Top 10 Moments of World Cup 2018

It was a tournament that was gripping from start to finish. One month of endless drama; packed full of thrilling matches, special teams and VAR controversy. It was the World Cup of France, but also of beaten finalists Croatia and the rebirth of semi-finalists England and Belgium. It was the World Cup of Russia - the unfancied host nation showed great tenacity to defeat Spain, progress to the last eight before falling in a dramatic penalty shootout.

This was a World Cup of great teams, rather than great individuals. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a special hat-trick against Spain but he, just like Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez and Robert Lewandowski - all struggled to shine.

It was a World Cup instead that belonged to the collective. To the wonderful fans of Japan - whose team showed the benefits of work ethic, togetherness and graciousness in defeat. Underdog stories were everywhere. It was a World Cup where Messi was thwarted by Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, who was also involved in directing a World Cup advertisement for Coca Cola. It was the World Cup when England finally won a penalty shootout and displayed qualities of team work rarely seen over previous years.

They were not the only team whose togetherness value exceeded the sum of their parts. Scandinavian nations Sweden and Denmark punched well above their weight, while even further north, Iceland - the smallest nation ever to reach the finals - more than held their own. There were also credible showings from Switzerland (although the impressive nature of their win over Serbia was secondary to the politically-fuelled goal celebrations) and Mexico - who held Brazil and defeated Germany respectively - while above all others, Croatia reached their first ever World Cup final and were arguably the most impressive side in the tournament.

It was a World Cup of classic encounters. Spain’s thrilling 3-3 draw against a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal. France overcoming Argentina in a memorable seven-goal clash. Belgium coming from two goals down to eliminate Japan before ending Brazil’s hopes in the quarter-finals. Defending champions Germany going out in the group stages, despite a stunning Toni Kroos free-kick in the dying seconds against Sweden. Croatia’s epic semi-final triumph over England.

But to earn the status as the greatest World Cup ever, it needed a memorable final. That was never in doubt with a wonderful French team seeing off a valiant Croatia in a showpiece which had everything: great goals, the drama of VAR, goalkeeping errors, own goals and end-to-end action. It was a fitting way to end a memorable tournament. It was the highest-scoring final since England beat West Germany 4-2 in 1966. France were the second youngest ever (at 25 years and 10 months) to lift the trophy, after Brazil in 1970. The most talented of all those youngsters, Kylian Mbappe, scored the game’s finest goal - following his wonderful display against Argentina a fortnight earlier - and became the first teenager to net in the World Cup decider since Pele in 1958. It drew the curtains on a 31-day festival of football.

Qatar has a lot to live up to.

Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick against Spain

Fisht Stadium, Friday 15th June

A hushed descended across the Fisht Stadium. 87 frenetic, breathless minutes had preceded this moment. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was little over a day old but it had already staged it’s first classic match. Portugal against Spain. European champions against a side who had won three major titles in the past decade. Twice Cristiano Ronaldo had given Portugal the lead, twice Diego Costa had levelled for Spain. Then, a sweetly-struck half-volley from Nacho Fernandez - a Real Madrid teammate of Ronaldo’s - pushed La Roja into the lead.

But this was not over yet. With three minutes remaining on the clock, Portugal were awarded a free-kick 25 yards from goal. His feet shoulder-width apart, four paces back from the ball, and slightly positioned to the side. His lips were pursed, his shorts pulled up to expose his muscular thighs, and his shoulders moving up and down. Deep breaths. There was no mistaking he would strike the free-kick. The sport’s ultimate showman, one strike of the ball away from completing the most memorable of hat-tricks.

Ronaldo’s exaggerated free-kick stance carry great infamy than his scoring rate from them, but there was no elite player better suited to rising to the occasion. He had inspired Madrid to an unprecedented four Champions League titles in five seasons but unbeknownst at the time, he would leave Spanish football a month later to join Juventus. However, he still had one devastating blow left to inflict.

The iconic run-up was followed by a crisp, fired shot which curled around and above the defensive wall - evading the desperate leaps of Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique - but rose no further; its trajectory flat-lining as the ball flew into the top corner of the net, beyond a helpless David De Gea. A postage stamp finish. 

The hat-trick was complete. The most pulsating of games had its dramatic, memorable ending. Ronaldo, one of the sport’s finest ever players, had secured his iconic World Cup moment and the tournament had truly begun.

