Previously we covered ten of the worst things about Russia 2018, from Neymar’s histrionics to the fact this might be the last acceptable World Cup for eight years, but that’s enough scorn-pouring for one summer. Despite the premature calls that this World Cup was set to go down as one of the worst ever, a combination of brilliant attacking play and woeful attempts at defending gave us plenty of goals and drama, as well as the sight of Germany exiting the tournament in the first round for the first time in eighty years. Whilst there are almost too many highlights to choose from, here are ten things that enjoyed a fantastic tournament. It’s the World Cup 2018 Hitlist.
“It’s a disgrace!” we cried. “How can a dictatorship like Russia, with its hostile attitude towards race and sexuality, even be considered to host a World Cup”. Well, roubles talk. But after six years of handwringing and nailbiting over hooliganism, corrupt policing and poisoning, Russia pulled it off. Barely a negative word was uttered regarding the country’s ability to host a welcoming, inclusive tournament (though the sight of a bear being driven around a flat-bed truck and playing a vuvuzela on the second day did raise more than a few eyebrows), and the atmosphere across the country looked genuinely convivial throughout. There are, of course, caveats to consider. A leopard doesn’t just change its spots because people are coming round for tea. For Vladimir Putin, projecting a positive impression of Russia will have been of utmost importance. If he’s to continue his iron-fisted reign as Prime Minister unopposed, then keeping his house in order is the very least he could do. The message to Russia’s most prominent hooligan firms was simple – stay in line, or face the consequences. It’s remarkable what you can get done when ‘no’ isn’t an option. Politics aside, the setting of Russia was always likely to prove appropriate. Moscow and St Petersburg are cities steeped in culture, Sochi and Nizhny Novogorod offer stunning backdrops, Kaliningrad and Kazan are a link to the past. There is undeniable history beyond the old iron curtain, and for a month it was enjoyable to be given a peek.
But it wasn’t just hosting at which Russia excelled. The national side, tipped by their own fans to struggle, provided a united front and, from the very first game, looked capable of mixing it with the best in the world. Stanislav Cherchesov, a manager of little international repute, galvanised his players and drew up a tactical plan that brought the best out of the tools at his disposal. In the opening two games, the Russian’s charged at their opponents like a suicidal battalion, blowing Saudi Arabia and Egypt away with power and brute force, before a schooling from Uruguay left the manager reconsidering his tactics. The victory over Spain mightn’t have been pretty, but the game plan was effective, and were it not for two poor penalties, Russia could have been facing off against England in the semi-finals. Despite his charges being one of the oldest squads in the tournament, Cherchesov was able to squeeze a little extra out of his players, as they ended the group stages as the team to have covered most ground, while in Aleksander Golovin and Denis Cheryshev, two of the stars of this World Cup emerged. Both are likely to earn big money moves this summer. Whether Russia can take the positives from their own World Cup into future tournaments is up for debate, but for a few weeks at least, they were part of the elite.
In a tournament full of chaos, Russia 2018 still stuck to the truism applicable to most World Cups – the best team wins. While France’s victory mightn’t rank alongside Brazil’s iconic 1970 winners, or the brutally efficient West Germany win in 1990, over the course of seven games Didier Deschamps’ team displayed all the hallmarks of champions. Their unimpressive wins in the group stage showed a side able to grind out results even when things weren’t clicking, while the manner in which they blew Argentina away in the second round finally had pundits and punters alike sitting up and taking notice. Against Uruguay, they cruised to a 2-0 victory, while the semi-final meeting with Belgium offered an insight into the pragmatism of Deschamps. Happy to soak up the pressure of Hazard and co.’s forays forward, Les Bleus simply bided their time and landed the suckerpunch from a set-piece. In the final, we witnessed a France’s Best Of, with a ten minute spell after half-time seeing goals from Pogba and Mbappe put the game out of Croatia’s reach, sandwiched by spells of sitting back and slowing the game down. In the face of criticism, Deschamps managed to turn his team into a well oiled machine.
