After a month of stunning football tales, the 2018 World Cup is now behind us. Shocks, upsets and underdog victories galore, the tournament will go down in history as one of the most competitive and entertaining in history. Now that the tournament is in the record books, it’s time to look back at the ten greatest moments that made this World Cup perhaps the most memorable of modern times.
- Iceland hold Argentina in World Cup debut
Iceland is a nation of 348,500 people, smaller than the entire population of Tasmania. Getting to the World Cup is an almighty feat in itself for a country of Iceland’s size, but hot off the heels of an impressive showing at Euro 2016, Iceland came into Russia hopeful of turning some heads and taking some scalps. Backed by an impressive following of fans, Iceland walked out onto Otkritie Arena in Moscow ready to tackle their toughest challenge as a footballing nation yet: a World Cup debut against a Lionel Messi-led Argentina.
On such a grand stage against such a famous opponent with such high stakes, Iceland might have been forgiven for being a little overawed by the occasion. But it didn’t matter whether they won or lost right? Surely just getting there was enough of an achievement?Despite the odds stacked against them, Iceland weren’t keen to sit back and be considered second best. The task was an almighty one, and it was made difficult for them when Sergio Aguero struck first for the Argentinians, putting Iceland 1-0 behind with less than 20 minutes played.
However, you’d be foolish to rule out the nation famous for its stunning Viking Clap, and just four minutes later Alfred Finnbogason equalised and made history by scoring his nation’s first World Cup goal. With the scores levelled at 1-1, Iceland impressed the world by continuing to press forward and being the better side across 90 minutes. The final whistle blew with no further score and Iceland claimed one of the most impressive results in World Cup history. The tiny nation secured a draw in its debut against the last tournament’s finalists. I’ll Viking clap for that.
- Ronaldo’s free kick
It was the game that truly announced that the wait was over, the World Cup had finally arrived. Portugal vs Spain in the group stage had all the makings of an early blockbuster and it delivered in every conceivable way.
Both powerhouses of football went into the clash with a few question marks, Spain about how they could work under their new manager appointed just days earlier, and Portugal about its lack of depth beyond star Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal’s concerns were by far the more pressing. It didn’t stop Portugal winning Euro 2016 but with Ronaldo two years older, there were genuine doubts over whether ‘CR7’ could still carry his country.
Doubt Cristiano Ronaldo at your peril however, as he quickly silenced all non-believers by putting on a performance of individual brilliance in his side’s 3-3 draw against Spain. The former Real Madrid star turned it on in what could be his final World Cup, scoring an impressive hat trick to earn his side a point in their opening fixture. The most impressive of the three was Ronaldo’s final goal, an expertly placed free kick that equalised the game with only minutes left to play. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. When Portugal needed to be bailed out their star man stood tall for them to save the day. Already it feels like a lifetime ago, with Ronaldo since securing a lucrative move to Juventus, but his stunning hat trick goal is sure to stand the test of time as one of the most impressive in World Cup history.
- June 30
It might seem a little bit like cheating to list a whole day as a memorable moment, but so much happened in the space of that 24 hours. To put it simply, June 30 was the 2018 World Cup’s Red Wedding.
The two scheduled games for the day saw the two biggest stars in the world ready to impress for their national sides, with Ronaldo’s Portugal playing Uruguay in Sochi and Messi’s Argentina playing France in Kazan. The equation was simple and if results went the way of the game’s two global superstars, they would have faced in a mouth watering quarter final clash that would go down in World Cup folklore. But it wasn’t to be for either.
First Barcelona’s Lionel Messi took the field to take on France, but he quickly found himself upstaged by a 19 year old superstar, Kylian Mbappe, who sent Argentina crashing out of the tournament. Ronaldo also found himself upstaged, as the classy Edinson Cavani secured a brace to doom Ronaldo and his Portugal compatriots to an early exit. It was a sad and sudden exit and with both men the wrong side of 30, it could be the final chance that either player has of ever winning football’s most sought after prize.
- Brazil bow out in Belgian battle
In the eyes of many football fans, Brazil were by far and away the favourites to lift the World Cup trophy with plenty of promise on show pre-tournament. Spurred on by the bitter disappointment of their 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi finals of the 2014 competition, it was widely expected that the Neymar-led Brazilians would go on to avenge their defeat and win a record sixth World Cup.
Facing Belgium in the quarter finals, Brazil looked unbeatable on paper. Quality across the entire pitch, a world class manager in Tite, an ability to score goals and sound defensive discipline. In the lead up to the quarters, Brazil were grabbing headlines but not for the right reasons. Neymar’s theatrics were capturing global attention and Brazil’s weaknesses were gaining more publicity than their strengths. Still, this is Brazil we’re talking about, they have to come good right?
Not exactly. Cracks started to show when Brazil actually stepped out onto the pitch. Belgium were ruthless in their stunning counter attack football, and claimed a 2-0 lead over their highly fancied South American opponents. More impressively, the three man Belgian defence held strong against a barrage of Brazilian attacks and eventually claimed a stunning 2-1 win in a result that sent shockwaves across the globe. Once again, Brazil were sent shockingly and embarrassingly crashing out of the World Cup. What started with such promise ended with such disappointment. Maybe 2022 will be their year.
- England eradicate penalty demons
Almost as well documented as England’s failure to deliver at major tournaments is their failure to deliver in penalty shootouts. England have faced three penalty shootouts in World Cups and lost each and every one of them. Their first heartbreak came in 1990 before they suffered defeat again in 1998 and 2006. Whether it was down to bad luck or a mental barrier, England have an undeniably horrible record in the dreaded shootout.
