The last World Cup as we know it - and one of the best

After 32 days of unprecedented drama across the fields of Russia, France and Croatia brought the curtain down on the World Cup with Game 64 at the Luzhniki Stadium yesterday. Having traversed the place these past six weeks by foot and bike, car and plane, death-trap taxi and way too many night trains, Joe Callaghan outlines 18 reasons why Russia 2018 was the best World Cup we’ve ever seen…

The last World Cup as we know it - and one of the best

After 32 days of unprecedented drama across the fields of Russia, France and Croatia brought the curtain down on the World Cup with Game 64 at the Luzhniki Stadium yesterday. Having traversed the place these past six weeks by foot and bike, car and plane, death-trap taxi and way too many night trains, Joe Callaghan outlines 18 reasons why Russia 2018 was the best World Cup we’ve ever seen…

All drama, all the time

When the news filtered in from Krasnodar on the eve of the tournament that one of the favourites for the whole thing had sacked their coach, we should have known this would be a World Cup that would leave us breathless.

At times the consistency of quality may have dipped but from day minus-one World Cup 2018 has never not been dramatic.

Hosts with the most

On opening day, we argued in these pages that this World Cup had more than enough about it to survive a weak host nation stinking up the place.

That may well have been the case but in confounding all comers, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side sparked a fevered interest in Russians young and old that would last the entire month.

Russia were the fifth-last side to be eliminated and it made for a great story. A true story? We’ll hold our breath on that until Fifa’s doping system proves itself to be of any use.

Child’s play for Chucky

The Luzhniki Stadium had been given one hell of a facelift for this World Cup but the place was rocked to its oldest foundations just four days in when Chucky Lozano cut inside a couple of defenders to fire an opener past Manuel Neuer.

Mexicans went loco and cerveza sprayed into the air. It left Germany floored and the champions never recovered.

Video’s nasty surprise

It took about two or three goes around the video booth for us all to realise that the game has now changed forever with the adoption of VAR.

It took some players — hello Carlos Sanchez — a little longer still to figure out that they would have to change with it. There are many kinks to iron out but it is a quantum leap forward. The art of defending is rapidly being redrawn.

Sleeping between the sleepers

Russia’s railway system is a wonder, a nearly 200-year-old network that makes a massive expanse of land feel that little bit more connected. The host nation offered free transport to supporters on many of the most arduous routes.

Overnight journeys of 16 or 17 hours spent in cramped compartments made for the most enriching social network where hopes, dreams, snacks, and home-made vodka were shared with abandon.

Fuelling up

On those rare occasions when free time presented itself, Russia has centuries worth of history and culture to occupy any vulture. Its cuisine, however, can be lacking.

That’s where the lingering Soviet influence comes to its rescue. Flavour is found in the Caucasus.

If you ever visit — and you really should — make a beeline for the Georgian and Uzbek restaurants and thank us later.

The pulse of planet futbol

Apart from broken English and even more shattered Russian, Spanish was the most oft-overheard mother tongue across the motherland this month. Latin America provided the tournament with its greatest number of greatest-natured fans.

Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia led the way but at their first shindig Panamanians played a huge part too. Getting the World Cup back to their part of the planet at the earliest opportunity — 2030 — should be a priority now.

Messi’s moment

Argentina’s World Cup was an inevitably ignominious end to an era of chronic disorganisation and ill-planning. But for a few seconds and three majestic touches all was well in their world and ours.

Lionel Messi may never play in another World Cup. But his control, cushion and finish against Nigeria will live on forever. This tournament’s best goal.

Eras come and gone

Messi’s exit was ultimately not as dramatically sad as it may have been. So mortifyingly mismanaged had Argentina been that it was a relief when France put Messi out of his misery. Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup ended in a whimper, Germany’s reign in Neuer-on-the-wing absurdity. The last throes of tiki taka weren’t pretty either.

Time and tournament waits for no man.

New faces in their place

Kylian Mbappe’s jaw-dropping exploits on Messi’s getaway day made for the easiest changing of the guard narrative. The teenager has the world at his feet and it shapes to be a joy to watch what he does with us all.

Plenty of young talents rose though: Lozano was a terror and a treasure on the wing for Mexico; Aleksandr Golovin plucked the hosts’ strings like a veteran conductor brought in from the Bolshoi; Yerry Mina was a giant at both ends for Colombia; Ante Rebic gobbled up Willy Caballero’s gift and never tired again for Croatia while Kieran Trippier was England’s brightest light.

Golden boot…and nerve

Harry Kane is unlikely to be remembered as the most deserving winner of a golden boot. He was the tournament’s top scorer yet had a drought too, failing to score from open play for four straight games.

His nerve from the penalty spot, however, was faultless. Including the historic shootout victory over Colombia, the Spurs man converted four from four here. Steely.

England win (PR) title

Gareth Southgate packed his bags Saturday evening after a tournament that featured as many defeats as victories.

Yet he returns home to none of the heavy inquests that greeted predecessors. Yes, his young England made some strides forward here but the biggest win of all belonged to the Three Lions’ media team whose charm offensive significantly tamed the tabloid brigade.

Neymar’s end justifies the memes

Neymar Jr has never looked more infantile than when things didn’t go his way here — which was a regular occurrence.

Can there have been a more disastrous 12 months in terms of career and image trajectory than the Brazilian’s last year after leaving Barcelona?

He came to Russia planning to confirm his status as the game’s post-Messi/Ronald era icon. He left a punchline.

Master of the sidelines

Deschamps’ ruthlessly pragmatic approach turned off many but it helped France back to somewhere they have missed out on by wide, wide margins since the era of Zinedine Zidane ended in Berlin. Roberto Martinez silenced many scoffers with how well he managed Belgium’s golden talents.

However, Zlatko Dalic has been the tournament’s best coach. Just eight months in the job, he snuffed out the first sign of trademark Croatian dysfunction and sent Nikola Kalinic home. He’s made smart changes and coaxed the weariest legs all the way to the final night. So impressive.

Knockout nights

Picking a game of the tournament is no easy tasks. On just the second night, Spain and Portugal served up a group stage classic that was ultimately of little consequence.

Each subsequent stage produced a late night special that could all vie for the title of best game. Croatia’s semi-final comeback against England was suffocatingly tense. Brazil’s bombardment of Belgium in the quarters was unmissable but the Red Devils’ redemption in the previous round when Japan looked to have caused the shock of shocks may have been best of all.

Leading lights

The easiest answers are sometimes avoided just for the sake of providing something different. But providing any different name than Luka Modric as the tournament’s standout performer is folly. Yes, N’Golo Kante has been the fulcrum on which France’s dominance was based, and captain Hugo Lloris — until his blunder gifted Croatia a lifeline yesterday — had a faultless tournament between the posts but Modric was a dream come true in Russia.

No-one ran further but no one rose higher either.

A little giant.

The most fitting finale

Great World Cups have been blighted by bad finals.

Generally underpar tournaments have ended on a high. This one however was treated to the most fitting finale of all.

A bonkers 90 minutes that had apparently given you everything you could have asked for.

But when the confetti settled still left you wondering what it was you had witnessed. France played within themselves and scored four, Croatia were magnificent but soundly beaten.

VAR misused, an own goal, a keeper’s calamity, Pussy Riot and a downpour too. Follow that, Qatar.

Calling time on the classic

The next World Cup will come smack bang in the middle of Christmas shopping season and take place in a tiny patch of desert where no two stadiums are more than a couple of hours apart.

The one after that will see the competition widened (and weakened) out to 48 teams across three countries.

Time may well prove that Russia 2018 was the last of the World Cup as we knew and loved it.

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