Dubai: The best goals, games or players of a World Cup could always be subjective, but here we have an undeniable list of the best subplots and stories (so far) that have kept us glued to our screens during this tournament in Russia. From the bewildering to the inspirational, to the frightening and the hysterical. The only ones we couldn’t fit in were Belgium’s Michy Batshuayi cracking the ball off the post and back into his face in a comedy failed celebration during their win against England (more of a moment than a story), and the rise in waistcoat sales in England following coach Gareth Southgate’s sartorial statement from the touchline. Neither though could compare to the following:
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui could have chosen a better moment than the eve of the World Cup to announce that he would be leaving the national team for Real Madrid after the tournament. Admittedly, his timing wasn’t thought through, but then neither was Spanish Football Federation president’s Luis Rubiales when he then decided to sack Lopetegui because of the betrayal and replace him with Fernando Hierro less than 48 hours before their opener with Portugal. Spain still managed to top the group with two draws over Spain and Morocco and an edged win over Iran, but they crashed out on penalties in the Last 16 to hosts Russia.
Xhaka and Shaqiri’s celebration
Both Switzerland’s goal-scorers in a 2-1 group stage win over Serbia - Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri - are Kosovar-Albanian immigrants, from an ethnic group long oppressed by the Serbs. So when they decided to celebrate those goals by performing a double-headed eagle with their hands, in a nod to the symbol of their people, it didn’t go down too well with Serbia or with Fifa. Both were fined Dh37,000 for politicising the game, despite the players claiming their celebrations weren’t meant to antagonise their opponent. Xhaka’s father was imprisoned for protesting against Serbian rule in Kosovo in 1986, while Shaqiri has Swiss and Kosovan flags on his boots.
The South Korean ambassador
With Mexico getting hammered 3-0 by Sweden with 15 minutes to go in their final group game, they really needed South Korea, who were already eliminated, to do them a favour and beat Germany or at least stop them from scoring in a simultaneous fixture, to ensure Mexico still progressed. A nervous last quarter ensued with Mexico praying Germany didn’t score, before South Korea did the unthinkable and put Germany out and Mexico through with two stoppage time goals. Mexican fans duly flooded the South Korean embassy in Mexico City and dragged out the ambassador Byoung Jin-Han to parade him through the streets on their shoulders.
Maradona’s heavy night
Leaked videos of the Argentine legend partying on private jets and dancing on villa patios had already made it clear that Diego Maradona was enjoying Russia. However, images of him talking to the sky before falling asleep and making obscene gestures during Argentina’s pivotal 2-1 group stage win over Nigeria, perhaps suggested that he had taken it too far. The need for medical attention after the game confirmed these fears. He came back with more self-restraint in the Last 16 against France but by that time Argentina’s luck had run out and ironically another World Cup had been all about Diego even without him putting a foot on the pitch.
Senegal going out on yellows
For the first time in World Cup history, a team went out not on point deficit or goal difference but on Fifa Fair Play rules. Senegal and Japan were neck and neck on points and goals after opening with 2-1 wins, before drawing together 2-2, they then both lost their last game 1-0, to continue to be inseparable. Tied for second on four points and having both scored four and conceded four goals for a zero goal difference, in the end it was left to Fair Play rules to divide the two and Japan went through courtesy of a better disciplinary record having received two less yellow cards, four to Senegal’s six.
Iran keeper’s rise
Having run away from his nomadic sheepherding family after his father disapproved of him playing football, Alireza Beiranvand slept rough in Tehran before finding work in a car wash where he specialised in cleaning SUVs because of his height. Fast forward from those humble beginnings and Beiranvand would become a hero in his country during this World Cup for saving a penalty by Cristiano Ronaldo in a 1-1 draw with Portugal. This and news of Iran having to find their own kit and boots because US sanctions made their narrow failure to qualify from the group - despite almost humbling Portugal – all the more incredible.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Neymar’s stock has literally taken a tumble following this World Cup after the Paris Saint Germain star constantly feigned injury and rolled around on the floor in mock agony to the bemusement and ridicule of millions. It came back to bite Brazil, because if they hadn’t cried wolf quite as many times as they had, they probably would have got the benefit of the doubt in some decisions that went against them in their 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Belgium - particularly in one instance where they had a very real shout for penalty denied. What does that tell you Neymar? Stay on your feet.
Ronaldo and Messi’s farewell
Pre-tournament build-up had been entirely centred around this being Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to win a World Cup, with the ageing non-champions surely bowing out before Qatar 2022. Messi missed a penalty in Argentina’s opening draw against Iceland, and Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in Portugal’s opening draw with Spain. That kept the debate over who is greater alive, but it faded rapidly soon after. Argentina and Portugal were unconvincing in their attempts to get out of the group, before both Messi and Ronaldo crashed out on the same day following respective Last 16 defeats to France and Uruguay. Internationally, Ronaldo still edges the ‘who is greatest’ debate after winning Euro 2016.
The Spain and Real Madrid defender won very few fans in this region when he pulled down Mohammad Salah and dislocated the Liverpool and Egypt striker’s shoulder in May’s Champions League final. That incident put Salah effectively out of the World Cup, although a shade of his former self did emerge in time for the second game onwards, by which time enough damage had already been done to Egypt’s dwindling campaign as they crashed out of the group without a win. Imagine the collective glee then when Ramos begins to well up in interviews after 2010 champions Spain were knocked out in the Last 16 against hosts Spain. Revenge is rarely as quick or as sweet.
Colombian death threats
Almost 24 years to the day that Andres Escobar had been shot dead for scoring an own-goal against the USA that had put Colombia out of the World Cup in 1994, the two players who missed penalties against England in this year’s Last 16 defeat that also sent them home - Mateus Uribe and Carlos Bacca - also received vile death threats. It wasn’t the first instance in this tournament either, as Carlos Sanchez Moreno also received death threats following his early sending off for a hand ball inside the box, which led to their opening 2-1 defeat to Japan. Andres Escobar’s brother has since spoken of his fears for the players.