Each World Cup has its own memorable moment: the ‘Hand of God’ goal that made Diego Maradona a legend, both England and France winning their maiden trophy on home soil, and Zinedine Zidane’s notorious headbutt in the 2006 final. The 2018 World Cup was no less. With only one goalless game in the entire tournament, the tournament was furious, flashy, and fantastic. But that’s what we’ve come to expect, haven’t we?
In the wake of France’s explosive triumph against Croatia, let’s recap some of the most memorable moments, many of which will remain in our hearts for years to come.
1. The greatest of all time weren’t enough.
It was supposed to be their night, their tournament. But while Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against the ex-world champions Spain to snatch a point, that same night, Lionel Messi could only watch in despair as Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, a part-time film director, saved his penalty from 12 yards to earn his own side a point. Things got worse for Messi and his team as they were thrashed by eventual runners-up Croatia to a resounding 3–0 win.
Ultimately, both teams — Portugal and Argentina — scraped through to the Round of 16, where both Ronaldo and Messi drew blanks and couldn’t save their teams from crashing out against Uruguay and France respectively.
The world’s best were at the periphery of the world’s biggest tournament.
2. This time, the Germans lose.
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Gary Lineker’s famous quote has a tinge of truth to it, as Germany has never not made it to the quarterfinals since 1954. This year, when Hirving Lozano of Mexico blazed past the German defense and slotted it in the net of the world’s best keeper, Manuel Neur, the entire world was stunned. Germany was condemned to a defeat in their first game of the World Cup.
Germany didn’t improve after that, as their passing and possession amounted to nearly nothing over the course of the group fixtures. They created 57 chances and took 72 shots, but scored just twice: once from a Marco Reus deflection and a sumptuous, one-in-a-billion Toni Kroos free kick. Even South Korea beat them.
The bottom line is that the team renowned for playing like a cohesive team couldn’t match up to those expectations at that this World Cup.
3. Mitshy Batshuayi and the post.
What can I say about this one?
One of the most unusual, if slightly accidental celebrations, Michy Batshuayi tried kicking the ball into the goal after Adnan Januzaj had put Belgium in front against England in their final group game, but it ricocheted off the post and smacked him right in the face. A dull game sparked to life by a classic mistake.
4. Kylian Mbappé announces himself on the grandest of stages.
The number of times we have heard “the youngest player to…” about Mbappé is almost ridiculous. Even on the day that Messi, currently the best player in the world, was expected to shine, it was the future best player in the world who showed the world what he is truly capable of.
Mbappé’s lung-bursting run through the Argentine defense is nothing short of watching Usain Bolt sprint, which led to Marcus Rojo fouling him and earning France a penalty. He then ran around the defense again, scoring a left-footed winner with so much power, the keeper couldn’t do anything about it. He became the first teenage player since Pele to score a brace in a World Cup knockout match. Those are tough boots to fill, but fill them he did.
Remember, he wasn’t even born when France last won the World Cup twenty years ago on home soil. No one can argue that Mbappe didn’t deserve the tournament’s best young player award. This even led to Pele tweeting “If Kylian keeps equalling my records like this I may have to dust my boots off again.” With what we have seen so far, it may be time to dust them off very soon, Pele.
5. “Cavani to Suarez to Cavani… and GOAL!”
Step aside, Benjamin Pavard and Dries Mertens. The best goal of the tournament should be awarded to Uruguay’s two-pronged attack, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Against Portugal in the Round of 16, Cavani switched the play, sending a long ball over the back line to Suarez. He then cut in on his right foot and landed a perfect cross at the back post that slammed off Cavani’s face and into the back of the net.
I was left speechless, but not because it was a booming long shot or a Messi-esque dribble toward a goal. It was just simple, old-fashioned play, with two perfect long balls that cut apart the Portuguese defense. Cavani and Suarez had effortlessly led their team through a relatively easy group, but beating the reigning European champions is no easy feat.
Will we ever find a better crop of strikers? Probably not, but it is a pleasure to watch them now.
6. Comeback kings.
A golden generation at its peak. Was there anything that could stop Belgium from claiming their maiden trophy? A lowly Japan had something to say about that.
Belgium had won every game in the group. Captained by Eden Hazard, who finished runner-up to the Golden Ball, they looked unstoppable and even defeated England with their second-string side. Their route to the final had then been made easier now, as they faced Japan in the Round of 16.
