Top teams knocked out in the qualifying campaign, shock exits in the group stage and a tiny country’s meteoric rise; this FIFA World Cup has seen it all.
From the word go, this edition of the much-awaited and much-loved tournament has refused to take the known path. Instead it has been a mixed bag of heartbreaks and fairy tales.
Let’s take a look what has made Russia 2018 one of the most special editions of the World Cup.
The Giants Who Did Not Play
Even before Russia rolled out the red carpet on 14 July, this World Cup already looked set on the path of putting up a show like no other.
The warning bells rang even before the tournament began. And at its centre was Sweden. In a tough group in the preliminary round, Sweden managed to knock out Netherlands, the three-time World Cup finalists.
The Swedes blasted 26 goals in their 10 games, which included an 8-0 battering of Luxembourg.
Sweden also made sure that four-time World Cup champions Italy and three-time World Cup finalist Netherlands were not part of the footballing extravaganza in Russia.
Italian legend Gianluigi Buffon had to bow out of international football without a last try at World Cup finals. Italy had not missed a single World Cup since 1958.
Russia 2018 has indeed been an inspiring story.
Iceland, a country with a meagre population of 3,35,000, managed to skyrocket their FIFA rankings from 131 to 18 in a span of just six years. Iceland’s path-breaking rise in football was a testimony to their passion, hard work and a tremendously well thought out plan.
Playing in their first World Cup, Iceland almost jeopardised Argentina’s World Cup campaign, holding them to a 1-1 draw in the group stage. Iceland were resilient to soak in the pressure, 10 corners, 27 shots and 78 percent ball possession failed to rattle them, as time and time again they cut down crucial supply lines frustrating Messi and Co.
Despite making a first round exit, Iceland will be remembered for their spirit of punching far above their weight.
Asian teams also shone in the tournament.
South Korea became the first Asian team to beat Germany as they knocked out the defending champions with a 2-0 result in both teams’ final group stage encounter.
Japan, against all odds, cleared their group stage, after they became the first Asian team to beat a South American nation in their 2-1 win over Colombia. They eventually fell to Belgium, one of the favourites in this edition’s World Cup, in arguably one of the best matches of the event. The 3-2 defeat didn’t stop the Japanese fans from setting examples off the field.
The host nation, the crowd favourites, had a tournament to remember. In the first match of the tournament, Russia arrived in style, thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 as Vladimir Putin rejoiced from the stand.
Lowest ranked team in the tournament, they cleared the group stage, knocked out 2010 champions Spain in the Round of 16 and almost clawed their way into the semis against the Croatians, who won a thrilling 2-2 draw on penalties.
Not only on the pitch, Russia have done exceedingly well to host a tournament of such big stature, despite doping controversies and mounting political pressures.
Big Names Bow Out
Since its inception in the 1930, it has never, I repeat, it has never happened that the semi-final line-up has not featured either Germany, Argentina or Brazil.
While record 5-time-champions Brazil were knocked out in the quarters by Belgium, Germany succumbed in the group stages and a dreadful Argentine camp came to an end after a seven-goal screamer against France in the Round of 16.
Be it the champions curse, FIFA World Cup 2018 has been a tournament of possibilities, where rankings have rarely mattered and the defending champions status went for a toss.
Three Lions Finally Roar
Well that sounds about right for unpredictibility, doesn’t it?
The English squad had never been short of talent but they have been the perennial underachiever. While the 90s featured Shearer, Scholes and Owen, the 2000s was ruled by Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard.
And yet ‘The Three Lions’ choked time and again, almost making it a habit. The last time they played the World Cup semis was in the 1990s, until Gareth Southgate changed it all.
Southgate rejuvenated the team that was knocked out in the group stages of the World Cup ‘14 and lost to Iceland in the round of 16 in Euro 2016.
Led by Harry Kane, England did exceedingly well in the group stages, registering their biggest win in the World Cup defeating Panama by 6-1.
The only team to have lost all three of its penalty shootouts in the World Cup, England revived their luck and won against Colombia in the Round of 16 converting 4 out of their 5 spot kicks.
Though they did not qualify for the finals, England will be competing for the third place against Belgium on Saturday, 14 July.
The final this time is feature France, a pre-tournament favourite, and Croatia, one of the wild cards.
France has kept the crowd on the edge of their seats with their pace and creativity, whereas Croatia have held fort from the get go.
To reach their first-ever World Cup final the Croats, depended on their masterful midfield. In what could be last tournament for their captain and ringmaster Luka Modric, the Croatians would love to give the unsung hero of the world football the biggest honour of his career.
Thai Boys Rescued
To top it off, the unprecedented, impossible Thai football team rescue would be the most unbelievable story of World Cup 2018. Dubbed as the ‘Wild Boars’, the young boys who were trapped inside a dark flooded cave for 18 days, got rescued by the efforts of rescue workers from all across the world.
Dubbed as the ‘Best news of the summer’ the boys were dedicated shirts and goal celebration from players who wished their best for these youngsters.
The kids were invited to the World Cup final by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, although they would not able to attend the game on Sunday, the offer bears the symbolism of what football stands for. A helping hand, a ray of hope and the unity of the football world.