The end is here. We may not want it to have gotten here, but we cannot stop it. 64 games were promised and 64 games were delivered. Invariably, some led to joy, others to tears and a few to other emotions depending on what rooting interest you had. Such is the way of tournaments and, in this, the World Cup excels like few sporting events. Even if you do not care for a team, you will find a way to root for or against someone.
So as the players from France lift the trophy and head into the night to celebrate what will be a career-defining victory and their fans party on into the next day and the day after (and the one after that) let’s take one last look at everything that happened this time out and maybe look ahead at what awaits us in 2022 in Qatar (still can’t believe that is real).
The Last Ride: Despite putting on valiant efforts, this World Cup likely represented the end of many a legend’s time on this stage. They may still show up at Copa America or the Euros, but it’s tough to see them appearing in Qatar four years from now. Starting with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The rivals for the de-facto title of “Best Player in the World” will be 36 and 38 respectively by that time. Even with the improved quality of nutrition and fitness plans, it is tough to imagine they will still feature in their nations’ plans. But for players ranging from Spain’s great midfielder Andres Iniesta to Mexico’s Rafa Marquez and Guillermo Ochoa, Colombia’s Radamel Falcao and Japan’s Keisuke Honda, this is likely their last go-round at this stage. Golden generations turn and one thing is always certain: you cannot count on time to stand still.
The Next Revelations: But if there are players stepping off the stage, then we should also recognize some of the players who have announced themselves to the world in Russia. We’re talking about France’s dynamic right-back Benjamin Pavard, Colombia’s monster of a center-back Yerry Mina, Uruguay’s diminutive Tasmanian Devil midfielder Lucas Torreira, Russia’s creative star Alexander Golovin, Croatia’s terror on the wings Ante Rebic, England’s wall of a goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and great young defender Harry Maguire. I could probably keep going, but I’ll stop to speak about one more player specifically. In any case, these young stars have all stepped forward and made their names known.
The Arrival of Kylian Mbappe: Two years ago, he was a precocious teen leading the line for AS Monaco. Rumors of bigger clubs circling abounded but he seemed willing to turn any move down and keep trusting on his talents. With last summer’s move to giants Paris Saint-Germain, the expectation was that he was going to take another step forward in his career. Well, by now, everyone knows who the young French forward is. He had 4 goals to his name in this World Cup but his biggest contribution has been in being a counter attacking nightmare to opponents; his speed and pace creating all kinds of opening for Les Bleus. All of this earned him the Young Player of the World Cup Award and an earned distinction it was. In a team full of lights, it’s the 19-year-old who has shone the brightest and proclaimed himself a star.
Luka Modric, World Star: For as long as he’s played, the diminutive Croatian has battled to make a name for himself in. Whether at Dinamo Zagreb, Tottenham Hotspur or Real Madrid, he’s played with some tremendous talents and made them look good, but found himself constantly challenged to prove himself. Even at Real Madrid, arguably, the pinnacle of club football, he lives in the shadow cast by luminaries like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. However, none leave Russia with a name as large as he does. The Golden Ball winner for Best Player of the Tournament, Modric was the heart and soul of Croatia’s epic run to the Final. In many ways, he embodied the spirit of his team and his nation of four million; toppling the likes of Argentina, Denmark, Russia and England en route. That they took three matches into extra time and two into penalty shootouts speaks to a strength that is tough to overcome. Modric won’t ever be looked past anymore.
Match of the Tournament: For me, it’s tough to pick between the crazy France 4 – Argentina 3 match that occurred at the Round of 16 and the tension-filled 2-2 draw between Croatia and Russia that went to penalties. For the France-Argentina match, you had it all: counter-attacking goals, lead changes, thunderous strikes and teams going all out to score against one another. On the other hand, the Croatia-Russia match had lead changes, goals scored in Extra Time, penalties saved, a keeper battling an injury, goals scored at the death and the pressure of a penalty shootout with the host nation involved. I ain’t gonna try to split the difference here. Both matches were amazing and they were the top of a great batch of matches.
