What a summer we’ve had.
There was an air of general uncertainty and worry when it was announced that Russia would be hosting the 2018 World Cup. Everything from politically-charged media coverage, questionable weather, blackface, hooliganism and well, Russia fielding their weakest team quite possibly ever. What we ended up with? A tournament of unreal goals, last minute drama, underdogs, questionable VAR decisions, the fourth sub and well, this:
The Group Stages
In what was supposed to be one of the duller opening fixtures in recent history, the home nation (ranked 70th in the FIFA standings) went against script versus Saudi Arabia (ranked 67th) and took them to the cleaners. A 5-0 whitewash, as it unfolded, duly set the tone for what was to follow.
With only one goalless draw in the entire tournament (cheers for the snoozefest, Denmark and France), a total of 169 goals were scored - 22 of these being penalties, 12 own goals - both the highest in history, thanks in part to the introduction of VAR.
Day Two of the World Cup saw Iran secure their second ever tournament win, albeit courtesy of a Moroccan own goal in the 95th minute. That evening saw the introduction of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo - fresh from receiving a two-year suspended jail sentence and an €18.8m fine from Spanish authority for tax evasion - bagging a hat-trick against them. His 51st career hat-trick happened to be the 51st scored at a World Cup. He also became the first player in history to score in eight consecutive World Cup and European Championship tournaments. His total of 85 international goals resulted in him becoming international football’s leading active goalscorer. Not a bad day at the office for the Juve-bound man. Spain, on the other hand, had sacked coach Julen Lopetegui two days prior to the tournament after he prematurely announced his take over of Ronaldo’s now former club Real Madrid. Real legend Fernando Hierro, would take interim charge.
The long-awaited VAR would officially be introduced to France’s aid, enabling Antoine Griezmann to benefit from the penalty spot, in a 2-1 victory over Australia. The first of many, many unusual decisions and eventual deterioration of my sweepstakes.
Germany would lose to Mexico (I mean, what even) and Switzerland would hold Brazil to a 1-1 draw before Belgium restored the run of play, making light work of Panama. England would later do the same thanks to a hat-trick from Harry Kane. This was Panama’s first ever World Cup appearance along with fellow newcomers Iceland.
The first red card propped up in the 4th minute of play, with Colombia's Carlos Sánchez doing the honours. Fortunately for him, his side would save his blushes, beating Japan 2-1. The tournament would field expected results and expected goalscorers for the next couple of days (Ronaldo, Suárez, Costa, Eriksen et. al), before the one of the biggest shocks of the tournament. A hapless Argentina would lose 3-0 to dark horses Croatia with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić amongst the scorers, of course. Messi would later score the 100th tournament goal in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria.
History was made again (and again) shortly after. First, Keisuke Honda became the highest-scoring Asian player in World Cup history (4 goals), and Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary became the oldest player ever to play in the tournament at 45 years of age. He also saved a penalty during the game versus Saudi Arabia but was helpless in stopping Egypt and a half-fit Mo Salah from crashing out in the group stages.
With the results varied and scripts being thrown out of the window, it was inevitable that the Group Stages would end with a bang - but I don’t think anyone would’ve anticipated that bang to be reigning champions Germany finishing bottom of their group, with only two goals to their name. Another first in World Cup history, Senegal became the first team to be eliminated by Fair Play: having drawn on points, goal difference and head-to-head against Japan, they picked up more yellow cards through the tournament which ultimately ruled against them.
Favourite moment: Picture the scene. South Korea are beating reigning champions Germany 1-0 thanks to a 92nd minute goal. Up for a corner in the 95th, German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer loses the ball at the edge of Korea’s box. Ju Se-Jong plays a raking pass stretching almost the entirety of the pitch to clear Spurs’ Son Heung-min through on goal, who cooly slots the ball home into an empty net, knocking out the favourites and sending the football world into hysteria.
Round of 16
The first game in the knockouts produced quite possibly the best goal of the tournament (below), one of the highest scoring games in the tournament, and the official introduction to the world stage for the most expensive teenager in history - Kylian Mbappé.
The 19 year-old Mbappé had already scored prior to the Argentina game, but his is where he truly set the world alight. The enigmatic striker won a penalty after out-sprinting pretty much everyone on the pitch, as well as score brace as France dramatically beat Argentina 4-3. The only other teenager to score a brace in the knockouts? Pelé.
Uruguay conceded their first goal of the World Cup (and 2018 calendar year) to Portugal’s Pepe but another brace, this time courtesy of Mbappé’s club teammate Edinson Cavani, ensured the South Americans would cruise into the next round. June 30th - the day both Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were knocked out.
