12 Moments to remember from Russia 18
It’s over. Everyone is coming home whether they like it or not. For the most part, everyone not only liked this World Cup, they loved it.
What’s not to love? France won the tournament. Croatia proved football is the world’s game and doesn’t just belong to the eight nations who have won every tournament since 1930. England feels good about itself for the first time in a long time. Every match save France v Denmark featured at least one goal.
Of course, you can’t please everyone. Roy Keane isn’t one of those. After the final, he changed his mind, saying that Paul Pogba can dance and colour his hair as often and in any manner he likes. Graeme Souness stuck to his guns. Scoring in a World Cup final and creating a second apparently isn’t enough for the Scot who has forgotten his past as an extrovert.
Others aren’t sold on France, either, believing they’ll soon be exposed. But no one is going to run roughshod in the World Cup for 90 minutes match in and match out. There is no Everton v ATV Irdning at the top. There is too much quality to go around. Everyone is incredibly fit and technology allows coaches to prepare like never before. Football at the highest level is now about seeking out, recognising and exploiting one’s moments. France did that best.
The final was a microcosm of the theory. Croatia were carrying the play. Les Bleus didn’t deserve a free kick when Antoine Griezmann dove but the Atleti man sized up the moment and delivered a cross that Mario Mandzukic could only flick into his own net. Nor did Ivan Perisic deserve to be penalised for what was clearly ball to hand. Griezmann lived the moment again, however, sending Danijel Subasic the wrong way.
The key moment came in the second half, from Didier Deschamps this time. N’Golo Kante was playing nothing like the best holding mid in the world. Whether he was suffering the effects of Blaise Matuidi’s concussion or just couldn’t handle the moment, Deschamps made the critical decision to end his day when, ten minutes past the interval, Kante still hadn’t sorted himself. Steven Nzonzi came on. France settled. Croatia suddenly couldn’t get near Hugo Lloris. Six mutes ensued in which Pogba and Kylian Mbappe both seized their moments. The match was so over that Hugo Lloris fell asleep on Mandzukic and it didn’t matter.
Moments were what this World Cup delivered. So, with some help from my friends, I’ve compiled a few significant ones from throughout the tournament. A few will still be fresh in your mind. Others may have slipped into the divan cushions in your memory. All were pivotal, taking the tournament in new, unexpected directions. Relive them one more time.
I’ve never been a believer in predetermined destiny. Nor that a man can write his luck all on his own. Some things are inevitable. Destiny keeps an ace or two up her sleeve for special occasions but it’s up to you what you do with those moments.
When Russia opened the tournament against Saudi Arabia, the match began as blandly as everyone anticipated. Beyond Yury Gazinsky’s early goal, not much was happening. Nor did it look like changing until Destiny played a card.
On the 22nd minute, the Sbornaya no.9 went down clutching his hamstring. Russia’s [allegedly] best player was out of the tournament. Stanislav Cherchesov had only chosen one outfield player who did not play club football in the Russian Premier League. Now he had no choice but to use him.
Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev soon found himself with the ball inside the Saudi penalty box. His first touch eluded him, but he recovered to beat two Saudi defenders. A whip with the left foot and the ball was at the back of the net.
He would score again as Russia posted five against the Green Falcons. The Saudi Crown Prince in the VIP box developed carpal tunnel syndrome offering Vladimir Putin congratulatory handshakes.
Cheryshev scored twice more, the most crucial goal coming in the quarterfinal against Croatia, giving Russia the lead. Whether Dzagoev would have had the same impact is speculative. It’s also doubtful. Cheryshev scored four of Russia’s 11 goals. To say that Dzagoev’s substitution did not have an impact on Russia’s World Cup would be foolhardy.
When asked to pick one moment that helped define the course of this World Cup, one came straight to mind. Willy’s Cabellero’s mistake in the second round of group games against Croatia epitomised Argentina's World Cup and Croatia's, too.
Until the 53rd minute, the game had been fairly even and could have gone either way. Then Caballero tried to chip a ball over Ante Rebic so that his defence could build from the back when hoofing it to midfield would have been the safer choice. Caballero's effort was soft. It floated toward the Croatian's right. He volleyed it from mid-air into the middle of Argentina's goal.
From that moment, La Albiceleste were chasing the game. The Vatreni methodically picked them off.
For Argentina, the gaffe only reinforced the notion it was a one-man-team, even though Lionel Messi had been denied from the spot in their first game against Iceland. Had the squad proved they weren't just makeweights for the Barcelona living legend, they might have won this match, the group, and found themselves facing Denmark rather than eventual champions France in the Round of 16. The moment was proof they accepted the consensus rather than defying it. There was no turning back from it.