Lionel Messi misses penalty against Iceland

Spartak Stadium, Saturday 16th June

The true underdog story of the 2018 World Cup was that of Iceland. A nation of 345,000 people - approximately the same as the city of Coventry and the smallest ever to reach the finals - who were massively punching above their weight in football.

But aside from the collective of the team - a functional unit devoid of any stars, aside perhaps from playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson - there were multiple fairytale individual stories here too. Their boss Heimir Hallgrimsson, for instance, was a practicing dentist in his homeland not long before the competition. However, Hallgrimsson’s was not the most interest background story, not by a long shot. That honour belonged to goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.

Four years prior, Iceland within one match of their first ever World Cup but fell to a playoff loss against Croatia. Halldorsson was their number one then, having won his first cap in 2011 - aged 28 - and was the only player in that squad who still played his club football in his native Iceland. The league was semi-professional - all players doubled up their role as a footballer with a day job. Halldorsson was a film director and was most famed for directing Iceland’s 2012 entry to the Eurovision song contest.

These parallel passions ran throughout Halldorsson’s career, and he was even involved in directing a World Cup advertisement for Coca Cola. Yet that would not be his World Cup moment, not the one that he would remember for the rest of his life and remind everyone he ever spoke to about. That would come in the 64th minute of their tournament opener against Argentina. With the score locked at 1-1, the South American side were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Lionel Messi. Widely regarded as the world’s greatest player, he looked set to open his account on the world’s greatest stage.

Halldorsson, now aged 34, had other ideas. He guessed the right way - diving to his right and palming away a mediocre effort to safety. The score remained at 1-1, as it did at the final whistle. It was a special moment for the veteran goalkeeper-come-director and for the nation of Iceland. The World Cup allowed the ultimate underdog to triumph against the ultimate global star.

Xherdan Shaqiri's 'Double eagle' goal celebration

Kaliningrad Stadium, Friday 22nd June

International football often produces match ups lined with political tension and an undercurrent of nationalistic contention. Switzerland’s group stage victory over Serbia was one such fixture, with both Swiss goalscorers - Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri - celebrating in a manner that was described by their opponents as provocative.

The two players are ethnic Albanians and made a double eagle celebration upon finding the net - a nationalistic gesture depicting the double headed eagle on Albania's national flag. The families of both players are from Kosovo - a nation only recognised by FIFA for the first time in the qualifiers for this very tournament.

Kosovo had been the scene of a violent Serbian crackdown on the Albanian population which was only ended by military intervation from Nato in 1999. It is the country where Shaqiri was born, and whose family fled to Switzerland as refugees. Indeed, one of the Liverpool player’s boots had a Swiss flag while the other had the Kosovan flag. Xhaka - whose brother is an Albanian international - had his father imprisoned for three-and-a-half years in the old Yugoslavia for his support of Kosovan independence.

Only four years earlier, a qualification match for the European Championships between Serbia and Albania had to be abandoned as a drone with an Albanian flag was flown over the pitch, leading to a mass brawl. Such sensitive issues can often come to a head over sporting matters, while the recency and fluidity of such a volatile conflict cannot be underestimated.

“It's just emotion - I'm very happy to score this goal,” Shaqiri said after the match. Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic replied: “If he (Shaqiri) loves Kosovo so much and decides to flaunt the flag, why did he refuse a chance to play for their team?”

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci spoke of his “pride” at the celebrations, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama shared the images on his social media pages while Serbian media spoke of their ‘anger’ at ‘deliberate provocation’. The World Cup serves up the full range of emotions throughout its existence, but few come close to those experienced during this tense clash.

Toni Kroos late free-kick completes remarkable German comeback

Fisht Stadium, Saturday 23rd June

World Cup tournaments are ruthless. Underperformance and below-par results are often fatal, even in the group stages. One match going astray immediately invites pressure and the tournament holders were now playing on the edge. They had lost their opening group game against Mexico and were staring elimination in the face unless they defeated Sweden.

Toni Kroos stood over the ball, knowing that this was the game. Germany had a free-kick from an advanced position but one that was agonisingly at no angle to get a shot at goal, from an angle just inches from the left of the penalty area. 18 seconds of the five minutes of added time were left. 18 seconds for Joachim Low’s side to salvage their World Cup hopes.

The entire game was one of frustration for Die Mannschaft - they had enjoyed 76% possession of the ball, near total domination but could not break down a stubborn Sweden side. Ola Toivonen gave the Scandinavian side the lead against the run of play just after the half-hour mark and, this being a team who had kept five clean sheets in their last six competitive outings, this was going to be a true test of the reigning world champion’s mettle.

