Reputations enhanced and tarnished

Regardless of what happens in the remaining two matches, the reputations of both Croatia and England were greatly enhanced by their runs in the tournament.

By no means were all reputations burnished in Russia, however, as some of the biggest names in sport flopped on the biggest stage.

Champions Germany suffered their earliest World Cup exit in 80 years when they finished bottom of Group F following defeats by Mexico and South Korea, triggering an inquisition back home.

Argentina and Lionel Messi needed a last-gasp goal to scramble through their group, despite a 3-0 loss to Croatia and a 1-1 draw with Iceland, before being beaten by France in the last 16.

Messi was largely invisible throughout. Not so their other talisman, Diego Maradona, whose matchday antics were captured on television. The low point being when the once-great soccer star gave an obscene middle-finger gesture with both hands to fans of Nigeria after a late group-stage winner for Argentina.

“From the hands of God, to the fingers of shame”, read one headline in Latin America.

The stock of Neymar also took a hit when the Brazilian striker — the world’s most expensive footballer — left the tournament after Brazil’s quarter-final loss to Belgium with the sound of laughter ringing in his ears.

Even though he undoubtedly came in for some tough tackles, his over-the-top histrionics and gravity-defying spins and rolls along the ground left pundits and commentators half-amused and half-outraged and launched many social media memes.

On the whole, though, it has been a clean tournament, with some superb refereeing. Up to and including the semis there had been only four red cards - the lowest since 1978.

The dreaded spectre of VAR proved to be an overblown fear, and instead of breaking up the rhythm of the game, it eliminated most cheating, helped referees act on things they had missed and provided elevated levels of drama.

“This is progress, this is better than the past,” Infantino said.

“VAR is not changing football, it is cleaning football, making it more honest and transparent and helping referees to make the right decisions.”

Honesty and transparency haven’t exactly been the buzzwords around football in recent years, so if Infantino has that right, the reputation of the sport itself might be the biggest beneficiary of Russia 2018.

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