Times have changed in both Russia and France since I was taking charge of games at the very highest level. Over the course of 20 years, the hosts of World Cup 1998 have undergone a transformation from a nation where football came far further down the sporting pecking order, with only the Marseille team of the shady Bernard Tapie era to boast about on the domestic front.
Today, Mbappe, Pogba, Lloris and co stand on the brink of overtaking Spain in World Cup wins once again, and the footage we have seen of recent celebrations from Paris shows that they are undoubtedly as passionate as anyone else, while teams like Lyon and Monaco, as well as PSG, regularly make good progress in the Champions League.
Maybe this generation owes a debt to those who beat Brazil to lift the trophy for the first time, captained, of course, by the current manager, but they are deservedly recognised as a formidable world power.
My first footballing trip to Russia came in the days of the Soviet Union, when my team were permitted a day’s sightseeing in a far colder climate than this World Cup has enjoyed!
We had no choice but to make connections for Vilnius in Lithuania via the Russian capital and the match delegate was very angry at the poor facilities at the stadium, while we found the Russian hotels well below the standard we were used to.
Even though I recall a very special place, thanks to its stunning history and architecture, it was truly part of a different world, and no one is making any such complaints about the way Russia has hosted this particular tournament.
Out of five or so visits I never once refereed at the Luzhniki, the spectacular, revamped venue for this weekend”s final, and the speculation is hotting up regarding which referee will actually lead the teams out as a global audience drops everything in order to watch.
It’s definitely better for both teams if the chosen one is a European, but do not underestimate the influence of politics when the committee meets to rubber-stamp their choice!
Among the favourites are Kuipers, Mazic and Skomina, and I honestly don’t know if we can expect the conventions of the past to be followed, whereby you did not get the big one if you had already had a quarter or a semi-final.
My dark horse for the honour? Massimiliano Irrati. Yes, I know he has been given the most VAR appointments of anyone so far and there is certainly a case to be made for keeping him in that box for the final, too.
Yet, with an Italian in charge in Collina and no Clattenburg around, the fact Italy did not qualify has long had me suspecting the ultimate honour might this time go to an official from that country.
Many still find it incredible that there are no Scandinavians or Britons involved, but for me this partly explains the problems we had in the group stages with VAR. I think things have settled down as those with more experience of the system in their own leagues have been given the reins.
While England will remain one of the big football countries, I can only see the divide continuing to grow between those big countries and the smaller ones, including my own.
There have simply been too many complaints about countries without experience of the VAR technology gained from home being given the chance to spoil games on the biggest stage.
Yes, it’s political, but we can probably agree the price of universal participation has been too high and I can’t see this doing anything but leading to a wider gulf between the top and the middle rankings.
Vi ses, or see you later.