After 64 games, 169 goals and a smorgasbord of shocks, World Cup 2018 is over.
France are champions, football isn’t coming home (for the 13th time in succession) and Brazil superstar Neymar is presently rolling past the Andromeda Galaxy if the plethora of memes sparked by his infamously-low pain threshold are to be taken literally.
Forget 2014’s golden Copacabana Beach and – slightly – superior goals-per-game average of 2.7. Ignore the fact that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo barely made it past the second week.
Kylian Mbappe, Luka Modric, Eden Hazard and Philippe Coutinho’s sparkling efforts made sure their early exits did not kill the lights.
Same with the commendable granite exhibited by the incomparable Diego Godin, or the confirmation of Raphael Varane’s defensive talents.
This was the tournament when the globe fell back in love with the international game. And you don’t need to refer that call to the Video Assistant Referee.
Croatia became the lowest-ranked finalist on record. They also entered Luzhniki Stadium for the showpiece as the smallest population since Uruguay in 1950.
Belgium’s third place was their best-ever finish. England didn’t end 52 years of hurt, but did prevent their absence from the semi-finals extending into a fourth decade.
Hosts Russia were the lowest-ranked team in November’s draw. They responded with a 5-0 opening destruction of Saudi Arabia that set the cast for what was to come, began the knockouts with a penalty-shootout win against Spain – burned by head coach Julen Lopetegui’s tumultuous defection to Real Madrid on the eve of the event – and went out via the same method to Croatia.
The 2006 and 2010 dour runnings felt like a chore, in comparison.
7 - Eden Hazard has been directly involved in seven goals at the World Cup (three goals, four assists); the joint-most of any Belgium player since 1966 (Jan Ceulemans also with seven). Rocket. #BELENG #BEL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Gaz8VqtsSE— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 14, 2018
There was something for everyone. Even holders Germany, egos bruised by finishing last in Group F, will always have that special night in Sochi with Toni Kroos.
So too, the travelling circus of Argentina.
With Diego Maradona cast as ringmaster in the stands and auxiliary head coach Javier Mascherano ossifying in front of our eyes, the incongruous sight of left-footed centre-back Marcos Rojo racing up to plant a decisive 86th-minute, right-footed volley into the Nigeria goal perfectly summed up the bedlam which defined this La Albiceleste.
A false dawn. But one which ended with the highest-scoring game in Russia as their insanity infected staid France – kings of the clean sheet with four and participants in the only 0-0 draw against Denmark – in the round of 16 and a starlet went supernova through two-goal-teenager Kylian Mbappe.
Belgium were the grand entertainers, even outgunning pre-tournament favourites Brazil in the last-eight. Even an unseemly race to finish second with England in Group G could not detract
Rapture wasn’t the sole preserve of the established names. Fans from South and Central America flooded into Russia as Europeans shied away, terrified by scare stories which bore no relation to the reality inside sterilised ‘FIFA-land’.
A carnival erupted at Nizhny Novogorod Stadium when veteran Felipe Baloy became the first Panama international to strike in a World Cup. No matter it was the consolation in a 6-1 thrashing by England.
As has become de rigueur, Mexico exited in the second round – for the seventh-successive occasion. But what memories were created in the process by the tactically bold dispatching of Germany which sent the champions into a tailspin during their opening game.
This set the blueprint for what was to come from so many nations.
Japan were emboldened by April’s removal of the stern Vahid Halilhodzic and boosted by Carlos Sanchez’s red card in the opening Group H-triumph against Colombia.
Pre-event gloom was lifted by the Samurai Blue’s return to their traditional, passing values. A lack of nous and physicality saw a 2-0, round-of-16 lead evaporate against resurgent Belgium.
They will come again.
Regional rivals South Korea went for broke in a mission improbable against Germany when Group F finished. A 2-0 win and shot in the arm for Asian football were earned, no matter that their Russian journey ended on that glorious day in Kazan.
Disappointments came along the way.
This was the first time since 1982 Africa failed to provide any entrants to the knockouts. A continent continues to move in reverse since Pele’s prediction one of their number “will win the World Cup before the year 2000”.
Favourites Brazil were short on the expected entertainment, while Neymar’s gamesmanship left a sour taste.
The way his antics were treated evidences this World Cup’s great gift for the future.
Beyond the empty vessels provided by the usual Luddites, the introduction of VAR provided plenty more positives than negatives.
It came up with the correct call to deny Neymar’s histrionics against penalty, for starters. When mistakes were made, such as Cedric Soares’ handball against Iran, they could usually be boiled down to human error.
Whether through Mbappe et al’s ascension or technology’s inspection, a brave new World awaits. In all aspects.
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