Dubai: As the World Cup wraps up in Russia, Gulf News takes a look back at a tournament that gave us so much in the form of thrills, spills and surprises. Arguably the best World Cup ever, there will be those who mourned the early and unexpected exits of Germany, Spain, Argentina, Portugal and Brazil, all before the quarters, — especially with the list of players that this denied us — but ultimately the two best ‘teams’ won through to the final and taught us yet again why football is about the sum of its parts. There are exceptions of course, there will always be stand-outs and this is a list of those who will stick in memory for individual moments of brilliance or otherwise.
Funniest moment — Michy Batshuayi
England fans may have winced when Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj sidestepped Danny Rose to curl a group-topping winner around keeper Jordan Pickford. Their despair quickly turned to delight however when Michy Batshuayi blasted the ball back in towards goal in celebration, only to see his follow-up rebound off the post and come hurtling back into his face at full speed. Stunned and embarrassed by what had just happened, the Chelsea striker — who spent last season on loan at Borussia Dortmund — had to take a moment to recover, while his teammates celebrated the match-winner with a little more poise.
Flop of the tournament — Lionel Messi
So much was expected of the Argentine striker, with this more than likely being his last ever World Cup. However, the Barcelona man missed a penalty in his opening game against Iceland to draw 1-1, before a 3-0 defeat to Croatia. He recovered to get the opener in a 2-1 win over Nigeria that saw Argentina sneak out of the group in second, but then they lost 4-3 to France in the Last 16 without him scoring. Messi’s World Cup career wraps up with only six goals in 19 appearances and no tournament wins despite reaching the final in 2014.
Best actor — Neymar
If it hadn’t been for the Brazilian Paris Saint Germain striker’s continual rolling around on the floor, his country may have got the benefit of the doubt when they needed it most late on in their quarter-final defeat to Belgium. Instead, a very real call for penalty went begging, and Neymar went home a laughing stock. It remains to be seen whether his actions have ruined his chances of replacing Juventus-bound Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, but we suspect Real chairman Florentino Perez might now opt for one of either France’s Kylian Mbappe or Belgium’s Eden Hazard instead.
Best emerging player — VAR
Caught a lot of flak early on in the tournament but on the whole video assistant refereeing (VAR) has had more good days than bad. It restored faith among fans that if something major were to happen it would get picked up upon. With an extra set of eyes always welcome, the main crux of complaint is not around the new monitoring system, but rather the consistency in decisions of those using it. Sort that out and it will be very difficult to go back to the old alternative of hoping one man alone spotted the infraction.
Best dressed — Gareth Southgate
Inspired by his grandfather, a patriotic former Royal Marine, who always used to rock a waistcoat, England coach Gareth Southgate revived the trend this tournament by sticking with his sartorial statement despite the heat in Russia. It has led to record sales in the former favourite Wedding Day accessory, with fans quick to copy the coach and museums even lining up to get their hands on the garb. Fourth-place finishing England may not have always looked great on the pitch but elegant gent Southgate was always there off it to ensure style and sophistication until the bitter end.
Best coach — Didier Deschamps
Stuck to his principles and overcame unrest in his own dressing room after axing Karim Benzema following a sex-tape scandal, the France coach then survived losing the European Championship final at home to Portugal in 2016. Coming back from all that, he has now reached a World Cup final, 20 years after he first won it as the captain of his country back in 1998. Even if he didn’t become only the third person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, he still deserves the plaudits in our book.
Best player — Kylian Mbappe
With or without a World Cup win, the 19-year-old Paris Saint Germain (PSG) attacker has easily been the most exciting player this tournament, with his two goals against Argentina in France’s 4-3 Last 16 win representing a change in guard from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Having moved from Monaco to PSG and not Real Madrid as expected last season (in order to guarantee starts and stay closer to home) the time may have come for him to finally be Madrid bound after all, following the departure of Ronaldo to Juventus. We expect Mbappe to be hotly pursued upon his return from Russia.
Best player in a supporting role — N’Golo Kante
With 48 recoveries (up until before the World Cup final against Croatia on Sunday), more so than any other player at this tournament, the tireless former Leicester City centre has won all the plaudits, and statistically proves his worth in the heart of this France side’s midfield time and time again. Chelsea may be worried about Eden Hazard moving to Real Madrid to replace Cristiano Ronaldo if Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are overlooked, but in our view, they should be equally, if not more, worried about having their full engine room and gear box stripped with the departure of Kante as well.
Best keeper — Jordan Pickford
The Everton keeper was probably England’s biggest question mark before the tournament but his performances to deny Colombia on penalties with a brilliant save against Carlos Bacca ensured England’s first ever shootout win at a World Cup and only their second ever in tournament play since David Seaman denied Spain at Euro 96. To round off his World Cup he also stopped what was about to be the best team goal of the tournament by Belgium in the third place play-off by getting a hand to Thomas Meunier’s volley that had come from an incredible build up from the back.
Goal of the tournament — Jan Vertonghen
Belgium needed something special to begin the fightback after going 2-0 down to Japan with 20 minutes remaining of their Last 16 duel. Cue and enter stage left Jan Vertonghen, who got his head under a pearl of an arching cross-cum-shot from the tightest of angles to lob the keeper at the back post and the impossible mission had begun in earnest. Belgium went on to complete the comeback to win 3-2 and the game of the tournament, for us, will undoubtedly be remembered for this, goal of the tournament. There may have been better but certainly not more unusual.