By Mitch Phillips
MOSCOW (Reuters) – A-Z review of the 2018 World Cup.
A – Africa. For the first time since 1982 no African teams made it to the knockout stage. Egypt and Tunisia never got close, Morocco were a bit unlucky, while Nigeria and Senegal were a matter of minutes away – but when the dust settled it was a huge disappointment for the continent to spend the second half of the tournament watching from home.
B – Boot (Golden). With the final and third-place playoff to come, England’s Harry Kane is in pole position on six goals, ahead of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Russia’s Denis Cheryshev, all on four. Kane’s tally matches Gary Lineker in 1986 as England’s tournament best and is the first to include three penalties. Brazil’s Ronaldo, who got eight in 2002, is the only player in the last 10 tournaments to score more than six.
C – Counter-attack. Belgium proved the masters of the counter-attack and there can have been few better, or more dramatic, examples than their brilliant 94th-minute winner against Japan. From a Japanese corner, via the hands of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, four Belgians somehow found the will to drive the length of the pitch to create a wonderful goal of pace and precision, finished off by Nacer Chadli.
D – Debutantes. Iceland continued from where they left off at the 2016 Euros, drawing with Argentina, giving their all and coming up just short in a tough group. Panama were horribly outclassed – thrashed by Belgium and England and even beaten by Tunisia.
E – Europe. For the third tournament in four, there is an all-European final. This and the previous Europe-based tournament also featured all-European semi-final lineups. Once again the continent’s top sides, and some of its lesser ones, have left the rest of the world trailing – and that was with Italy and the Netherlands watching from home.
F – Forgotten. It could have been one of the greatest-ever World Cup goals and instead turned into one of the greatest-ever World Cup saves, but Jordan Pickford’s unbelievable stop from Mateus Uribe’s 30-meter top-corner piledriver was not even repeated on the big screen in the Spartak Stadium as from the resulting corner Colombia snatched a mayhem-inducing equalizer.
G – Golden Generation. Belgium’s players were sick and tired of hearing about and being asked about the tag and how it was “time to deliver.” In most ways they did, performing superbly, scoring memorable goals and dispatching Brazil in the quarter-finals, but they could not muster enough ideas to unpick the French defense in the last four. The bulk of the team, certainly its creative end, is still far from retirement age so stand by for more GG headlines in two years.
H – Hazard. Finally he wore the mantle of superstar like it was not a hair shirt. After disappearing as Belgium slipped out of the last World Cup and 2016 Euros, Eden Hazard really stepped up to the mark in Russia. Demanding the ball, dominating the key games, he could not quite get them over the line in the semi-final but nobody can this time accuse him of not trying.
I – “It’s (not) coming home.” England’s unexpected run to the semi-finals launched a nationwide reprise of the 1996 anthem “Football’s coming home,” which also boomed out of the loudspeakers at every stadium before they played and after every goal. Back at Euro ’96 they sang about “30 years of hurt” in relation to the barren spell after the 1966 World Cup. It’s now up to 52… and counting.
J – Japan. Flew the Asia flag with pride on and off the pitch. After their heart-breaking late defeat by Belgium Japan’s players might have been forgiven for throwing a few cups and punching the odd wall. Instead they picked up every piece of debris and left their dressing room looking as if it had never been used. All they left behind was a note, in Russian, thanking their hosts. Pure class.
K – Kante. Can any player ever have had so much influence on the success of his teams while attracting so little attention? N’Golo Kante patrols the area in front of his defense with such understanding and appreciation that he rarely seems to need to sprint, let alone stretch. He is a dream-screen for the men behind him and, as so many teams in Russia have discovered, an absolute nightmare to have to get past.
L – Late goals. Barely a day seemed to pass without some team snatching a goal in the dying moments – helped by what seemed to be the new minimum of five minutes’ stoppage time. Iran, Colombia, England, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Tunisia and others all enjoyed that explosion of joy and relief that comes with a last-gasp winner or equalizer and that have contributed to so much of this tournament’s excitement.
