The World Cup, over its ninety-odd years of existence, has not been particularly kind to its champions. During the past three tournaments, the holders of the trophy—the wily, experienced Italy; the dominant Spain; the fluid Germany team who, in the semifinals, humiliated Brazil, 7–1, in Brazil—exited at the earliest possible moment, the group stage. No nation has successfully defended a World Cup since 1962, when the tournament included only sixteen teams, and Pelé still roamed the field. Expectations are a heavy thing; there is talk of a curse.
France, a phenomenally talented team and the reigning champions, have a habit of falling victim to what the soccer media loves to call an “implosion.” Interpersonal disputes, disastrous injuries. In 2010, the squad fought with its own manager, and one player fell off a mountain bike during a strange team-bonding activity in the Alps. In 2002, as the champions from 1998, they lost their first match and soon exited the group. This year, in Qatar, the two players widely seen as key to their 2018 win, the midfielders N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, are out—both injured. A few weeks ago, the squad’s best striker, Karim Benzema, won the men’s Ballon D’Or, the award for the best player in the world. Three days ago, he was struck down for the entire cup after he aggravated a thigh injury in training. (L’Équipe’s headline: “Le Ballon de Plomb,” The Lead Ball.) Even one of the team’s younger stars, Christopher Nkunku, who is the top scorer in the German league, was injured, also in training, by a teammate’s tackle. The team seemed to be busily accumulating omens.
Their opponents, Australia, whom I have supported my entire life, have also entered this tournament on a tide of managed expectations. The team has, somewhat improbably, qualified for a fifth successive World Cup. Yet confidence was low. The Socceroos, as they are known, had a strange, stuttering journey to qualification: they drew with Oman, lost to Saudi Arabia, and suffered through a tense playoff against Peru. Whereas other nations in the Anglosphere, like the U.S. and Canada, or in Asia, like Japan and South Korea, have young, exciting teams that feel on the brink of some great shift, Australia felt itself at the end of one.
But, the devotion of the Australian soccer fan can verge on absurd. The World Cup, in Australia, is usually a nocturnal event. Europe has sunlit pubs, miles of fanzones, the splashing of beer. In Australia, near the edge of the international date line, matches are things to be watched at 3:15 A.M. or 4:45 A.M. My memories of World Cups often start bleary-eyed, in darkness, with an alarm. For this year’s playoff against Peru, fans gathered in Melbourne’s Federation Square before sunrise, in the cold; when the match went to penalties, fans bowed before large screens like it was midnight Mass. On Tuesday, as the game in Qatar kicked off at 6 A.M. on Australia’s east coast, and 3 A.M. on the west, my phone began to light up with morning messages.
For the first twenty-five minutes of this opening match, Australia felt hope. They hassled and harried France and threatened the French goal with throw-ins deep in the French half of the field. In the eighth minute, they even scored. The ball was hoisted long, crossfield, to the Australian winger Mathew Leckie. His pass scudded behind the French defenders, who play for Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to Craig Goodwin, who plays for Adelaide United. Goodwin speared it up into the roof of the net. Lucas Hernandez, the French left back, was on the turf, clutching his right knee. On replays, it seemed he was already slumping down, grimacing from a game-ending injury, even as he stretched to block the ball. Thoughts of the curse wafted up.
But a Pogba-less, Kanté-less, Benzema-less France still has Kylian Mbappé—who won the World Cup at age nineteen, and now at twenty-three is only better—and Olivier Giroud, a multifaceted, if sometimes blunt, attacking weapon. The French team was not so much missing its stars but just forming a slightly dimmer constellation. Lucas Hernandez’s own brother Theo, who plays in the same position, replaced him, and created the French response—an easily taken goal. The team ran through its gears, finding a second, third, then fourth. In the seventy-first minute, Mbappé received the ball. He stood perfectly still for a second. Then the Australian defender Nathaniel Atkinson approached, Mbappé threw out one leg, shuffled left, and was suddenly now on the Australian goal line, lofting a ball for Giroud who nodded the ball perfunctorily home.
The French would be forgiven for feeling, happily, a little superstitious. Their opening match of the last World Cup had also been against Australia, in a group that eerily also contained their next opponents, Denmark. Finally, a good omen to balance the bad.
For Australians, there was the tingle of what might have been. A friend of mine, a reporter who was out on assignment, watched the match from a motel room in the small regional town of Peak Hill, New South Wales. The night before, he had been in a pub in the nearby town of Parkes. Above him, on the wall, there was a faded photograph of a 2003 match when Australia beat England, in England, 3–1. Harry Kewell, who would later play for Leeds, tussled with David Beckham. The Australian team in Qatar is far from that vintage. But, on Sunday, the winger Awer Mabil—one of four members of the Socceroos squad who came to the country as a refugee—told the media that the team hoped to “shock the world.” For twenty-five minutes, they nearly achieved it. ♦