Also pleasing was the number of outstanding performers in the French team, for the Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina win of 1986 this was not. Hugo Lloris, his rick in the final aside, was the embodiment of composure in goal, particularly given the relatively poor season he’d just endured at Tottenham Hotspur. In Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane, France seem to have finally landed on a reliable centre-half pairing, with Varane in particular unfortunate to evade the Player of the Tournament conversation. Young full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard were drafted in late but were both exceptional in spells – Stuttgart defender Pavard could hardly of dreamed that he would win Goal of the Tournament when he arrived in Russia a month ago. In midfield N’Golo Kante provided the kinds of performances that regular viewers of the Premier League have become accustomed to, alongside a revitalised Paul Pogba who finally made the step up to the biggest stage everyone knew he was capable of. Blaise Matuidi, the wily veteran deployed in an unfamiliar left midfield role, was the catalyst for France’s newfound attacking freedom, while the front three speak for themselves. Olivier Giroud may have ended the tournament goalless, but his role as a focal point for French attacks gave Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann the space to terrorise defences. Spare a thought for the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Corentin Tolisso and Nabil Fekir, none of whom were afforded serious playing time during the tournament. Lucky for them, all in their early twenties, they’ve got plenty of international football to come. France’s Golden Generation starts now.
The Rise of Smaller Nations
History had already been made before a ball had been kicked in Russia, as Iceland became the smallest nation to qualify in the history of the tournament with a population of 335,025. Though Heimir Hallgrímsson’s men fell at the first hurdle, the representation of small nations was still strong come the knockout rounds. Of the sixteen teams to make it out of the group stage, seven could boast a population of eleven million or lower, with Belgium, Uruguay and Croatia all overcoming larger nations in the second round. In the quarter-finals, Belgium and Croatia, with a combined population of fifteen million then put paid to the hopes of two of the three largest countries competing in Russia, with Brazil and the hosts combined 352 million falling short. In fact, Croatia’s run all the way makes them the smallest nation to appear in a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. All of which means? Well not a lot, but also a great deal. If the likes of Russia are going to build on the momentum created from this tournament, then they could do a lot worse than look into the models created by smaller nations, who’ve ploughed money into football and reaped the rewards. Brazil, similarly, need to consider reviewing their domestic football system and work out why the national team has been falling short for the last fifteen years. The recipe for a successful national team hardly seems complicated – engage children with the sport, and train them into athletes. For Croatia, the 1998 World Cup campaign provided a catalyst for the next generation of exciting players – for Russia, the iron is hot for striking.
Weeks before the World Cup began, this very parish bemoaned the use of video assistant referees at the tournament, suggesting that they may ruin the whole thing as a spectacle given the evident teething problems last season. As with most of our other predictions, we were wrong. Still not everyone is convinced, and the controversial decision to award France a penalty in the final was a poorly-timed reminder that the system is fallible, but once the novelty had worn off after the first week in Russia, suddenly it made a whole lot of sense. For most run-of-the-mill penalty decisions, the video assistant has come in handy. A case in point was the first use of VAR at the tournament, when Antoine Griezmann was felled in the box and the referee waved away claims for a penalty. Having watched the replay at the behest of his remote assistant, the decision was overturned. In the South Korea-Germany game, VAR was on the spot to point out that Toni Kroos had inadvertently poked the ball between a defender’s legs at a corner, thus playing goalscorer Kim Young-gwon onside. It was also noted that, past the group stage, VAR began to disappear into the background, suggesting that referee’s had sharpened up, and players had realised they couldn’t get away with shenanigans in the box.
It has to be said, however, that VAR is by no means perfect. The aforementioned penalty decision in the final was perhaps the most contentious call, certainly in the high-profile games, but there was a lack of consistency between referees throughout. The two cloudiest areas surrounded wrestling in the box and handball, both of which provided some mystifying moments. England’s Harry Kane found himself bundled over at dead-balls twice during the meeting with Tunisia to no avail, before three penalty kicks were awarded to England for the same kind of challenge against Panama and Colombia. In the Serbia-Switzerland game, Aleksander Mitrovic was pulled to the ground by two Swiss defenders, both clearly impeding the striker’s ability to reach the ball, but still the referee remained unmoved. On multiple occasions, but perhaps most memorably in the dying stages of Iran-Portugal, clear instances of ball-to-hand were recommended for review, almost always resulting in penalty awards. The introduction of VAR across the game seems like a matter of when, not if, but before it is fully implemented there has to be a clear consensus over the correct outcome of these kinds of decisions. On the bright side, those suggestions that the system would put an end to post-match dissections couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“Football is a simple game made complicated by idiots”, so said Bill Shankly, back in the days when men were men and people regularly died from influenza. The game has progressed significantly since the 1960s, and the World Cup has become something of an inflential marker for the ever changing world of tactics. In 2014, Germany brought the gegenpress to the masses, in 2010 it was Spanish tika-taka, in 2006 Italy introduced the unorthodox tactic of winding up the opposition’s star player until he plants the nut on you. But while your boyfriend has been busy putting the finishing touches to his new tactics blog and focusing on the ingenuity of playing a false eleven, the teams on the greatest stage have been going back to basics.