Disappointments: I’m gonna go with two: Spain and Brazil. La Furia Roja found a way to top a decent group and then went out against a more determined Russia. Truth be told, they seemed to never look comfortable during their time at the World Cup and it brings to question whether or not the Lopetegui saga had the impact it may have had. The players and staff tried to downplay it but, after starting the tournament well, they drew against Morocco and got only a 1-0 win against Iran before facing the hosts where an own goal allowed them to take a lead before Russia came back and they played it to penalties in a match they never looked like scoring. For their part, Brazil shrugged off the disappointment of drawing against Switzerland to secure comfortable wins against Costa Rica and Serbia before dispatching a good Mexico side in the Round of 16. However, their attacking talents were all put to bed by the Belgians’ stout defense. I get that this is a team that was less built on all-out attack and more defensively-minded. That said, when the time came for them to step it up, the Selecao didn’t find a way to break through teams set up to deny Gabriel Jesus, Firmino, Coutinho and Neymar. Speaking of whom…
Neymar the Meme: For a player vested with the famous yellow and green Number 10 kit, there is a certain expectation. It’s the number of the face and the heart of the team. It’s been worn by Pele, Rivelino, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka’; names that shine brightly in Brazil. And the expectation was that the PSG star would find a way to enshrine his name on that same level. Alas, Russia 2018 will be forever remembered for the fouls he took and the show he made of everyone of them. His rolling on the ground, trying to get the attention of the referee turned up in hundreds of memes, photos, gifs and videos. It was parodied at Wimbledon. It turned into an Internet challenge. It had Will Smith coming to his defense (no idea why the Fresh Prince got in on it). For a player with all his talent, Neymar is going to have a way to turn opinion around on him.
The Scapegoating of Ozil: Having a poor showing at a World Cup can have nations turn against players. No better example was found this time out than in the way many in Germany turned against their Number 10, Mesut Ozil. I’ll grant you that I am biased towards him. He announced himself to the world 8 years ago as a talent in South Africa while still plying his trade at Werder Bremen. His languid style and vision to find the right pass marked him as one of the best young players around. Not soon after Real Madrid came a-calling. By the time Brazil ’14 came around, he had moved to Arsenal and was considered one of the best players in the world and a key figure in their winning the World Cup. He was also, in some ways, the face of the new and modern Germany — one of the many families who have emigrated to Germany and become German. Sadly, that does not seem to have lasted as he has come for abuse — sometimes racial in nature — from political and social segments in Germany. A picture with current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not help him with that and has been used as the lash to castigate the third generation Turkish-German player with. Beyond that, there are the usual recriminations about his style of play — lazy, does nothing, superfluous when things aren’t going right — which follow him wherever he goes. Der Mannschaft lost as a team but, given the fingers pointed his way, maybe the German midfield maestro may opt to hang up his international boots. And that would be a shame.
What’s in a Flag?: Alas, Ozil was not the only one who faced questions about his loyalty to the colors he was wearing. Sadly, the nationalistic specter that has lingered over much of the global discourse due to refugees and migrant movements around the world came to the World Cup en force. You had a lot of anger thrown at U.S. hero Landon Donovan for daring to root for Mexico as part of an ad campaign for Wells Fargo. Silly perhaps but it came right as US-Mexico relations were at a low. Meanwhile many of the French players, 18 of the 23 to be accurate, came into question as to whether or not they would be as committed to Les Bleus cause as their Croatian counterparts, with many openly rooting for the Eastern European nation over the multi-ethnic side that was representing France. Some of that is, sadly, inevitable in a contest between nations. But it only went to show how even silly sporting events can, at times, reflect our larger world.