But it didn’t go as planned, as strikes from Haraguchi and Inui in the second half had left the favorites on the brink of elimination.
Then came the comeback of the decade. Jan Verthonghen headed in the ball absolutely miraculously, and then Marounne Fellaini did the same. But Belgium wasn’t done yet, as in the 94th minute, a flowing move involving De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mrtens was capped off by Nacer Chadli to win it in sudden death. From two goals down to a spectacular win. Absolute, absolute scenes.
If Diego Maradona watched this game, he probably wouldn’t have survived till the end.
7. Neymar: actor or footballer?
It was their year. After Neymar’s horrendous injury in 2014 led to a sound thrashing by Germany 7–0, this was the year that Brazil would bring back the trophy for a record sixth time. But rather than focus on their footballing prowess and skills, most of the attention was focused on Neymar, and not in a good way.
When I saw Neymar crying out in pain, wailing in agony after a Mexican defender, Miguel Layun had lightly stepped on his leg in his country’s 2–0 quarterfinal win, I did not know what to say. There was no need for the outrageous reaction, even though I understand that it wasn’t the right thing to do by the Mexican. Neymar, tipped to be the world’s best player after Messi and Ronaldo, shouldn’t need theatrics to win matches. He should use his skill set to do so.
He spent fourteen minutes on the ground, asking for a foul. That is seven minutes per his two World Cup goals. Numerous football greats have criticised him for it and asked him to improve his behavior. He also became an internet sensation, with numerous, hilarious videos of him being posted on Twitter and Facebook, as football fans expressed their disappointment and scorn at his foolhardy antics.
In a way, his diving stole the World Cup away from them.
8. “They’re going home.”
Was it possible? Could football’s greatest trophy really come home? After 52 years and watching their golden generation with the likes of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney try and fail, expectations seemed pretty low for England as they entered this year’s World Cup. But then came skipper Gareth Southgate and his squad of Young Lions.
They beat Tunisia, thrashed Panama, scraped past Columbia and won against Sweden. Just like that, they were in the top four, and slowly hope crept back in. The squad’s efficiency with set pieces was unrivaled at the World Cup: eight of their 11 goals came from dead ball situations. Spearheaded by penalty specialist Harry Kane, who incidentally won the Golden Boot.
Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, and Southgate had become national treasures. A nation polarized by politics had been brought together by chants of “it’s coming home.”
Even though England eventually lost to a Croatia comeback, pride had been restored. The Three Lions had done enough to convince the world and themselves.
9. The rise of Croatia.
Destroying Argentina wasn’t enough.
Appropriately named the dark horses of the tournament, Croatia stunned the world with their brilliant technical display combined with a solid defense by reaching the final. A country torn apart by civil war, this fearless team, devoid of any glam and glitz like the other favorites, and led by eventual Golden Ball winner, Luka Modric, won all of its opening three games with ruthless displays of complete dominance.
The knockout stages proved a bit trickier, as they had to prevail on penalties against Denmark, and against the hosts, Russia, after Mario Fernandes had scored a late equalizer to cancel out Domagoj Vida’s winner.
But the best teams of the tournament have always had an abundance of sheer willpower, determination, and spirit to win games at the death, which was even evident in their semifinal victory over England. But instead, Mario Mandzukic and Croatia prevailed.
They might have lost the World Cup, but they surely won all our hearts.
10. France lifting the Rimet.
Twenty years later, France are world champions again. Yes, a freak own goal and a controversial video assistant referee penalty were at the forefront of their success, but there is no denying that France was the best team of the tournament.
With an astute midfield pairing of defensive mastermind N’golo Kanté and the dynamic Paul Pogba, their free-flowing attack, including Griezmann and the wunderkind that is Kylian Mbappé, was allowed to shine brightly and score wonderful goals. They played as a team, under the instructions of the enigmatic Didier Deschamps, with each player mastering the role they were told to play. It’s no surprise that they thrashed Argentina in a thrilling encounter, held off another favorite, Belgium, and outscored Croatia. The latter two goals by Pogba and Mbappe in the final were pure class, as they put the game decisively to bed.
The second youngest team at the World Cup lifted the trophy in Moscow as the heavens opened, and it makes one wonder: in the next four years, they will just get better.
So with all the drama and thrills and controversy it had to offer, it is safe to say that the 2018 FIFA World Cup was one of the best ones in recent times. Here’s to 2022!