Looking back on World Cup 2018 in Russia, it’s had just about everything anybody could ask for. Drama, excitement, upsets, success stories, surprises, breakout stars, struggles, and so so much more. So now is as good a time as any to look back and reflect on some of the good and the bad of the 21st FIFA World Cup.
France, and especially Kylian Mbappe
They won the World Cup, and honestly those five words could do this all for me. They pulled off the Bayern Munich story of international football. In 2012 Bayern lost the Champions League at home to Chelsea, the next year they managed to come back and win it. At Euro 2016, France lost to Portugal 1-0 in the Final at the Stade-De-France, and now they’re world champions.
The team has come together and fought their way to the top of the world. Didier Deschamps made a tough choice in starting Olivier Giroud in their second group stage match against Peru over Ousmane Dembélé, but the change paid off. The Chelsea man may not have scored, but his role as the focal point of the France attack and his ability to bring others into the play cannot be praised enough. Honestly, the whole starting XI deserves praise. Defenders like Varane and Umtiti came up with big goals, as well as solid defending, in the knockout rounds. Paul Pogba dictated games as only he can. N’Golo Kante ran miles as only he can. Antoine Griezmann was clinical, both from general play and the penalty spot (which is easier said than done, just ask Lionel Messi). Hugo Lloris, despite his error in the final, will be remembered for some remarkable saves that he had which ensured France’s hopes never died.
Special praise though has to go to Kylian Mbappé. He has been, without a doubt, the breakout star of this tournament. It’s not like he was an unknown quantity beforehand, but he truly became his own player in Russia. Just ask Peru, Argentina, or Croatia, he’s a man to be feared and he has plenty of years ahead of him. He rightfully earned the Best Young Player of the tournament award, and, as one of Fox’s commentators put it best, regardless of where his career takes him, or what happens, he will always have with him the title of “World Champion” Kylian Mbappe.
Starting with a low hanging fruit, Germany definitely falls into the Losers category. Defending World Champions, one of the favorites to win the whole tournament, placed into a group without any other football superpowers, the road was set for them. All they did was wind up finishing rock bottom of the group, with the two most memorable scenes of their tournament being Kroos’s 95th minute free kick winner vs. Sweden and Manuel Neuer being dispossessed next to South Korea’s penalty box before the Koreans made it 2-0. The fact one of the scenes involves their goalie who spent most of the league season out injured being dispossessed sums up their tournament in a nutshell. A mess from start to finish, continuing the curse of the champions, and signalling Joachim Low that it’s time for a rebuilt.
Football may not have come home, but that doesn’t mean England didn’t have a tournament to remember. The lovable lads from London, Lancashire, Leicester, and all other English cities and towns, whether or not they start with an L, went about their tournament with a swagger and a style that made it hard to root against them. Whenever they played, they looked like they were having fun and they looked like they were loving every step along the way. It was a far cry from the languishing performances England’s past “Golden Generation” put together, like the Round of 16 exit in 2010, group stage crash out in 2014, and the loss to Iceland at Euro 2016. This new English team was full of hope and zest and this will be a great learning experience to help them grow. Most of them will still be together for the good part of the next decade, and if they become the generation to bring football home, this tournament could be pointed to as the place where it all began.
Top goalscorer in the Bundesliga last season, three time Bundesliga top scorer in his career, world renowned top class striker, captain and centerpiece for a Poland team placed into a manageable group with Japan, Senegal, and Colombia, it was expected that he would possibly make a run for the Golden Boot and help Poland out of their group. Instead he finished with an abysmal zero goals and Poland was the first team eliminated from the group. No other way to put that except as not good enough, he’s the country’s top scorer in history and he failed to score in their first World Cup since 2006, one of the more disappointing players of the tournament.
With France’s victory the continental tally of World Cups now becomes Europe 12 – South America 9 – Rest of the World 0. It’s now been 16 years since a South American team last won the World Cup (Brazil 2002), and in that time period 7 of the 8 World Cup finalists have been European, with two of those teams being brand new finalists, and 14 of the 16 semi-finalists have been European. In regards to where the football superpowers now lie and who sets the pace for the footballing world, the power has quite clearly shifted across the Atlantic. In all the key matchups of this tournament, Europe came out on top.
France, with the 2nd youngest team of the tournament, dismantled an aging Argentina side 4-3 in a match that might as well have been a metaphor for Europe’s new teams stepping up over the old South Americans. Brazil were taken down 2-1 by Belgium’s counter-attacking. England, also with an average squad age of 26 like France, even managed to win a penalty shootout at a world cup, which was never supposed to happen, over Colombia, despite the South Americans playing some very rough football and having the extra time momentum after a game tying header in the 93rd minute. This is with both Argentina and Brazil having two of the top 10 teams in regards to average age of the tournament, with teams aged 29.3 and 28.6 respectively. If this World Cup is a sign of things to come, it would not be surprising to see Europe expand that tally by 1 or 2 more before South America catches up. (All ages from https://www.statista.com/statistics/865746/fifa-world-cup-2018-russia-teams-by-average-player-age/)
8 years ago, Ghana was the length of a crossbar away from becoming the first African country to reach a World Cup semi-final. 8 years on, they didn’t even make the World Cup, but the other African teams who made the tournament didn’t fare much better. Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria all represented the CAF at this World Cup, and all five of them failed to make it beyond the group stage, which meant Africa wasn’t represented in the knockout stage for the first time since 1982. To be fair to them, Senegal were the first ever team eliminated on fair play, Nigeria pushed Argentina all the way to that second place spot, and the rest were placed in groups with some tournament favorites.
However, this still represents a worrying lack of a finished product for African football at the national level. You can look anywhere in European football and see African players in top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, and the rest of Europe. Additionally, in Africa the field is very even and doesn’t have the same gaps that European qualification has when, for example, Spain plays a team like Malta or Luxembourg. This is exemplified by the fact that Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon, two African superpowers and the winners of the last two Africa Cup of Nations, didn’t even make the World Cup. The other teams in Africa can go toe-to-toe with these teams, now they need to start showing again that they can hold their own against the rest of the world.
169 goals scored, an average of 2.64 per match, some of the greatest matches ever played, some of the craziest results ever, and more upsets than we can name. When the final of a tournament has 6 goals, you know it’s been a good time. All of the worries that plagued the tournament ahead of time, from construction issues to fears of hooliganism or fan violence were avoided without a hitch. Russia was a great host to the world, and they managed to perform well in the tournament themselves. VAR worked, for the most part. The players entertained both on the field and with their shenanigans. Overall it was a great World Cup from start to finish, and will go down as one of the better ones in history. It brought people together, helped them forget about their problems, and put smiles on faces all around the world, and that’s really all one can ask for.
Traditional Football Superpowers
Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Brazil. Those were the Final Four teams in the 2014 FIFA world cup. Their results in 2018 were: Not qualified, Group, Round of 16, Quarter-finals. Add to that list Italy, Spain, and Portugal and you have another not qualified, and two more Round of 16 eliminations. This has been the tournament of the underdogs from the qualification campaigns all the way through the tournament final. Croatia made it all the way to the final, Belgium, a new force in the footballing world, finished third, Russia and Sweden were in the quarter-finals, and plenty of results throughout the tournament left spectators with their jaws dropped. Even if France won it in the end, Russia 2018 can definitely be remembered as a tournament that shook things up, and it always makes it more fun to some see new faces in the mix near the business end of the tournament, and in that regard, this tournament definitely delivered.