in 1994. Come Sunday, the narrative through lines suggest the award will be his.

Except, reality begs to differ. Kane has become one of the great goal scorers in the world by lurking near the box and pummeling opposing keepers with a barrage of shots with both feet. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi averaged more shots per 90 minutes among all players across Europe’s top five leagues this season. This summer, his scoring rate went from 0.9 per 90 minutes with Tottenham to 1.3 with England … but his shot rate dropped from 5.4 to 2.6. He scored off a rebound and a header from a set piece in England’s first match, and followed that up with three penalty goals and one fluke deflection off a teammate’s heel.

A confluence of luck and circumstance created Kane’s gaudy goal numbers despite what, frankly, was not a great month from England’s captain. For as much as it seemed like the English team had finally freed itself from those self-sabotaging superstars of years past—Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney—who’d try to win the game with one 45-yard pass after another, there was Kane, England’s best goal scorer and only striker, dropping farther and farther away from goal for much of the Croatia match, desperate to make something happen—only to realize he couldn’t pass to himself.

It wasn’t Harry Kane’s World Cup, and it might not be anyone’s.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo went out in the round of 16, just hours apart. Mohamed Salah couldn’t get fit for Egypt’s opener, got paraded around with a Chechen warlord, and scored only two goals for a team that finished behind Saudi Arabia. Neymar’s narrative—despite his actual performance objectively evoking memories of Johan Cruyff—revolved around how much time he spent writhing on the ground. The four biggest stars of this past club season were no match for the ineptitude of their national federations, the inabilities of their countrymen, and/or the thudding randomness of a seven-game knockout tournament.

There’s no WAR for soccer yet—traditionalists beware: It’s coming at some point—so the best thing we have is The Guardian’s annual list of the top 100 players. It’s not precise or accurate and it’s racked with individual biases, but an aggregation of hundreds of journalists’ opinions at least provides a nice encapsulation of conventional wisdom. The only two players in the top 15 who are still playing in Russia are the two betting favorites for the Golden Ball: Croatia’s Luka Modric (no. 6) and France’s Kylian Mbappé (no. 8).

But has either one really dominated proceedings from start to finish?

A couple of months shy of his 33rd birthday, Modric is still one of the best midfielders around. Most of his surface-level numbers look like they always have—he’s still creating chances, completing passes, and making tackles and interceptions at roughly the same per-minute rate as when he first arrived in Madrid back in 2012—but he’s played fewer than 2,000 minutes in La Liga in each of the past two seasons.

The most impressive thing about Modric’s World Cup might be how much of him there’s been. Despite declining club usage, he’s played 40 more minutes than anyone else in Russia—goalkeepers, who never get subbed, included. He’s created more chances than all but three players, he’s leading his team in dribbles per game and completed passes in the final third, and he’s tied with Kane for the most Man of the Match awards. That’s a fine statistical case, but Modric’s dominance has always been rooted in control, slipping in and out of spaces at the right moment, knowing exactly when to spring a counterattack or step on the ball and slide it sideways.

His best games are always the ones he’s built, but not overtly starred in. Yet, at the World Cup, Modric’s side has often struggled to put away lesser sides, only advancing to the semis after a pair of volatile draws with Denmark and Russia. The Croats played their most impressive 75 minutes of the tournament after halftime with England, a stretch in which Ivan Perisic was the best player on the field. The case for this being Modric’s tournament seems more like a case for his career—the underappreciated architect on the best club team of the decade—rather than his unimpeachable dominance this summer.