An unprecedented 43% of goals scored at this summer’s World Cup came from set-pieces, with England emerging as the surprising kings of the dead ball, scoring all but three of their twelve goals outside of open play. The next highest proportion of set piece goals came at USA ’94, though the free-kick specialism of Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi and Branco wasn’t quite so evident in Russia. Undoubtedly, VAR has influenced the way that teams score goals, particularly given that a record high twenty-two penalties were scored across the sixty-four games. Beyond that, though, is the subconscious effect the video assistant referee has on defenders. If they’re to avoid giving away penalties, then they’re forced to avoid grappling at corners, and if they avoid grappling at corners then the opposition are afforded time and space to attack the ball. Similarly, the fear of any mistimed challenges in the area meaning the certain concession of a penalty has encouraged defenders to commit fouls just outside the area, and from there the same corner conundrum applies. Given the lack of time afforded to international managers for tournament preparation, set-pieces also offer a time-efficient means of carving out goalscoring opportunities. Provided their team can get near the opponents penalty area, corners and dangerous free-kicks will always occur. From there, it’s a matter of outfoxing the defence, and no-one knows that better than the inventor of the “Love Train”…
When former Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate was promoted from his position as Under 21s coach to the head of the senior team, England’s supporters resembled a mass recreation of that Alan Partridge GIF. It was, put politely, an uninspiring appointment, though having given the job to the Chardonnay guzzling Sam Allardyce only months previous, Southgate could hardly be considered a step down. After the nightmare of Iceland at Euro 2016, the tip of a shitty iceberg that had been hoovering up enthusiasm for the national team since around 2004, trust and engagement between the English public and its football team was at an all-time low. World Cup qualification was confirmed with minimal fuss, and slowly but surely rumblings of confidence in the unassuming manager began to grow. First, Wayne Rooney was put out to pasture. A more unpopular leading goalscorer for a nation you’re unlikely to find, the Evertonian had assumed the position of national scapegoat for well over a decade, and with his influence waning by the game, Southgate’s bold call was met with approval from most. Then Joe Hart, another totem of England’s darkest days, was cut from the squad. Suddenly, England had a young, fresh and exciting team, unburdened by a decade of underachievement. The manager’s press conferences heading into the tournament were impressive. He clearly cared, and yet was able to remain level-headed, realistic, and entirely devoid of the arrogant, chest-beating bullshit that had gone before.
Then England started playing and, somehow, it felt different. In the opening twenty minutes against Tunisia, Southgate’s team looked hungry, exciting, fluid, all things that England had disassociated themselves from for years. A tight game was decided by a late winner, one of those things that usually only falls to the tournament favourites. Against Panama, England were irresistible. Five up at half-time, when it could have been ten. England trouncing a minnow at an international tournament. England who huffed and puffed against Trinidad and Tobago twelve years ago. England who failed to trouble Algeria’s goalkeeper in South Africa. England who lost 2-1 to Iceland. England 6-1 Panama. Already, Southgate had arrived. Three Lions was given its first proper airing back home for twenty years. An Atomic Kitten song was appropriated in tribute to the new boss. The disillusioned and disconnected England fans finally felt excitement at following their team again. Then they won a penalty shootout against Colombia and everyone lost their shit.
If reaching a World Cup semi-final was an overachievement for England, then it was perhaps just about par for a man who has spent the last seven years of his career helping to shape the future of English football. Few will have prepared for this World Cup as much as Southgate, and though criticism of his in-game management is fair, it was his meticulous planning that took England as deep into the tournament as he did. After years of searching for Mr Right Now, the FA have finally landed on Mr Right.
