World Cup lessons: France beware, sympathy for Neymar, VAR importance
With the World Cup over, here's a look at what we've learned from the tournament, including a warning for the winners and sympathy for Neymar.
Europe still rules the world
Western Europe has won four World Cups in a row, a sequence that no region has achieved before. Yet four different teams have triumphed, which shows that the strength is regional and not tied to one nation. The rest of the world, with about 94 percent of the planet's population, has produced just one top-three finish at a World Cup since 2006: Lionel Messi's Argentina in 2014.
The rapid collective passing game Europeans learn from the age of 6 is beyond even Brazil, who haven't beaten western European sides in seven matches since 2006 (two draws, five defeats).
France should be wary
Football moves so fast that a team cannot succeed by playing the way it did four years ago. A lineup filled with world champions looks good on paper but Germany's failure in Russia means that four of the past five World Cup winners have been knocked out in the first round of the following tournament.
In Germany's case, coach Joachim Low was part of the problem. He stayed loyal to the players who had taken him to his professional zenith and ignored signs that everyone had become overconfident.
The French already knew this problem: As defending champions in 2002, they crashed out in the group stages without scoring a goal. Coach Didier Deschamps should retire in glory this week and his successor should take a long hard look at every winning player (except Kylian Mbappe). Predictions that this young French team can only get better are wrong.
The great Yugoslav tradition lives on
Croatia, who gained independence in the 1990s, won't want to hear this but their ball skills and flawless decision-making are characteristics of Yugoslav football.
Various people pointed out during the tournament that if Yugoslavia hadn't fallen apart, they could have fielded a world-class team in Russia. Imagine the core of the Croatia side supplemented with Nemanja Matic and a few other Serbs, the Swiss Kosovars Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shakiri along with Atletico Madrid's Slovenian keeper, Jan Oblak. (True, there might be some intra-squad political issues to resolve first.)
It's no wonder that many former Yugoslavs -- even some Serbs -- seemed to be rooting for Croatia in the final.
The worst coach: Jorge Sampaoli
He did very good work at Chile and Sevilla, teams that he regimented to play fast, attacking, pressing football in the tradition of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. But he eventually realised that wasn't possible with Argentina's slow, mediocre defenders and midfielders. At that point he should have shifted to an opportunistic game: just get the ball forward quickly and hope the genius of Messi and Sergio Aguero could do something with it. Instead, Sampaoli spent Argentina's brief humiliating tournament searching fruitlessly for the right formation.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov did much better but has been overrated. Having spent two years preparing for the tournament, he entered it with the wrong formation. His starting lineup for the opening game against Saudi Arabia didn't include striker Artem Dzyuba or midfielder Denis Cheryshev even though both were known, experienced players. They emerged alongside Aleksandr Golovin as Russia's stars of the tournament.
Of the better coaches, Deschamps deserves credit for constructing the French system around their counterattacking brilliance, even though it meant the tournament's most gifted squad featured in several boring matches, notably the only goal-less draw from the 64 games in Russia, a 0-0 stalemate with Denmark.
England's Gareth Southgate got a lot right: He barely had to change his lineup all tournament, he got his players passing from the back and his staff expertly prepared a penalty shootout as they beat Colombia in the round of 16 for their first-ever shootout win at a World Cup. Most previous England managers had dismissed penalties as "a lottery" for which preparation was pointless.
However, when his players forgot to pass after going 1-0 up against Croatia in the semifinals and instead spent 30 minutes hoofing the ball long, Southgate watched the disintegration without intervening.
One thing coaches shouldn't get much credit for: team spirit. Fans and pundits correctly note that winning teams almost always have good team spirit. But people get the sequence the wrong way round. They think the team wins because of their team spirit; in fact, team spirit is good because the team are winning.
Neymar deserves sympathy
It's unfair to cast him as the villain of the tournament. Yes, his dives were silly and, yes, he seemed to think the World Cup was all about him when he probably wasn't even Brazil's most important player -- Casemiro and Philippe Coutinho were.
But he is a beautiful player and referees should have done a better job of protecting him from fouls. Sometimes his treatment recalled Pele being kicked out of the World Cup in 1966.
Referees in our era have done a good job protecting beautiful players, which is why Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been able to entertain us with very few injuries for about 15 years. The refs seem to let an apparent distaste for Neymar sway their judgment.
VAR makes set pieces even more important
Even before VAR, about a third of all goals in football came from dead balls. At the World Cup, that proportion hit 43 percent, partly because defenders are no longer allowed to wrestle attackers to the ground on corners and free kicks. England, a team that's world-class only at heading, scored nine of their 12 goals from set pieces.
VAR makes preparing for set pieces all the more worthwhile. The days when a free kick routinely consisted of the team's best player grabbing the ball for himself, then blazing it 10 yards over the bar (often from a ridiculous distance) should be over. Expect each big club to develop a dozen finely honed corner- and free-kick routines, much as NFL teams memorise set plays.
There were tastes of that at this World Cup. Antoine Griezmann, taking a free kick against Uruguay, ran up to the ball but then suddenly stopped, watched players move out of position and lofted the ball on to Raphael Varane's head for the game's opening goal.
England borrowed routines from NBA teams and sometimes they just did the simple thing: for Kieran Trippier's free-kick goal against Croatia, big Harry Maguire positioned himself in the wall smack in keeper Danijel Subasic's line of sight.
Moment of the tournament: Romelu Lukaku's part in Nacer Chadli's winner against Japan
It's rare to see a player create a goal without touching the ball. It was all the more pleasurable to see Lukaku do it given that he's often miscast as just a heavyweight lump.
Chadli's finish in injury time, with the last kick of the game, completed a stunning turnaround from 2-0 down to 3-2 winners and put Belgium into the quarterfinals.