The inside-out version of Modric’s World Cup is Mbappé’s. If it were 1998, the World Cup would be the tournament when the world learned his name. He’s surely roped in some casual fans this time around, but he became the second-most expensive player of all time … a year ago! He scored 15 goals and notched seven assists in France … at 17! (For comparison: That’s 1.32 goals and assists per 90 minutes. Ronaldo didn’t do that until he was 25, and Messi didn’t get there until 22.) And again, The Guardian journalists called him a top-10 player in the world at the end of 2017. Yes, he turned the Argentine defense into a post-apocalyptic graveyard, and sure, he treated the semifinals of the World Cup like a pickup game, but he’s taken only six total shots through France’s six matches. Outside of the occasional Mbappé flare-up, the real story of France’s World Cup is the defense, which has conceded just four goals.

The World Cup is a month of madness without any room to breathe. Soccer is already chaos at the club level, where the seasons are typically 38 games long and the players practice together all the time. A quadrennial knockout tournament between international teams that convene only three or four times a year might as well be a different sport. Throughout the past month, I’ve talked to a bunch of people who work with European club teams, and most of them have just pointed and laughed at any attempts to rationalize the unpredictability of such a low-event game in such a compressed format. What the hell do you say when France averages just over 10 shots per game all tournament long and then suddenly rips off 19 in the semifinals? Brazil took 27 shots and conceded just nine across 90 minutes, but still lost to Belgium because a ball deflected off Fernandinho’s head and into his own goal. David de Gea, the best keeper on the planet, saved one shot at the World Cup after making 114 saves for Manchester United this past season. Denis Cheryshev hadn’t scored a goal from outside the penalty area since at least the last World Cup, and then he did it in the quarterfinals. Perisic has never scored more than 11 goals in one of Europe’s top five leagues, and he basically single-handedly pushed his country into its first final.

This certainly feels like the first World Cup of my lifetime without a defining individual performance, but maybe it’s just that we’re all slowly starting to understand that no one player really has any control over any of this. How else to grapple with the fact this was the first time the world has ever watched this tournament without Germany, Brazil, or Argentina in the semifinals? A slightly more objective attempt at understanding the sport is at least a plausible explanation for why Kane hasn’t already locked up the Golden Ball; scoring goals, especially off of penalties and freak deflections, isn’t enough to grab a hold of the narrative, but 10 or 20 years ago, it might’ve been.

Despite Real Madrid’s star-centric success in winning four of the past five Champions League titles, European soccer has been dominated by managers with tediously constructed, holistic systems in which offense and defense become one and all 11 players must buy in. Much like in club soccer, at the 2018 World Cup, you win with your weak links, not your strongest ones.

I think, though, that might have always been the case. If there’s one World Cup that seems to suggest otherwise, it’s 1986. That’s where Diego Maradona turned into a soccer god—dribbling his way through the England defense and then channeling a higher power when his corporeal form wasn’t enough. Except, even that isn’t quite right.

“It will always be remembered as Maradona’s World Cup,” British journalist Brian Glanville writes in The Story of the World Cup. “Seldom has a player, even Pelé, so dominated the competition.” However, as Glanville later writes, he was a peripheral figure in the biggest game of his own World Cup: “Yet, irony of ironies, when it came to the final, when Argentina met West Germany, Maradona was relatively subdued.” Not even God could take them all the way; the legend never exists without the goals from José Luis Brown, Jorge Valdano, and Jorge Burruchaga in the final.

Thirty-two years later, Mbappé could go off again, vaporizing the space behind a Croatia back line that pushes too high up the field out of frustration in the face of France’s domineering defense. Or Modric could really pull the strings, shuffling France from side to side for 90 minutes, creating just enough space for the one or two big chances that will typically be enough to win a final. Or neither one could do much because Croatia knows what’s coming and Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté are the one midfield in this tournament that can overpower Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Maybe the much-maligned Dejan Lovren scores the winner. Maybe Olivier Giroud finally puts a shot on target and it ends up in the net. Or maybe Perisic goes and wins the final, too.

Whoever it is, someone is going to decide the final on Sunday because someone has to make the final pass, score the winning goal, or save the final penalty. But it won’t be his tournament, and maybe that’s the lesson of 2018: The World Cup is just the World Cup.