The following day saw a total of 240 minutes of football and two penalty shoot outs. Hosts Russia, against all odds, would send now-favourites Spain out of the tournament in a 4-3 shootout victory, whilst Croatia vs. Denmark became the battle of the ‘keepers. Tied at 1-1, Croatia won a penalty in the 115th minute which should have sent them through. Kasper Schmeichel had other plans, however, clutching on to Modrić’s attempt. He would then go on to save two more in the shootout but was unable to stop his nation exiting courtesy of a cooly slotted Rakitić penalty. Russia’s Aleksandr Yerokhin became the World Cup’s first ever 4th substitute, replacing Daler Kuzyayev in extra-time, and Andrés Iniesta would announce his retirement from international football shortly after Spain’s elimination. Former Barcelona manager and player Luis Enrique was announced as the new Spain manager, with Hierro stepping down.
In an almost David vs. Goliath fixture, David’s Mexico took on Goliath’s Brazil, but this time around the story didn’t favour the underdogs. Goals from poster boy Neymar and supersub Firmino meant one of the big names still remained. After falling behind to Japan 2-0, the stubborn Belgians fought back in dramatic fashion to win 3-2 - an incredible counter attack finished by Nacer Chadli in the 94th minute, breaking hearts worldwide.
A Zlatan-less Sweden scored with an ungodly deflection in the other Round of 16 match to beat Switzerland 1-0. That was literally all that happened in that game.
Favourite moment: After Yerry Mina's last gasp goal forced England into extra-time, the Lions defied pretty much all odds and beat Colombia in a penalty shoot-out to proceed into the semi-finals. Scenes.
What happens when an unstoppable force comes up against an immovable object? The answer would unveil itself as Mbappé would face Uruguay’s Diego Godín. And in this particular case, said immovable object was brushed aside with relative ease. Goals from Rafa Varane and Griezmann would take France into the semi-finals where they’d meet a buoyant Belgium, fresh from knocking out tournament favourites, Brazil (again, what). The goals scored in this tournament by the Samba Boys made them the World Cup's highest scoring nation, overtaking Germany.
A blistering Samara was home to another English victory with goals from the other Harry (Maguire) and Alli taking them comfortably past Sweden and into the semi-finals. The Croats, meanwhile, showed their experience having been taken to penalties once more, they would win 4-3 and knockout the overachieving home nation, Russia.
The semi-finals were poised. The two remaining favourites, France and Belgium, would go up against each other in one of the most anticipated games of the tournament. Absolutely nothing separated them for the first 53 minutes, up until Samuel Umtiti climbed ever-so-slightly higher than Marouane Fellaini, nodding the ball home and taking Les Bleus in the final.
Fifteen of England’s players weren’t born the last time England made it to a World Cup semi-final. The Young Lions looked comfortable against Croatia, having scored with a beautiful Trippier freekick in the 5th minute. However, experience paid dividends once more, as England’s flanks failed to deal with a skillful Ivan Perišić, who scored and took the game into extra-time (Croatia's third of the tournament). Any hope of England getting into the final was squashed by Mario Mandžukić, who coolly drove the ball past Jordan Pickford in the 109th minute.
Favourite moment: Dejan Lovren proclaiming he was one of the world's best defenders post-match, and I'm a Liverpool fan.
Before Croatia took on France, there was the small matter of third place. Belgium would take on a muted England side and win 2-0, making them the most successful Belgian team in history thanks to goals from Meunier and Eden Hazard.
The final started in assertive fashion with a Croatian midfield dominating the French, but things quickly unraveled in the 19th minute: an Antoine Griezmann free-kick being nodded in by, ironically, Croatia's current active top goalscorer, Mario Mandžukić - the first ever own goal to be scored in a final. Croatia - the second smallest nation to play in a final behind Uruguay - didn't lose their heads and duly equalised not long after. Another brilliant moment, another brilliant finish by Ivan Perišić. However, hero would quickly turn villain thanks to a harsh VAR call. The video ref deemed Perišić to deliberately handle a French cross in the penalty area. The first controversial VAR penalty call in World Cup history a month prior saw Griezmann slot home against Australia. The first controversial VAR penalty call in a World Cup Final saw the same result, as Griezmann's successful finish gave France a 2-1 lead at half-time.
Winning his 60th cap for France, the mercurial Paul Pogba played a beautiful pass to Mbappé, taking him to the edge of the box, before receiving it again to finish - making it 3-1 to France with an hour gone. Mbappé followed in Pelé's footsteps once more, this time becoming the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup Final. Two goals in the space of six minutes; France had one hand on the cup.
And the France captain Lloris clearly seemed to have his mind on that, too. After receiving a back pass played to him by Umtiti and having all the time in the world, he - for some reason - decided to try and dribble past an encroaching Mandžukić, who stuck his leg out and hit the ball home. Fortunately for the Spurs captain, the game eventually died down and France would add a second star to their badge. Didier Deschamps—twenty years after lifting the World Cup as France captain—would do so again in Russia's Luzhniki Stadium, this time as their manager.
Allez Les Bleus.
Hugo Lloris (c)
Kylian Mbappé (65')
Paul Pogba (59')
Antoine Griezmann (38')
Ivan Perišić (28')
Luka Modrić (c)
Mario Mandžukić (OG 18'; 69')
Golden Ball: Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Golden Boot: Harry Kane, 6 (England)
Golden Glove: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Young Player Award: Kylian Mbappé (France)