Marco Reus had pulled a goal back for Germany three minutes after the break but the second goal did not come. 17 shots were attempted on the Swede’s goal but the score remained deadlock. With eight minutes remaining, German defender Jerome Boateng was sent-off. Hope, and Germany’s World Cup hopes, were evaporating. Three of the previous four holders had been eliminated at the group stage of the next edition. History was repeating itself. Five minutes of injury time were shown. Just over four had elapsed and then, the free-kick.

Kroos tapped the ball to Reus, whose foot stopped it dead and allowed Kroos to step in and strike with a flawless technique. The ball fizzed on an initial outward trajectory before verving sharply inwards and soaring into the top corner of the net. The winning goal. Euphoria. Germany’s World Cup were saved, for now at least. The outpouring of emotion, of joy, of relief. This was the World Cup.

Diego Maradona still centre of attention in the stands

Krestovsky Stadium, Tuesday 26th June

If one player has become synonymous with World Cups more than any other, it must be the mercurial Diego Maradona. Unquestionably one of the greatest talents to ever set foot on a football pitch, the tournament has shown the best and worst of his rollercoaster life. The ups and downs. The euphoria, the ecstasy and the agony.

His ‘Hand of God’ against England in 1986 in a tournament where he almost single-handedly dragged his nation to the title. Four years later, he again was the main man - although this time Argentina lost out to Germany in the showpiece. His nation’s anthem was booed, after they had eliminated hosts Italy in Naples - his adopted city, where he had led Napoli to unparalleled glory in Italy.

In 1994, his crazed goal celebration preceded a fresh drugs failure. He then managed Argentina in 2010, but his 2018 moment was one sadder and darker than any other. Jorge Sampaoli’s La Albiceleste needed to beat Nigeria to progress through the group, but the cameras were attracted to what was going on in the stands as much as on the pitch.

Before the match kicked off, Maradona was photographed slumped forward in his seat in the front row of the VIP box, propped up by a metal railing. When Lionel Messi fired Argentina ahead, he appeared full of life and was striking his characteristic pose of triumphalism. By half-time he appeared extremely lethargic, then staggered off into the director’s box behind at the interval.

Nigeria equalised but Argentina dramatically qualified courtesy of Marcos Rojo’s late strike. Maradona was pictured celebrating manically in the stands and then displayed an offensive gesture in the direction of the cameras, with the middle finger of both hands raised. The images were of a man not in control and who was not in a good place.

Not long after the goal, Maradona appeared to collapse in the stands and subsequently treated by paramedics, before being aided from his seat by three helpers. There were suggestions - that were swiftly denied by official sources - that he had been taken to hospital. Argentina’s victory over Nigeria guaranteed their passage through the groups, but Maradona’s erratic behaviour led to further concerns about his health.

Kylian Mbappe puts Argentina to the sword

Kazan Arena, Sunday 1st July

Saturday 30 June. The day when Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal both slumped out of the tournament. The two superstars had shared each of the last ten Ballon d’Or awards and had shared an unparalleled rivalry of prolonged excellence spanning the previous decade. The world of football did not have to look far for its next superstar, but instead he fell gift-wrapped into its lap.

Kylian Mbappe was the star as France eliminated a beleaguered Argentina side in a chaotic seven-goal thriller. The teenager played with a directness, precision and decisiveness that tore through a South American side who had a stark absence of both quality in defence and clarity in idea.

But it was not the two goals of Mbappe - the first teenager to score more than once in a World Cup match since Pele’s brace against Sweden in the final 50 years earlier - that caught the eye, but his ability to distort space and time. It is not that the 19-year-old was extremely fast, but that his speed was mind-blowingly quick. His performance appeared to be played at double speed compared to the other 21 players on the pitch. His sprints were quicker than the viewer’s ability to perceive football - moving the ball single-handedly from one area of the pitch to another before your brain has fully comprehended what has happened.

In the 12th minute of the Round of 16 encounter, Mbappe received the ball deep inside France’s own half - around 80 yards from the Argentina goal. Sprinting forward, it appeared the striker was embarking on a token gesture to relieve defensive pressure and perhaps win a free-kick. Then he kept running. And running. And running. Part Ferrari, part speed-train. Mbappe had accelerated past a series of opposition players and into the penalty area, before being pulled unceremoniously to the floor by a desperate Marcos Rojo.