For Croatia, it was the exact opposite. They exceeded expectations against all belief. They emerged as group winners, securing a much less arduous passage through the knockouts, and filled with sufficient confidence and belief to carry them to the final. One mistake changed the destiny of both countries.
Politics and football inevitably mix. FIFA tends to ignore its intrusion when it furthers the bottom line. When the issue threatens to derail the gravy train, however, it comes down hard. That's not a healthy combination but now and then, players feel that pushing Gianni Infantino's buttons is worth the trouble. Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri felt the time was right when they lifted Switzerland to an emotional win over Serbia.
The result wasn’t the main story. Neither were Xhaka’s thunderous strike from outside the box or Shaqiri’s cool finish after a thrilling run nigh on full time. It was how the pair celebrated. Like many players in the squad and Swiss citizens in general, they are of Kosovan heritage, which was formerly an Albanian minority in Serbian territory. As a minority, many were displaced from their homes after Serbia broke off from the former Yugoslavia. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence. For five years, Serbia refused to recognise the new state and withdrew from relations with countries who did. To gain EU membership, however, Serbia had to establish normal relations. That has taken place but there are still issues and hard feelings on both sides. When Xhaka and Shaqiri made a hand gesture that represented the double eagle on Kosovo's flag, Serbia expressed outrage.
FIFA didn’t stand pat, issuing fines and a warning against making further political gestures that violate FIFA regulations. Neither player scored again in the tournament. It's impossible to know whether they would have defied FIFA or decided their point had been made.
It would be wonderful if football could genuinely rise above political conflict. Unfortunately, the final was interrupted by a Pussy Riot demonstration against Russian human rights violations and the trophy ceremony photobombed by Russian secret service. Football mirrors life, it's said, but sometimes life puts it in its place.
Sometimes life comes full circle; sometimes it bites you in the arse.
Germany became World Cup darlings in Brazil. Joachim Loew was anointed a tactical genius. Manuel Neuer revolutionised goaltending. Together they carried die Mannschaft to glory. Next, they reached the Euro 16 semifinal, dominated their group in UEFA World Cup qualifying and won the Confederations Cup.
Perhaps that was the first warning. No Confederations Cup champion has ever lifted the World Cup. People preferred to believe Germany could be the first. Nothing was broken. Why fix it? Then again, you don't drive a Porsche until the belts wear out and snap, the tires go bald and burst, or the engine blows a rod because the oil hasn't been changed. You keep it running by fine-tuning and replacing parts.
Low stuck with his preferred XI, including Manuel Neuer. The keeper was nowhere near match fit having not played since early in the season following a metatarsal injury. Germany lost to Mexico. Low pressed on. Toni Kroos rescued them from a set piece against Sweden at the death. Low thought everything was fine.
Then his squad let woeful South Korea hang around for 90 minutes. Germany couldn't cobble together a goal. Finally, the Taeguk Warriors hit them at the other end. Germany were desperate now. Like Italy and Spain before them, the defending champions were facing elimination in the group stage. Neuer abandoned the goal to join the attack. If any keeper belonged on the wrong side of the centre circle it was the Bayern no.1. How many times have you been told he's as skilled with the ball as many midfielders? It wasn't evident in the heavy first touch that sent Korea the other way and ended with Son Heung-min tapping the ball into an empty net.
Just like that, the revolution was put down. Germany had been bitten in the arse.
Decision-making is an essential to life. In international football, the ultimate responsibility lies with the manager. When they make the right ones, they're geniuses. When they don't a barrage of insults awaits. Ask Senegal’s Aliou Cisse.
Cisse captained those famous debutants that shocked the universe by beating France in 2002. Sixteen years on, the 42-year-old returned as this tournament's youngest manager.
Blessed with an extremely talented squad, Senegal garnered four points from their opening two matches. The Lions of Terenga easily defeated Poland and were very unfortunate to share the spoils with Japan. They needed just a point against Colombia to seal passage to the second round. That's when Cisse made the wrong decision.
The Africans dictated the tempo and were better organized but when Colombia won a late corner kick, Cisse made the wrong decision. He chose to slow the game with a substitution. Moussa Wagué came on for Youssouf Sabaly. While Senegal were trying to reorganise, Yery Mina capitalised.
The FC Barcelona defender rose unmarked to calmly head Juan Quintero's cross. Had the Teranga Lions defended that corner kick, an African team would have reached the knockout rounds. Japan would not have progressed based on fair play. One decision swayed the fate of an entire continent.
