Image courtesy of Ben Sutherland via Flickr

The 2018 FIFA World Cup will be remembered as one of the greatest and most exciting in the tournament’s history. The prior concerns over the potential violent and racist behaviour of the hosts, Russia’s fans, which threatened to mar the competition, were all but dispelled as the country welcomed traveling supporters from all over the globe in a festival of football.

Russia’s team were being considered the worst the country had ever produced. Entering the tournament as the lowest ranked side, they lacked the confidence of the rest of the nation that they would even make it out of their group. Uruguay’s Atlético Madrid centre-back partnership of Diego Godín and José María Giménez, along with the threat of Premier League Player of the Season Mo Salah, posed a daunting challenge for the hosts. However, with their direct and fast-paced attacking style, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side were a joy to watch, demolishing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in an emphatic opening ceremony. The pick of these goals came courtesy of an outside of the foot half-volley from winger Denis Cheryshev, one of Russia’s standout performers. Alongside him was striker Artem Dzyuba, whose physical presence and 3 goals helped his team reach the quarter finals after an unexpected win against Spain on penalties, following qualification in second place from group A.

From a team that exceeded expectation, to one that severely underachieved, Russia 2018 will be one to forget for Germany. After suffering shock defeats to Mexico, South Korea, and needing a desperate extra-time winner to haul themselves past Sweden, the defending champions departed the World Cup without advancing from the group stage for the first time since 1938. Manager Joachim Löw was criticised for the loyalty he demonstrated in selecting players based on their reputation, rather than those who had enjoyed successful seasons, such as Marc-André ter Stegen and Leroy Sané. This culminated in a languid and uninspiring defense of the title they won so impressively four years previously, with displays from Jérôme Boateng and Mesut Özil being particularly underwhelming.

After FIFA declared VAR would be implemented in the World Cup, many were anxious it would distract from the entertainment of the competition and argued it would be more appropriately trialed during an event of lesser importance. However, the new technological innovation proved highly effective, with 71 of the 169 goals scored emanating from set pieces, a significant number of which resulted from VAR reviews. 29 penalties were also awarded; the most of any World Cup. This shows players are finally being punished for committing offences like diving and pulling of shirts. If VAR continues to be improved, perhaps such cases of unsportsmanlike behaviour can be eradicated from the game altogether. Despite this progress, the controversies of VAR could not be escaped entirely. Take the final for example, in which the referee granted France a contentious penalty during a crucial moment of the game for a handball against Croatia’s Ivan Perišić. With the ref having to examine the incident multiple times, surely the decision cannot be classified as “clear and obvious”, confirming the system must be refined further before its permanent introduction can be considered.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of this World Cup was that of England’s performance. Many did not hold much hope for The Three Lions following their humiliating elimination to Iceland at the European Championships two years ago. The team, filled with youth and inexperience, gave the impression the FA were preparing a squad to become contenders for the future rather than the present. But, Gareth Southgate had other ideas. England, excluding some inaccurate finishing from Raheem Sterling, were dangerous and exciting in attack, prompting captain Harry Kane to claim the Golden Boot with 6 goals. This freedom was built upon the foundation of a largely impenetrable defense. Jordan Pickford was excellent between the sticks; with notable mentions also going to Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier. The latter struck a free-kick which sent the nation wild; fantasising of their first World Cup final for 52 years, a dream cruelly snatched away by Croatia hitman Mario Mandžukić in extra-time of an agonising semi-final. Indeed, set pieces were a major component of England’s success, with 9 of their 12 goals coming from dead ball situations. And who could forget their first World Cup penalty shoot-out triumph, beating Colombia from the spot in the round of 16. Although football did not come home, the country’s belief in the England Men’s National Team undoubtedly did.

Fortunes fared better across the channel, as France became World Champions for the second time, conquering Croatia 4-2 in an exhilarating final. Perišić levelled the match after an early Mandžukić own goal, before falling victim to the controversial decision that awarded Les Bleus a penalty, one adeptly dispatched by Antoine Griezmann. Despite this, Croatia were the dominant side for much of the game, tenacious both in and out of possession as they looked to capitalise on their opportunity of winning their first World Cup final. However, even with the Golden Ball winner Luka Modrić in their ranks, Croatia were unable to breakdown a solid French defense and were powerless to their counter-attacks which saw Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé score either side of another Mandžukić goal (this time in the correct net). In doing so, Mbappé became the first teenager since Pelé to score in a World Cup final, rightfully securing him the accolade of Young Player of the tournament. The PSG star was exceptional throughout the competition, playing a leading role in the demise of Argentina, Uruguay, and Belgium along the way to the final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Les Bleus thoroughly deserved to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy, and with the second youngest squad at Russia, look the side to beat come Qatar in 2022.