Ahead of Sunday’s showpiece between France and Croatia, FIFA president Gianni Infantino described Russia 2018 as the “best World Cup” ever – and it’s hard to disagree.
The football has dazzled and, despite fears, been enriched by the addition of VAR. Giants of the game suffered early exits, goals flew in late at an astonishing rate and England almost convinced football to come home.
Here’s why we reckon Russia 2018 was the best but we want to hear from you, too – tweet us @SkyFootball or leave a comment below if you’re reading on skysports.com.
England daring to dream
This was a summer to cherish for England fans, a time a nation polarised in its politics came together in support of Gareth Southgate’s team. ‘Three Lions’ soared back to the top of the charts and ‘It’s Coming Home’ was common parlance in pubs, schools, workplaces and on social media.
Supporters packed fan parks, basked in the heatwave and flung beer as England’s new generation banished the burden of the past with a penalty shootout win over Colombia as the draw opened up like a golden highway to the final.
Southgate’s waistcoat, Harry Maguire’s ‘slab-head’ and Jordan Pickford’s right hand were becoming national treasures.
But that glorious chance to reach the pinnacle of football slipped through their fingers when Mario Mandzukic completed a Croatia comeback in the semi-final.
It left a nation thinking ‘what if?’ but there were standing ovations for the players at the full-time whistle. A country cheered, rediscovered their pride in the national team and had plenty of laughs along the way as memes and GIFs stormed social media in tribute to new heroes.
Late goals and drama
Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia may have kicked things off but the tone for the tournament was set the following evening as Spain and Portugal played out an instant World Cup classic in Sochi.
Cristiano Ronaldo had twice put Portugal ahead but, by the time he was lining up an 88th-minute free-kick, they were trailing to Nacho’s stunning strike. Ronaldo whipped the ball over the wall and into the top corner to complete his hat-trick and as the tournament went on the late drama kept coming.
England had the ecstasy of Harry Kane’s stoppage-time winner against Tunisia before the anguish of Yerry Mina’s 93rd-minute equaliser for Colombia.
Toni Kroos kept Germany alive in the tournament with just seconds remaining against Sweden, Marcos Rojo saved Argentina to devastate Nigeria, and Nacer Chadli came off the bench to complete a memorable Belgium comeback over Japan. There have been late goals aplenty and with one game remaining there is still time for more.
VAR excitement… and chaos
“I feel hard done by. I don’t feel we were beaten by a better team but almost by technology a little bit.”
Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan was not impressed by VAR after his side’s defeat to France but, on the whole, the technology has had a positive impact and even those who oppose it would struggle to deny that it has added drama.
Perhaps never more so than in Portugal’s group game with Iran. Ronaldo was heavily involved again, VAR leading to a Portugal penalty after the 33-year-old was brought down by Morteza Pouraliganji. Ronaldo’s penalty was saved but not long after he and Pouraliganji clashed again and the Portuguese was fortunate to escape with a yellow card following a VAR review after appearing to elbow the Iranian defender.
That wasn’t the end of the VAR controversy, though, as Iran were awarded a late penalty to level the game when, on second viewing, the referee adjudged that Cedric Soares had handled the ball. Karim Ansarifard scored but Portugal clung on to qualify.
Crucially, more often than not the right decision has been reached and while, as Gary Neville has said, the system remains “imperfect” and the way it is implemented may need tweaking, VAR has won over some of its critics and can at the very least be considered a viable option moving forward.
From heroes in Brazil to being humbled in Russia, defending champions Germany failing to get out of their group was the biggest shock of this World Cup. Joachim Low’s side were among the pre-tournament favourites but defeats to Mexico and South Korea saw their stay in Russia cut short.
“We have to take responsibility. We screwed up, (and) we screwed up together,” said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
It may have been the most notable but it was far from the only shock of the tournament. Spain crashed out in the last 16, beaten on penalties by hosts Russia, while Croatia announced themselves with a thumping 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stage.
Brazil’s defeat to Belgium may not count as a major shock but that Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and co – the favourites going into the tournament – did not at least make the last four certainly went against expectations.
Croatia have proven themselves to be a formidable team but they are also the lowest ranked team, 20th, to reach a World Cup final. If the rest of the tournament is anything to go by then fans should expect the unexpected in the final.
World Cups aren’t all about going all the way for some teams; making the finals and potentially winning a match or even scoring a goal can send a country wild.
Egypt didn’t do much scoring or winning in Russia but they did create a bit of history by fielding 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who made his first-team debut in 1993.
The shot-stopper became the oldest player to appear in the competition’s history after being selected to start the final group game against Saudi Arabia.
Just starting a game wasn’t enough for the veteran – he went one step further and produced a memorable World Cup moment when he saved Fahad Al-Muwallad’s penalty kick.
Meanwhile, Iran, drawn in a tough group with Portugal, Spain and Morocco, came into this tournament having won only once at a World Cup – a 2-1 victory over the USA in 1998.
Expectations were low but a gritty opening-game victory against Morocco sparked jubilant scenes across the nation thanks to Aziz Bouhaddouz’s 95th-minute own goal. Iran did not muster a single attempt in the second half and were the first team since 1966 to score in a half of World Cup football without attempting a shot on goal.
It’s pretty rare for a team to have something to celebrate in a 6-1 defeat but Panama created their own slice of history by grabbing their first ever World Cup goal. As the Three Lions fans were rubbing their eyes at England managing to score six in one game, sections of the Panama contingent were drying theirs when Felipe Baloy – the oldest member of the squad at 37 – poked home following a set-piece. Baloy instantly became a national hero.
Changing of the guard
Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar. Make no mistake, all three had their moments in Russia but this World Cup has also seen a new generation of superstars come to the fore, not least Kylian Mbappe.
The idea that the 19-year-old Frenchman has ‘burst onto the scene’ over the past month ignores his exploits for Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain over the past two years, not to mention the fact that he is already the second most expensive player of all time.
However, against Argentina in the last 16, he gave notice that he is ready to fulfil the immense potential that persuaded PSG to pay £166m for a teenager and has led to reports that Real Madrid want him to help fill the void left by Ronaldo.
And if you’re receiving praise from Pele then you must be doing something right.
The chances are that we may have seen the last of Messi and Ronaldo at a World Cup but, at just 26, Neymar will be back again and with Mbappe, Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane set to join him, even without arguably the game’s two greatest ever players, there will be no shortage of world class on show in four years time.
Concerns about fan safety and hooliganism meant many England supporters stayed away but the narrative was instead one of warm welcomes and rich, rewarding experiences as fans put aside club rivalries.
South American fans travelled in their droves, the dancing Senegalese provided a riot of colour and the Japanese even stayed behind to clear up the rubbish.
Helped by Russia’s surprise run to the quarter-finals, the local mood was buoyant, peaking with the hosts’ remarkable triumph over Spain.
Back home, England supporters revelled in reaching the semi-finals and despite falling short, the reaction to when England were beaten by Iceland at Euro 2016 could hardly be more different.
Kyle Walker summed up the mood when he talked of fresh unity and defender Kieran Tripper echoed his sentiment, saying: “We have connected with the fans – and I hope they know how hard we tried to make them proud.”
If you are using skysports.com you can comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click ‘Report’.