Jon Champion & Ally McCoist
For those of a certain vintage, the coverage of modern international tournaments will never quite hit the peaks of those that featured Barry Davies, John Motson and Brian Moore. Rooted in misty-eyed nostaliga though it may be, the iconic tones of those three masterful broadcasters are unlikely to ever be matched, particularly given the speed at which football and society moves, and the voices that these changes demand. You’d be hard-pressed to find a commentator at this World Cup that wasn’t the subject of an online diatribe, as even the silken-voiced Guy Mowbray, the main man on the BBC, was targeted for criticism. Whether it’s Sam Matterface’s desperate attempts to appear kooky (“he’s the same height as Mel from Mel and Sue”), Clive Tyldsley’s amped up insistence that every touch of the ball holds deep significance, or Steve Wilson’s train-wreck of a recollection of the iconic Diego Maradona vs Belgium photograph, there’s flaws to find in each and every one. And if it’s not the commentators we’re annoyed at, it’s their ex-pro sidekicks. Martin Keown, Danny Murphy, Glenn Hoddle, Iain Dowie and, of course, Mark Lawrenson all took turns at the altar of disgust, often justifiably, as viewers vented at the irritating tone, lack of insight, pointless asides, and stinking attitudes of men being paid to attend such a prestigious event.
Of course none of this applies to the two most popular men in Russia this summer. Jon Champion and Ally McCoist, bizarrely deployed at ITV’s C-Team, provided a breath of fresh air throughout the tournament, earning themselves a cult following along the way. Between them, they proved that the formula for a great commentary team is simple. Champion, a stalwart of live commentary having earned his chops as third on the bill behind Davies and Motson for Match of The Day, provides a comfortingly familiar hand on the tiller. Champion won’t let us down. Champion knows what’s what. You can rely on Champion. Never overly sentimental in his calls, nor blase during moments of tense excitement, Champion knows tone like a Londoner knows unsustainable property prices. Next to him, the left-field addition of McCoist. Hardly a regular on the terrestrial sport circuit, it’s easy to forget that the last time the Glasgow Rangers legend was a regular on our screens, A Question of Sport wasn’t a steaming pile of dog shit. What McCoist provided that so many other co-commentators lacked was a simple sense of wonder at even being in Russia. Peppering his insightful and chirpy comments on the game unfolding in front of him with slices of Russian history, gleaned from the few hours afforded in each city and borne of a child-like enthusiasm for the whole adventure, McCoist provided a breath of fresh air compared to the surprise shown by some co-commentators that, actually, Morocco can play football. With the European Nations League beginning in Autumn, would it be too much to ask ITV to give Champion and McCoist a go at England?
South American Supporters
Considering all the misgivings surrounding hooliganism and discrimination, it was hardly surprising that many fans from Western Europe decided to give the trip to Russia a miss, with the 6,000 tickets purchased by German supporters the highest of any European nation outside the hosts leading up to the tournament. Lucky, then, that fans of South American teams travelled en masse, not only arriving to make up the numbers, but provide the carnival-esque backdrop that added further fun and colour to a tournament that exceeded expectations on the pitch. The 10,000+ Peruvian supporters that beg, stole, borrowed, and in one case attempted to gain excessive amounts of weight in order to witness their team’s first appearance at the tournament in thirty-four years provided one of the highlights of the month in Russia, while Brazil too were able to call on their loyal support to represent the famous yellow and green shirts. Argentina and Colombia, the South American sides with the largest fan representation in Russia, turned neutral venues into partisan cauldrons, with their second round matches against France and England respectively resembling sun-kissed afternoons and balmy evenings in Buenos Aires and Bogota. From spine-tingling singalongs to passionate processions towards stadiums, South American supporters once again showed why they’re the cornerstones of any great World Cup. Just spare a thought for the 16,000 American supporters that snapped their tickets up early.
It’s fair to say that the 2017/18 season was one to remember for Kylian Mbappe Lottin. From becoming the world’s most expensive teenager with his €145 million move to Paris Saint Germain, to scoring his first international goal in a World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands, before winning his second Ligue 1 title, and his second Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year. Then, there was the World Cup. Already installed as an automatic starter in the France lineup, Mbappe’s “quiet” group stage (in which he scored the same amount of goals as Lionel Messi and Neymar) was followed up with one of the outstanding individual performances of the tournament. Against Argentina, Mbappe was unstoppable, ripping a path between the flimsy midfield and nervy backline time and time again, first winning a penalty with his blistering pace, before showing intelligence beyond his years to slot home a brace and book his country’s place in the quarter finals. Kept relatively quiet by Uruguay, his skill and maturity emerged in equal measure against Belgium, combining spellbinding flicks with strong hold-up play and a devilish side of gamesmanship. His contribution to the final, a goal and an assist surely above and beyond even the expectations of his manager, demonstrated his ability as a big game player, and wrote his name into the history books as the first teenager to score in a World Cup final for sixty years.
