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The real winners of Russia 2018

There was only one winner at the Fifa World Cup, and it wasn't the French. The Tuesday Morning Quarterback crowns the real champs.

Of all the weird goings on during the Fifa World Cup, Australia emerging as the good guys of the tournament was the most shocking.

On the face of it, the Aussies exiting at the first hurdle after finishing bottom of their group with a solitary point thanks to a draw with Denmark was just another routine flop by a nation that specialises in doing next to nothing at football world cups.

But, following France’s triumph over the curiously despicable underdog Croatia in the final, a bit of revisionist history is required.

Australia, as it turned out, were actually the team that gave the French the hardest time on their road to the title.

Had it not been for a late own goal, the Socceroos (possibly the least impressive nickname for an international sports team) would have drawn with a French team that won its pool comfortably, then thrashed Argentina, dispatched the potent Uruguay and Belgium teams without conceding a goal and then belted the by-the-day less loveable Croats in the final.

What’s more, the Aussies made the French look bad. Really bad. So bad it sparked a minor, misplaced panic in France about its very fine team’s prospects.

Australia was the morally superior nation of the world cup. That’s quite some reverse given events of recent times across the Ditch.

More than that, though, the Aussies played with – and this is the truly shocking bit – decency. They toiled hard, displayed composure, produced a few moments of genuine flair and never complained despite a total absence of good fortune.

Australia was the morally superior nation of the world cup. That’s quite some reverse given events of recent times across the Ditch.

Then again, the race to the top of the moral high ground in Russia didn’t boast much of a field.

With Neymar disgracing Brazil in wonderfully comedic fashion, Columbia morphing from a joyous band of rascals that gladdened the hearts of neutrals (here’s looking at you Carlos Valderaama, Rene Higuita and Pablo Escobar) into a horrendous mob of hatchet men and Christiano Ronaldo playing for Portugal, the cast of loveable nations was very nearly a one-act play.

Croatia, it must be said, were the weirdest entity at what was an extremely weird tournament. A small nation that punches well above its weight, Croatia should be easy to adore. Its athletes are brilliant and its fans – across all sports – are among the most passionate, energetic and colourful on the planet.

But there’s just something a little scary about the seething sea of red and white checks they form when they come together.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the entire complement of the Uvijek Vjerni (Always Faithful) would be just as happy helping the Capitol suppress the districts in a Hunger Games movie as watching Luka Modric curl in a free kick.

The team’s barely-suppressed links to various fascist factions and the outbursts of vile racism from its fans doesn’t exactly help ameliorate that impression.

Reports that a Croatian football nation whose rap sheet over the years includes the etching of a swastika on a pitch, repeated displaying of fascist banners, racist chanting and monkey noises and the swift promotion of a player banned for leading fans in fascist chanting to the assistant coach were the subject of a Fifa cover-up during the tournament over poor fan behaviour didn’t exactly increase their likability.

Meanwhile, in France, victory doesn’t appear to have generated all that much unity, with some seeing the performance of a team dominated by players of African descent as a reminder that the country has some work to do on how it views immigrants, while others view it as a triumph of successful assimilation.

To the victors, then, go the spoilers.

So back to the real winners. It could be argued that the Aussies simply didn’t hang around long enough to disgrace themselves; that they were lucky enough to go out while the going was still good. Probably... But a win is a win.

Stand tall Australia. You won the morality world cup. You’ve shocked the world. Really, really shocked it.

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