TV cameras clocked the run at 39 km/h - a speed not far off elite Olympic-standard sprinting, but with a football at his feet and surging past opponents. It led the viewer to question their own perception of space and time. Football’s new star had announced himself to the world.

Kevin De Bruyne spearheads Belgium comeback

Rostov Arena, Monday 2nd July

The World Cup is an incomparable showcase for differing global cultures and the values which shone brighter than any other in 2018 were that of the Japanese fans. Akira Nishino’s team shone on the pitch - reaching the last 16 of the competition before being eliminated by a superb Belgium in a five-goal thriller. Yet they were also the stars in the stands, with their fans staying behind after all four games to pick up the rubbish left in the stadium. This tradition even extended to their loss against the Belgians - with their fate decided cruelly in the final minute, but it was not even to prevent the good-mannered fans tidying the stands.

The goodwill nature of the Japanese contingent in Russia even spread to the team, who despite being eliminated from the World Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances ensured they cleaned the changing room to perfection and left a note that read “thank you” in Russian.

It was the most fitting way to an end a rip-roaring knockout encounter, which had been scoreless - but entertaining - at the break. Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui struck quickfire goals for Japan inside the first seven minutes of the second half and they appeared destined to cause one of the upsets of the tournament.

With 21 minutes to go, Jan Vertonghen got one goal back then substitute Marouane Fellaini levelled the game. Deep into injury time, Japan won a corner. It went straight into the arms of Thibaut Courtois, who bowled it out to Kevin De Bruyne who ran at a stretched, out-of-position Japan defence. Belgium players were sprinting forward and their decisive counter-attack saw De Bruyne find Thomas Meunier, advanced on the right - the slid the ball across the box, dummied by Romelu Lukaku, for Nacer Chadli to run in and fire home.

Belgium became the first team to fight back from two goals down to win a World Cup knockout game since West Germany against England in 1970. It was an incredible match, won by a special team against worthy opponents who can take solace in being remarkably gracious in defeat.

So why did fans of the Samurai Blue - equipped with rubbish bags brought with them to the games - meticulously clean up their rows and seats in the stadiums after the full-time whistle? Quite simply, it is a tradition of politeness and self-awareness that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Anyone who leaves behind any rubbish in Japanese stadiums are politely reminded to clean up after themselves.

This act is highlighted to Japanese people from childhood - it is deeply frowned upon to leave any sort of rubbish behind you and such strict interpretations of this rule have an impact. Constant reminders lead to a great deal of awareness and self-consciousness, with those from the nation taking deep pride in their cleanliness.

Fans of the Far East nation were not the only ones to clean up after them, with numerous supporters of Senegal - their group stage opponents - also picking up the tradition. Yet it was Japan who pioneered the act and subsequently became famed for it. Every football stadium would be significantly better off if all nations followed Japan’s lead.

Eric Dier scores winning penalty to end English curse

Otkrytie Arena, Tuesday 3rd July

There are few moments in sport which carry greater tension and are more loaded with nervous than a penalty shootout in the World Cup. Few fans knew of the heartache attached with the drama more so than fans of the England international team. 1990 against Germany. 1996 against Germany, again. 1998 against Argentina. 2006 against Portugal. 2012 against Italy. 2018 against Colombia?

The South American side had the momentum. In a brutal, fractious encounter with no shortage of petulance, playacting and amateur wrestling, England had appeared to be on course for victory. Harry Kane’s second half penalty had appeared to put Gareth Southgate’s side on course for a quarter-final spot, before Colombia - who were reactive and passive for the entirety of the encounter - scrambled an unlikely last minute equaliser; a towering Yerry Mina header from a corner.

Colombia were the stronger side in extra time and whilst no side could find a winner, the inevitable fate of the Three Lions would once again be decided via the thrill of a penalty shootout. Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel had all netted for Colombia while Jordan Henderson’s effort was stopped by David Ospina.

Mateus Uribe’s penalty then hit the bar, letting the Three Lions off the hook, before Kieran Trippier levelled things from the spot and then Carlos Bacca’s weak effort was stopped by Jordan Pickford. England were now just one penalty away from ending their shootout hoodoo on world football’s biggest stage. This was Eric’s Dier moment, a chance to become the hero for a nation, but carrying the jeopardy of becoming the villain.

