Do we care about fair play, or just exciting play?

  • David Simon

The World Cup concluded Sunday with a final matchup that had a bit of everything. It had some great possession builds — mostly by Croatia, it had some wonderful French strikes from distance, it had a penalty on an unfortunate but correct video review, it had a borderline own goal from each side and it had a couple of protesters who were apparently hoping to send an anti-Kremlin message, which seems to be a rarity these days.

Watching that match showed what made France so tantalizing all tournament. Their quick-strike ability that they showed in the lead-up to the World Cup wasn’t all that evident for parts of the event, other than a brilliant period that helped eliminate Argentina in the Round of 16. But it was back again with Pogba and Mbappe each securing some second-half strikes to put away Croatia.

Tournament formats are the best for viewership and the easiest way to determine a champion. But was France really the best team? If this same event were played 1,000 times over, would France win it more than any other nation? It’s impossible to say, but I would contend that no sport with a championship tournament is truly using the fairest formula to determine its top team or individual.

That’s not to say a tournament doesn’t often end up crowning the best team. It just opens the door for there to be less deserving champions more frequently than some less exciting options. For instance, soccer probably has the fairest championship formula with the English Premier League and other table setups. In that scenario, every team simply plays every other team the same number of times. Whichever team accrues the most points with victories and ties is deemed the champion at the end of the season.

This season, that led to a pretty unspectacular finish as Manchester City had the title clinched with five matches still remaining on the 38-match schedule. City ended up with 100 points, 19 ahead of runner-up Manchester United. It was an absolutely dominant run that saw City score 106 goals and surrender just 27.

However, the drama was completely absent. Manchester City wasn’t even in action when they clinched the title. There was no rushing the field, no celebratory pile-up, no emotional embraces captured by those in attendance or millions of worldwide viewers.

But every team was given the exact same opportunity and the exact same schedule to prove its mettle. City took full advantage of it and is completely deserving, but probably also completely forgettable.

One-and-done tournaments are so gripping that a person doesn’t even need a rooting interest to get caught up in the tension. It’s sport in its purest form, but perhaps not its fairest. The NCAA Tournament certainly doesn’t always crown the best team, but it’s by far the best championship event.

Maybe France is the best team in the world. But they got to hold the trophy without having to take down England as Croatia did, without having to take down Brazil as Belgium did, without ever having to worry about Germany. Those teams could have all done more to force their way further along and didn’t earn their chance to play France, but the tournament format makes all of these questions unanswerable.

This World Cup had a bit of everything and will certainly go down as one of the more memorable of its kind. Have we determined the best team? We’ll never really know. Does that really matter? That’s for everyone to decide on their own.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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