The quote "start as you mean to go on" could not be more fitting than during the opening minutes between France and Argentina. Kylian Mbappe, who had already created a goalscoring opportunity minutes earlier, was determined to will his teammates forward.
Ever Banega's loose touch in the France half was pounced upon by the teenager, who burst past Nicolas Tagliafico in a foot race for the ball. The rest, is history. He sprinted from behind the centre circle into the Argentina box within a matter of seconds and, having already beaten three players, was hauled down to ground unceremoniously by Manchester United's Marcos Rojo.
It was reckless and a desperate attempt at stopping one of the world's fastest players during a decisive moment in the first knockout game of this year's World Cup. The only way this could have been better, was for him to have scored to cap off a blistering run forward.
Mbappe netted a second-half brace during that game and helped knock out Jorge Sampaoli's side, who will be ruing their inability to effectively deal with the Golden Boy's pace in behind. Sampaoli especially, as he is now unemployed.
As for the 19-year-old, his tournament just kept getting better. He was a constant menace for both Uruguay and Belgium to defend against down the right flank and scored an effort from range against Croatia in Sunday's final. World Cup winner and tournament's Best Young Player award at 19, there's plenty more in store.
A quarter-hour remained. Uruguay led Portugal 2-1. Edinson Cavani had scored both goals for La Celeste, the second on the counter just past the hour and only seven minutes after Pepe had squared the match for the Selecao. Now he sat on the turf, grimacing and clutching his calf.
The physios were nowhere in sight. Cristiano Ronaldo walked up, leaned over, put his hands on the Uruguayan's knees and spoke. Cavani looked up for a moment, then allowed his opponent to help him to his feet and escort him to the touchline. The announcer on my feed said something to the effect of "say what you like about sportsmanship but Ronaldo really just wants to get on with the game."
Of course, he does. On the other hand, he was polite, gentle, and did not try to rush Cavani off the pitch. For his part, Cavani accepted the assistance with grace whereas so many footballers would rudely dismiss the offer to waste more time. Ronaldo is 33, Cavani 31. They are both legends who have been through the wars. There was a mutual respect that isn't seen or appreciated enough in the modern game.
The stakes were the highest, as well. Ronaldo knew if his side couldn't find an equaliser, they were out of the competition. Cavani knew his tournament was done and, without him to partner Luis Suarez, Uruguay's likely was, too, In a World Cup that was largely about greeting a new generation of stars, two old ones said goodbye with class.
Croatia's journey was longer than most expected. The lion's share of the praise goes to the tiny king with the flowing mane, Luka Modric, as well as to his pride, which included Mario Mandzukic and the Ivans Rakitic and Perisic, but it was Danijel Subasic who gave the Blazers a chance to escape when their backs were to the wall.
In consecutive games, he carried them through penalty shootouts against top keepers. In the second, against the hosts, he bettered Igor Akinfeev while barely able to put weight on his right leg, but it was the first shootout that announced he and Croatia were for real.
As the legendary Manchester United netminder Peter Schmeichel looked on, Subasic heaped the pressure on his son Kasper, a Premier League champion in his own right. The Croatian made three saves in the shootout, challenging the scruffy Dane to match him. He did on the first two occasions, much to his father and the world's delight. Third time pays for all, however, and Ivan Rakitic sent him the wrong way. Denmark was out; Croatia's journey was just beginning.
At times during the World Cup, Twitter was more entertaining than the football itself.
Don’t get me wrong, aside from France’s 0-0 draw with Denmark which was the worst 90 minutes in the history of man, the football at this year’s tournament was fantastic.Twitter was just better.
No more so than after Neymar Jr's hilariously pathetic antics following a ‘stamp’ from Mexican defender Miguel Layun. While Neymar sat floored from another challenge, Layun stepped close to the Brazilian to retrieve the ball. In doing so, he communicated his disgust by stepping on the Brazilian's ankle. The PSG talisman promptly flung himself backwards, screaming in faux-anguish, and proceeded to rock on his back like an upended turtle with one toe in an electric outlet.
It may have hurt but the footballing fraternity has had enough of Neymar’s bullshit. Instead of sympathizing with the player we found ourselves wanting to befriend Layun; buy him a pint; congratulate him for his skullduggery.
That would have been nice if a little tricky logistically.
Instead we mocked Neymar mercilessly. Footage of the various parodies and piss-taking are there for all to see on social media.