A World Cup in November?: The Final had not arrived and we were told the news of FIFA’s plan for Qatar 2022. Given the concerns for heat in the Middle East nation — highs of 106 degrees Fahrenheit/41.5 degrees Celsius are common during the June-July time the World Cup normally takes place — the decision was made schedule the tournament from November 21 to December 18. At that time, Qatar has a more pleasant weather — in the mid-70s F/mid-20s C for highs. At first glance, it makes sense. There was no feasible way Qatar could deliver air conditioned stadia to keep players and spectators from suffering from the high heat.
The obvious issue is that this will fall right in the middle of many league seasons throughout the globe. The European soccer season will have four months before it must stop. Leagues in North and South America will be reaching their season’s ends — with competitions and tournaments often climaxing in late November. And remember: it’s not just the 28 days that FIFA is making everyone take off. Players must be called up to their national teams, have at least two weeks of preparation before the tournament stars and then have another two weeks (at least) of rest post-tournament. In effect, this shuts down leagues for November and December — right when everything from the Copa America is being settled to Champions League is having its last group games and the Premier League has its busy holiday season.
This is going to have tremendous and far reaching impact. League seasons may push into the 2023 summer, where Africa Cup of Nations and CONCACAF Gold Cup are currently scheduled. Clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich can expect to lose key players to the World Cup and then will have to figure out how to give them rest once seasons return. And for TV partners like Fox Sports, they will have to figure out how to balance the World Cup right in the midst of their normal sports events of the fall like NFL and college football. FIFA President Gianni Infantino acted like this was always the plan and everyone else would have to deal. Let’s see what the fallout is.
Team of the Tournament: Not surprisingly, expect Les Bleus and Hrvatska to feature heavily here.
GK: Thibaut Courtois, Belgium
D: Benjamin Pavard, France/Rafael Varane, France/Yerry Mina, Colombia/Diego Laxalt, Uruguay
M: Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia/Lucas Torreira, Uruguay/Luka Modric, Croatia
F: Kylian Mbappe, France/Eden Hazard, Belgium/Antoine Griezmann, France
Bench: Danijel Subasic G Croatia, Domagoj Vida D Croatia, Harry Maguire D England, Paul Pogba M France, Denis Cheryshev M Russia, Harry Kane F England, Romelu Lukaku F Belgium
Goal of the Tournament: I have to go for either Nacho’s strike against Portugal or Benjamin Pavard’s against Argentina. In doubt, I take the young Frenchman’s as his came in a knockout game.
Final Memories: Whether good or bad, exciting or poor, World Cups are entities unto themselves. Each one has a flavor all its own and each one imparts moments that seem crazy even just a few months after the fact. So with all that said, here are some of mine that I’ll take:
- Robbie Williams’ middle finger to open the World Cup.
- Iran celebrating their last minute win over Morocco
- Racing to my folks’ place to catch Spain-Portugal with my dad.
- Juggling matches on computer screens and cellphones during Matchday 3 – specially South Korea-Germany/Mexico-Sweden.
- Senegal dancing
- Colombia dancing
- Alou Cisse leading Senegal within the 7th tiebreaker of a place in the Round of 16.
- Mexico beating Germany convincingly.
- How every El Tri fan I know never stopped celebrating those days.
- The scenes in England of countless 6 pound sterling pints going up in the air in elation as the Three Lions scored.
- Diego Maradona becoming a spectacle during the tournament.
- NOT watching any of this World Cup on Fox! (Thank you Telemundo!)
- Catching the England-Croatia semifinal in my phone on a bus.
- “It’s coming home!”
- Russia starting out with a 5-goal performance.
- Fortnite celebrations becoming a thing.
- All the penalty shootouts.
- The VAR hand signal becoming a thing.
- The rain after the Final.
- Andres Cantor shouting “GOOOOOOOOOLLLLLL!!!!!” throughout it all.
OK, with all that let’s leave Russia behind. The Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and all the other leagues are just around the corner. Hope you find a team you can get behind and continue enjoying this soccer madness all the time!