M – Modric (not Messi). Luka Modric has matured through the tournament, and matured through the game in Croatia’s semi-final victory over England. His ease of movement, eye for the right pass and overall class eventually shone through as those around him fell away.
Not so Lionel Messi, who left with his World Cup dream unfulfilled. One of the greatest players of all time alongside Pele and Diego Maradona went out with barely a whimper to join the sub-set of GOATs who have never won the World Cup – including Ferenc Puskas, Johan Cruyff and George Best, who never even got to play in one.
N – Neymar. Option 1. Bravely recovering from a long injury absence, Neymar, the most-fouled player in the tournament, had more attempts on goal than any other player and did all he could to drag a disappointing Brazil team towards a first final for 16 years. Option 2. Neymar personified everything bad about the world’s most popular game – his amazing talent overshadowed by diving, cheating, and truly ridiculous rolling around that made him the planet’s biggest laughing stock.
O – Oldest. Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary became the oldest player to appear in a World Cup finals game when he played in his country’s final group game against Saudi Arabia at the age of 45 years, 161 days.
P – Penalties. The 28 awarded up to and including the semi-finals was a tournament record by a distance with the previous highest being the 18 given in 2002. Several were the result of VAR intervention.
Q – Qatar. Host country for the next World Cup, to be held in November/December 2022, where determined fans will be sometimes able to watch three games in a day – instead of taking three days to get to a game in Russia.
R – Ronaldo. With his shorts hitched to the max, Ronaldo’s last-gasp, free-kick equalizer in the 3-3 draw with Spain was one of the highlights of the early matches. He continued to perform heroics but was unable to drag a very limited Portugal team into the quarter-finals. Of the “Big Three” in Russia, however, he can probably be most pleased with his contribution.
S – Sneaky. Colombia’s players appeared to have been overtaken by mass hysteria when a penalty was awarded against them for hauling down England’s Harry Kane but in the midst of the four-minute protest one of them was “in the moment” enough to repeatedly dig his heal into the grass around the penalty spot in a feeble attempt to make things difficult for the penalty-taker. It didn’t work as Kane converted and England went on to win on a penalty shootout.
T – Tiki-Taka. Spain made an astonishing 1,137 passes in 120 minutes against Russia but barely created a scoring opportunity and went out on penalties. Pointless passing suddenly looked so last decade. Back to the tactical drawing board.
V – VAR. With very few exceptions the first use of the Video Assistant Referee system has been a huge success. Several penalties were awarded, and a handful overturned, on the basis of replays and fears of repeated and lengthy delays proved largely unfounded.
U – Upsets. In World Cup terms they don’t come any bigger than Germany losing to South Korea to finish bottom of their group. Spain being knocked out by 70th-ranked Russia, Argentina held by Iceland and torn apart by Croatia and Spain and Portugal clinging on by their fingertips to draws against Morocco and Iran also had the neutrals cheering.
W – Wrestling. For some unknown reason, dozens of players decided that the best way to defend a corner was to ignore the ball and instead wrap their arms around their opponent and wrestle them to the ground. After initially turning a blind eye, FIFA and its referees decided to clamp down and started awarding penalties – much to the shocked outrage of those who had grappled with impunity in their opening games.
X – Xenophobia. Despite all the dire warnings, there has been none, and Russians have shown themselves to be friendly hosts in every city.
Y – Yellow. The famed and adored kit of Brazil, which they chose to sometimes replace with a new shiny blue one, as did Colombia. Nigeria introduced a kit that was a world-wide best-seller, then wore a change strip for their first game. Commercial imperative blew tradition out of the window and left fans scratching their heads.
Z – Zagallo. Mario Zagallo won the World Cup twice with Brazil in 1958 and 1962 then managed them to the title in 1970. Franz Beckenbauer followed him (1974 and 1990) and now Didier Deschamps, captain of France’s 1998 winners, has the chance to join a very exclusive club.