But for the Tottenham midfielder, by no means a natural goalscorer, there was only an overwhelming sense of serenity and certainty. This was never in any doubt. Dier stepped up to the ball with complete confidence and fired low into the bottom corner of the net, past goalkeeper Ospina’s right hand.

England’s curse was lifted. They had triumphed in a penalty shootout, against the odds. This was no lottery, it was the result of arduous preparation and planning. This was England’s World Cup moment, and none of their fans will ever forget it.

VAR controversy in World Cup Final

Luzhniki Stadium, Sunday 15th July

The defining thread that ran throughout the 2018 FIFA World Cup was the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology. The role of the VAR is, in theory, to ensure that no ‘clear and obvious’ incorrect decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick, red card, offside or in cases of mistaken identity. It is a system which has proved hugely controversial and polarised opinion in the sport but, like it or loathe it, it is here to stay and will change the game forever.

It was used consistently throughout the tournament but the most memorable and defining moment came in the showpiece event. Croatia were contesting their first ever World Cup final and were taking on France, who were strong favourites for the encounter. It was an entertaining and engaging encounter, which gripped the globe.

France took the lead after 18 minutes when Antoine Griezmann's free-kick deflected in off the head of an unaware Mario Mandzukic. Croatia feared their luck had deserted them but battled back and deservedly equalised through winger Ivan Perisic ten minutes later. It was game on and Zlatko Dalic’s side were well on top of proceedings and were beginning to dream of lifting their first ever title.

The defining moment of the encounter arrived seven minutes before the break - an inswinging corner from France bypassed the head of Blaise Matuidi and hit the arm of goalscorer Perisic, who had turned defender at the set-piece. It was a split-second reaction which saw Perisic’s hand and knee both go towards the ball - the contact was obvious but the intention was very much in question.

After a long consultation with the pitchside VAR screen, referee Nestor Pitana awarded the spot kick, which Griezmann duly converted. Croatia were left nursing a burning sense of injustice and never re-found their rhythm again in the final. Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe added to the advantage for Les Bleus and despite Mandzukic later pulling a goal back for the Croats, they rarely looked like pulling off the most remarkable of comebacks.

VAR had delivered the key and controversial decision at the pivotal moment of the game. Scrutinising the rules to the letter and potentially distorting the context of the game to frame-by-frame replays, such a crucial moment offered an insight into the future direction of the game, and posed as many questions as it provided answers.

Former Captain Didier Deschamps lifts trophy again

Luzhniki Stadium, Sunday 15th July

France won the World Cup for the second time in their history and for the first time in two decades when they defeated a resilient Croatia in the stunning showpiece. There were six goals, a VAR controversy and plenty of talking points in a pulsating final. Victory for Les Bleus meant Didier Deschamps, who captained them 20 years ago, became just the third man to win the competition as a player and coach.

Yet this was a victory which was symbolic of the balance of power in modern football, and how football itself reflects societal patterns. Seven of the eight quarter-finalists in the competition were from Europe - Brazil were the exception - with all four semi-finalists hailing from the continent.

14 of France’s 23-man squad were of African descent, including World Cup heroes Samuel Umtiti, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba – whose two brothers Florentin and Matthias are Guinea internationals.

Antoine Griezmann – arguably the most international of all the players at the tournament – was born to parents of German and Portuguese descent but opted to represent France. The 27-year-old’s WhatsApp photo was a Uruguayan flag and ahead of his side’s quarter-final with the South Americans insisted he felt ‘half Uruguayan’.

Belgium - arguably the most impressive team in the tournament who were edged out by France in the last four - had eight players of African descent, while a total of 11 players can be described as second-generation migrants. Adnan Januzaj – who netted the group stage winner against England – also qualifies for citizenship of Albania, Kosovo, Croatia, Turkey and Serbia. International football is a very different - reflecting the fluid ideals of nationality and identity.

France ended an enthralling festival of football as the ultimate winners. Two decades on from their first world title, a multi-ethnic France have delivered football’s main prize once more and they appropriately are the face of modern international football.

There were the typically iconic scenes of pure, unadulterated joy after the final whistle as the players gave their manager the bumps as the rain turned biblical and the trophy was lifted amidst a local thunderstorm. Though it was a long wait, amid the torrential weather, with Russia president Vladimir Putin the only man protected with an umbrella from the downpour. Even FIFA supremo Gianni Infantino took a soaking from the elements. A month long festival of football ended in somewhat bizarre circumstances yet with a suitably brilliant spectacle.