There were teams of young footballers being drilled to roll around on the floor a la Neymar whenever their coach blew the whistle. There was the Neymar inspired KFC advert which depicted a stricken player rolling his way from the turf of the stadium all the way to a Bargain Bucket; the slogan, Making a Meal of it, was marketing genius. There was snooker, bowling, golf and Dukes of Hazzard-esque back road driving. Perhaps the best was Mats Hummels popping him like a balloon.
Neymar had put his side 1-0 up in the match but that was forgotten as social media spewed its indignation. One Twitter user summed it up perfectly. "Talented but a twat."
There was something about the minnows in this World Cup. Russia beat Spain. South Korea knocked off Germany. Iceland drew Argentina. Finally, Japan were on the verge of maybe the greatest upset in World Cup history, up 2-0 on Belgium. But Destiny felt sorry for Eden Hazard and friends.
A mishit header from Jan Vertonghen floated into the bottom of the far corner, Eiji Kawashima unable to backpedal to reach it. Then another header from Marouane Fellaini levelled terms, but Roberto Martinez's squad saved the best for last. And I do mean last.
Naive, Samurai Blue continued to attack, seeking the winner. Belgium turned it against them.
When Japan sent seven players into attacking half for a corner kick in the final minute of added time, Thibaut Courtois collected the ball and promptly fed it to the already galloping Kevin de Bruyne. The ginger sensation dashed away with the ball with Eden Hazard to his left, Thomas Meunier on the right and Romelu Lukaku waiting ahead. Nacer Chadli followed behind.
One pass fed Meunier. the second rolled towards a waiting Lukaku, who, back to goal, chose to dummy it. Chadli caught up to it and put it beyond Kawashima. In a few seconds, they had eliminated Japan and made an evolutionary leap themselves.
Even aliens landing just as the game concluded would understand why football is the beautiful game. Time was of the essence. Courtois saw the bigger picture in the heat of the moment. He initiated the attack that changed the fate of Belgium in the tournament. After they had fought back to level, he made the final argument that this was not a collection of individuals but a committed team, as Brazil would soon discover.
Coming into this tournament, there were three basic facts everyone knew about England:
- They were flat-track bullies who ripped through qualifying but never did anything in the finals.
- They were top-heavy with stars but ill-disciplined and ineffective as a team.
- When they were on song, all you had to do was get them to a penalty shootout. They were bound to lose.
When that has been the default status for five cycles, supporters tend to be cynical and hold increasingly low expectations. So, even though Gareth Southgate brought a young squad with him, England fans expected more of the same. The young group had gone unbeaten in qualifying as always and had had a reasonably successful run of tuneup games. They even moved through the opening two group games with relative ease. Belgium was up next. It was time for the other shoe to drop.
And it did, Southgate and Roberto Martinez fielded heavily rotated XIs. Both countries were already through; why risk injury? There was even a school of thought that England should lose to gain an easier route to the final. They obliged but that easier route began with a tricky match against Colombia.
The youthful Three Lions had held up stereotypes at least to the point they were struggling to score from open play. They struck early against Los Cafeterios but could not build on their lead. Late on, they honoured tradition again, allowing Colombia to equalise even though James Rodriguez had been ruled out through injury and Jordan Pickford had just made a brilliant save.
England held on for the shootout no one dreamed they would win. Then they won it. some people will claim Eric Dier's final kick that clinched the victory was the moment the Three Lions put their hoodoo to bed. However, Jordan Pickford first had to deny two shooters because Jordan Henderson had been denied by David Ospina. Juan Uribe hit the crossbar and Pickford then palmed away Carlos Bacca's effort.
Pickford did the heavy lifting, leaving Dier, in essence, a tap-in. Overnight, cynicism was drowned out by refrains of "It's Coming Home." That was a moment.
When the group stage concluded, only eight teams remained. The tournament was hurtling to the bottom of the downhill slope. While teams would score goals that would change the course of the match, none would truly affect the whole tournament the way the earlier ones had, simply because every team that makes the World Cup quarterfinals has had a wonderful tournament.
Daniel Subasic's second penalty shootout victory, this time on one leg, was special. So was the manner in which Belgium dominated Brazil. There was a poignant moment when all was done that offered some hope. French and Croatian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic intermingled with both teams congratulating everyone on serving up the best final in recent memory to cap off a tournament that fits the same description. When it came time to hand out medals, Croatian captain and Golden Ball recipient Luka Modric approached in tears. Grabar-Kitarovic paused to wipe them away.
In the scheme of things, it doesn't sound like much until you remember Modric has played this entire tournament while under indictment for perjury in Croatia. It will be difficult for a judge to hand a prison sentence to someone in the good graces of the country's leader. If it happens, one gets the feeling a clemency order will be issued with immediate effect.