Football pundits declared the 2018 FIFA World Cup to be one of the greatest ever played, a difficult claim to refute. The month-long tournament featured astonishing upsets, ridiculous goals, miraculous comebacks, strategic brilliance and everything in between. Rising stars proved their worth on the biggest stage, including French forward Kylian Mbappe and English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Most notably, video assistant referees (VAR) made its controversial World Cup debut. It was a World Cup that defied expectations in every way possible.
Match Highlights: Upsets, Restored Belief and Comebacks
The six-goal thriller between France and Croatia (4-2) rounded out the rollercoaster of the tournament to make it the highest scoring final since 1958 — a game that featured former Brazilian forward Pele, arguably the greatest player in history.
France, a favorite going into the tournament, upheld its reputation by claiming a second World Cup title. While other football giants like Argentinian forward Lionel Messi and Brazilian forward Neymar da Silva Santos Junior fell away, Les Bleus played an efficient style of football to win the title. Manager Didier Deschamps did not produce the most exciting playing style, with the exception of the 4-3 win over Argentina. France labored in the group stage matches against weak opposition like Australia and Peru, winning by only a single goal in both games. Yet, Deschamps brought a sense of composure to a star-studded team to ensure a balanced use of France’s talent.
The combination of defensive solidity, midfield control (namely N’golo Kante’s superhuman stamina) and offensive firepower (forwards Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann) was crucial in overcoming challenging opponents like Argentina (4-3), Uruguay (2-0) and Belgium (1-0).
Croatia’s grit and fighting spirit throughout the tournament earned them a surprising first-ever second-place finish. Croatia conceded early goals against Denmark, Russia and England in the knockout stages, yet astonishingly overturned those deficits and prevailed. The team ran themselves into the ground (midfielder Luka Modric covered the most distance of any player in the tournament with over 39 miles), playing three consecutive knockout stage games into extra time, two of which went into penalty shootouts.
That said, Croatia did not simply rely on sheer determination and fortune. Croatia had a talented team: Modric and midfielder Ivan Rakitic are two of the world’s best midfielders, and were crucial in orchestrating Croatia’s play. Considering the team’s history — it has only participated in four World Cups since 1998, two of which they achieved third and second-place finishes — Croatia’s run was truly remarkable.
In contrast, the best finish for the U.S. national team from 10 tournament appearances is a single third-place finish in 1930. Croatia won every game except the final, even beating pre-tournament favorites Argentina 3-0.
Unfortunately for Croatia, some of their star players such as Modric and forward Mario Mandzukic are older and will likely peak before the 2022 FIFA World Cup. However, with younger talents like midfielder Mateo Kovacic, along with the guidance of veterans like Modric, Croatia will fancy their chances of winning future titles.
Russia, an arguably more remarkable underdog story, entered this tournament as the lowest-ranked team and made it to the quarterfinals, producing the upset of the tournament by knocking out 2010 World Champions Spain at the Round of 16. Only a determined effort by Croatia meant Russia would lose in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, but their unforeseen success restored hope in a country that had given up on football.
The same can be said about England, the perennial underachievers, despite having many stars in past World Cups like former midfielder David Beckham. England fans were convinced that “[football was] coming home,” just two games away from vindication. England finished a very respectable fourth place, and with a young team, English supporters will take solace knowing that their players will only improve in the future.
FIFA awarded Modric the Golden Ball (given to best player in the tournament), English forward Harry Kane the Golden Boot (given to top goalscorer) and Mbappe the Best Young Player Award.
While all three of these players have been household names for seasoned football fans, Mbappe has transitioned from top-class to one of the elite. Becoming the youngest player since Pele to score in a World Cup final and finishing with four goals overall, Mbappe’s electrifying pace and clinical finishes made many analysts throw his name into the hat for the next Ballon d’Or, a French award given to the best club and international player of the year. He solidified his world-class status with arguably the best individual performance for an outfield player in the entire tournament against favorite Argentina. Mbappe scored two goals and earned France another goal after winning a penalty kick.
While Belgian Thibaut Courtois earned the Golden Glove for best goalkeeper, credit must be given to Croatia’s Danijel Subasic, who made four saves in penalty shootouts (only the third goalkeeper in history to do so) and three penalty saves against Denmark.
The 21st edition of the most-watched event in world sports satisfied both casual fans and football traditionalists alike. The multitude of upsets, last-minute goals and incredible individual performances made this World Cup one of the most remarkable in recent memory. Smaller nations outside the football hierarchy (namely Germany, Argentina and Brazil) can take note of Croatia’s and Russia’s performances and be inspired to contend for titles previously outside of their grasp.
While it is sad that the tournament is over, fans can look forward to the the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup as the United States seeks to defend its title, the UEFA Euro 2020 and the 2026 World Cup hosted by Canada, Mexico and the U.S.