It’s difficult not to be excited by such a talent, as yet unspoilt by the trappings of fame and fortune. Mbappe plays football in its purest form, utterly joyful and carefree. His is a path well-trodden, littered with stories of misfortune and ill judgement. Based on his performances in Russia, it’ll take something almighty to stand in his way as the natural heir to Messi and Ronaldo’s throne. You’re not nineteen forever but, whisper it, he’ll only get better.
The FIFA World Cup Russia 2018
And so let’s raise our glasses to the biggest winner this summer. A World Cup is made up of a million tiny pieces, and when all of them come together it creates something truly magical. Those desperate to rank tournaments from best to worst are missing the point because, of course, these things are subjective. All Russia 2018 could have hoped for ahead of this summer was to be part of the conversation, and in so many ways for so many people it has shot right to the top of the list.
Firstly, let’s look at the cold hard facts. At 2.64 goals per game, Russia fell just short of 2014 on goal average (though Brazil 1-7 Germany was a massive boost to an ailing knockout stage), but in the 32 team era, only France 98 was higher. With only one goalless draw, Russia had the fewest 0-0s since 1954, back when no-one was interested in defending. The eleven own goals scored at the tournament set a new record, so laughs were had too. And for late drama Russia 2018 is your first port of call – nine goals were scored in stoppage time this summer, higher than any other edition.
Next, throw in some shocks. Spain, Italy and France have all fallen foul of the ‘holders curse’ since the turn of the century, but surely a machine like Germany wouldn’t entertain such folly. Bottom of a group containing South Korea, Mexico and Sweden, and dumped out in the most amusing of circumstances – with Manuel Neuer taking the role of Sweeper Keeper to the next level. Still that left Spai…oh they went out in the second round, beaten on penalties by the unfancied Russians. You’ve got to fancy Brazi…nope, gone, beaten emphatically by a talented yet unstoried Belgium team. The last four of the tournament had two World Cup wins between them, compared to the ten from 2014’s semi-finalists.
How about some game-changing innovation? We’ve covered VAR up there, but it’s indisputable that the introduction of video assistants made this tournament all the more memorable as games that, on paper looked a little beige (we’re looking at you Iran v Portugal), blossomed into high-tension thrillers. The oft-baffling non-usage fuelled water cooler chat (surely Spain should’ve had a penalty towards the end of extra-time?), while the camps for and against VAR battled long and hard through the summer to come to some kind of conclusion. By the time 2022 rolls around we’ll all be used to video assistant referees, their novelty factor diminished. For one glorious summer, chaos reigned in the VAR room.
Back on the pitch, you need some magical moments. Denis Cheryshev, taken as a squad player, scoring two blinding goals in an opening game we all expected to be a damp squib was a decent start. Then Portugal and Spain served out a slugfest in Sochi, Nacho’s volley, Ronaldo’s hat-trick, a game for the ages. The Iranian aborted somersault throw-in, Diego Maradona, Mexico’s counter attacks, Cho Hyun-woo, Willy Caballero’s first touch, Toni Kroos’ late but ultimately pointless winner, Essam El-Hadary, France 4-3 Argentina, Pavard’s wondergoal, Suarez and Cavani’s long distance relationship, Igor Akinfeev’s redemption, Peter Schmeichel’s fatherly pride, Belgium 3-2 Japan, Colombia’s shithousery, England winning a penalty shootout, Roberto Martinez’s tactical masterclass, Russia 2-2 Croatia, Luka Modric taking his mind off personal matters by being the best player in the world, six goals in a final. Lordy lordy, what a tournament.
And of course, you must always consider personal experience. The four years between each World Cup seem to work as a handy marker of life events. From birth, to primary school, to awareness in the world, to secondary school, to boyfriends and girlfriends, to university, to first jobs, to settling down, to marriage, to having children. Every four years our own personal stories have entered another chapter, and every four years this wonderful tournament provides the backdrop. Whether you enjoyed watching England equal their best performance on foreign soil sat in the seemingly endless sunshine with your mates, or danced down the Champs-Élysées to celebrate an occasion that you were too young to comprehend twenty years ago, these are the memories that are ingrained forever, available for recollection every time a moment from this summer is replayed on television.
In a time where division trumps unity, sometimes its nice to come together, just for a little while, and enjoy the simple things. Nice one, FIFA World Cup Russia 2018.