To enjoy sport to its utmost it helps to form an allegiance. In the final rounds of the football World Cup, many New Zealanders were on the side of Croatia.

For many it was their heritage. Descendants of Dalmatian immigrants had no difficulty forming an allegiance from the beginning. For others, it might have been Croatia's population, much the same as ours. New Zealand can identify with small nations that make up for limited resources with a will to win. Croatia appeared to enjoy more support here than even England when they met in the semifinal.

Croatia were not the pre-match favourites against France yesterday but they did all their supporters proud. They were the more spirited team, scoring the best goal of the first half. They trailed 2-1 at half time by conceding an own-goal in a scramble to defend a free kick and then, the talking point of the match, a penalty for a plainly accidental hand-ball.

That knocked them back and France broke out to score two good goals in the second half. France deserved it. Young, sharp, multi-cultural France, watched by President Emmanuel Macron, looked to be the one of the best teams from the beginning of this superb World Cup.


Fifa never fails to produce an event that puts all that organisation's troubles between times out of mind. The host country, Russia, also presented its best face to the world. By all reports, Russia's success went beyond immaculate stadiums. Visitors reported none of the frustrations, inefficiencies and official indifference that is normally the tourist's experience.

President Vladimir Putin, sitting a few seats away from Macron at the final, would have gone to Helsinki for his meeting with Donald Trump last night feeling that Russia has earned the respect of the international community the right way. It has begun building a fund of goodwill and should not squander it with mischief such as further attempts to sway Western elections.

The best sporting events show nations at play and no event outside the Olympic Games features as many nations as the football World Cup. In many ways it is more of an international contest than the Olympics where individuals are more prominent than teams and nationalism is played down. Not so at the World Cup where football fans and players put their club allegiances aside every four years in a festival of national fervour.

An astonishing proportion of the players in squads that made the quarter-finals came from clubs in the English Premier League, far more than are playing in the French, German, Spanish or Italian competitions.

Just about all players seemed to be in one of the European leagues, including the South Americans. This may be a mixed blessing for the game. Brazil and Argentina were not the forces of old and African and Asian teams, apart from Japan's match with Belgium, hardly featured. The global game has become Europe's game.

But every four years the players earning eye-watering incomes in London, Manchester, Madrid or Barcelona put on their national colours and the game attracts even more interest than it usually commands. It is a global experience like no other in sport and sets the bar very high for the rest.