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With each edition, the FIFA World Cup brings with it a plethora of things that make it such a special ‘second to none’ tournament. An air of excitement, the weight of expectations, the idea of talent waiting to explode on the global stage and passionate fans cheering on from the stands are part and parcel of a World Cup. No other sport can evoke emotions of an entire sporting fraternity around the globe solely on the basis of the outcome of 22 men chasing a ball for 90 minutes the way football can. Especially when it is World Cup season!
Here are some moments that made this tournament so special (In my opinion, the greatest FIFA World Cup of the 21st century).
It is befitting that the World Cup final had all three. The records for penalties awarded and own goals scored were not only broken but completely shattered. The total number of goals scored was just a couple of goals shy of the record set in 1998 and 2014. Although VAR will continue to polarize opinion among viewers, its impact on the game was never in doubt from the moment it intervened for the first time in France’s favour against Australia. Where this road takes football remains to be seen.
Despite their short stay in Russia, Iran is still one of the stories of the tournament to me. Those who chose to skip the goal-fest between Morocco and Spain to watch the game between Iran and Portugal will know where this is going. Iran probably ended up being the most deserving team to miss out on a berth in the knockout stages. The Persian outfit gave good reason as to why they are the highest ranked team in Asia but cruelly missed out on a spot by a single point.
This World Cup, especially the encounter against Argentina, marked the arrival of Kylian Mbappe. If his performances over the last two years for Monaco and PSG had gone unnoticed by people, Mbappe made sure that the world took notice this time around. For what its worth, Mbappe is bound to step out of the shadows of Neymar at PSG and seems to be the next big thing once Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo hang their boots. We all know what happened to the last teenager who scored in a World Cup final.
It was an extremely tough choice given the crazy second half that Belgium and Japan delivered to us during the round of 16 but the quarterfinal between the hosts and Croatia was something else entirely. A brilliant opening goal, two goals in extra time, a keeper bearing all pain to stand on his two feet for the entirety of extra time, unwavering crowd support and drama – this game had it all. Not to mention both teams playing their second consecutive penalty shootout after going the distance. Most importantly, it was the narrative of two comparatively less heralded nations in football vying to exceed everyone’s expectations that was most intriguing.
While Croatia and Belgium had a brilliant World Cup, both would have liked to finish with the winner’s medal in Moscow. Nevertheless, the month in Russia finally saw their ‘Golden Generation’ come off good and bear fruit to years of promise. While there is potentially a long wait for the next time Croatia makes it this far in a world tournament, there is still hope for Belgium to go a step further at the 2020 Euros and possibly 2022 in Qatar. What we might tend to ignore is that France, your eventual World Champions, might very well have a Golden Generation of their own which could rule the next decade in football, especially with Mbappe at the helm of things.
Talking about dominating for a decade, nothing less than a semifinal appearance would cut it for Germany in any tournament since 2006. No matter what people would tell you about the ‘Curse of the Champions’, nobody would have seen this coming. The shock value of the Germans’ meek exit in the group stages could be felt across the globe. It wouldn’t be wrong to think of this as the greatest upset in the history of the FIFA World Cup for quite some time. Not unless France plan to unimaginably outdo them in Qatar four years later.
I have to be honest when I say that I genuinely looked forward to a Portugal-Argentina quarterfinal once the bracket for the Round of 16 was clear. Most of us wanted it. But some things aren’t meant to be. But maybe in a way, it’s also apropos considering that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both incredibly remarkable individuals whose legacies will be extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to emulate. But ultimately that is what they are – individuals. Given the quality of competition in football these days, a team whose collective is more than the sum of its individuals is more often than not likely to win the big prize.
Probably neither will win the FIFA World Cup. Most definitely both of them will not. But when you look at the likes of Johan Cruyff, Paolo Maldini, Oliver Kahn or even Ferenc Puskas, they will know that you do not necessarily need a World Cup on your resume to stand the test of time (although on a completely different tangent, ask AB De Villiers).
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