As England took on Colombia in the Round of 16 they looked as if they had avoided the shootout and would advance to the quarter finals without the need for extra time until a 93rd minute equaliser put a dent in their plans. Shell shocked, England were not able to claim back the lead, and found themselves facing the prospect of a fourth consecutive penalty shootout loss dead in the eyes.
With the world watching, and many expecting them to fail, it was Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson who made the first error, seeing his penalty saved and putting England on the back foot. Once Henderson missed many thought England were destined to fail again and take another early flight home. If that was the script, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford hadn’t read it. His heroics kept England alive, while Eric Dier kept his cool to convert the winning penalty for the Three Lions. Finally the curse was broken and England secured their spot in the quarter finals and found themselves asking that crucial question. Could the World Cup be coming home?
- Mbappe comes of age
In a tournament filled with the likes of global superstars Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, you’d hardly believe it was a 19 year old kid who would steal the hearts and minds of football fans across the globe. In France’s Round of 16 clash against Argentina, the youngster came of age in a performance that will go down in World Cup folklore.
The Paris Saint Germain starlet impressed with two expert finishes inside four minutes to land the killer blow on last tournament’s finalists and condemn them to an early flight home. Mbappe’s goals in high pressure situations showed poise and class beyond his years.
More impressive than his finishes was his pace and the danger he provided on the counter attack, not just in the Argentina game but in the rest of the tournament. He set the World Cup Final alight and became the first teenager to score in the deciding game since Pele in 1958. With the pressure of winning a World Cup off his back at 19, the French striker could be wowing fans and proving his talent for another 15 years. We as football fans, are the real winners. Watch this space.
- Mandzukic makes history to send England home
Before this historic World Cup semi final there had been a lot of attention placed on England. It’s coming home, 52 years of hurt, you know the drill. But in case you hadn’t noticed, there was a second team in this match, with a far more intriguing story to tell. Croatia claimed its spot in the semi final after three gruelling matches.
The last time England made the semi final of a World Cup was 1990. In 1990, Croatia did not even exist. Croatia became a FIFA recognised nation in 1992 after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and in just two and a half short decades have started to form a stunning football legacy. The side they brought to 2018’s World Cup was their best yet; this was their Golden Generation. Unlike England’s Golden Generation of 2002 however, Croatia was determined to make the most of its talent.
Despite England goaling early, Croatia fought back valiantly and battled through their third consecutive period of extra time, eventually claiming the winning goal off the foot of Mario Mandzukic with minutes left to play. The strike would put Croatia through to their first ever World Cup Final, sparking celebrations across the nation and securing this underdog side their place in history.
- Super South Korea slays sloppy Germany
In an alternate universe Germany defeated South Korea in their final group game and Toni Kroos’ free kick against Sweden makes the list as the decisive moment of a great German campaign. In an alternate universe Germany go on to escape their group and cement their legacy as one of the greatest footballing sides ever, doing what Italy and Spain before them failed so miserably to do before them and winning back to back World Cup trophies. However, none of that was to be.
German sides rarely enter major tournaments free of controversies. Previously it’s been car crashes or coaching issues; this time there was drama surrounding the political affiliations of Mesut Ozil and question marks about whether Leroy Sane should have been selected for the squad. Regardless of what issues arise in the build up to these tournaments, Germany have normally found a way to deliver. The 2018 World Cup however, would be much different.
A frustrating tournament could have been saved with a win over South Korea in their final group game, but after 92 minutes the score remained at 0-0. Committing numbers forward and doing everything they could to score, Die Mannschaft eventually got sloppy and went behind. Son Heung-Min’s 96th minute goal running into an empty net sealed the Germans’ fate, as they became the third consecutive World Cup winner to crash out in the group stage. The win was perhaps South Korea’s greatest since winning through to the semi final in 2002. Germany were left licking their wounds and will be very worried that their Golden Generation may be behind them.
- Hosts stun Spain
Russia were widely touted as one of the poorest sides to host their first World Cup. They were further weakened by the loss of Alan Dzagoev early on in their campaign but despite their apparent lack of talent, Russia kept on overperforming. A stunning 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia kicked off their campaign and Russia powered through to the Round of 16 thanks to stunning performances from Chelsea target Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev.
In their first knockout game, Russia were handed the most difficult opponent on their side of the bracket, 2010 champions Spain. Despite displacing their manager Julen Lopetegui just days before their first game, Spain were still considered one of the hot favourites and would have been expected to push past this Russian side with ease. Despite going down to an early own goal and being completely dominated in possession, with Spain registering over 1000 passes throughout the game, Russia hung in and managed to claim an equaliser before sending the game to the dreaded penalty shootout.
In a penalty shootout scenario, games are won by moments of individual brilliance and it was Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev who proved the hero. His final save saw him react brilliantly to stick out a boot and keep out Iago Aspas’ goal bound effort, securing a spectacular win for the host nation and blowing the tournament wide open. Russia went on to lose their quarter final but they had already defied their doubters and Igor Akinfeev had already proved himself a hero on home soil.
- France become champions
The greatest moment of the tournament is reserved for the side that won it all. A French side that started sloppily against Australia got better and better with each passing game and they peaked at just the right time.
Led by Didier Deschamps, this France side came into the tournament full of more talent than just about any squad in the tournament’s history. The players that France left at home would have been a side worthy of winning the tournament, proving their depth and the quality of their starting eleven. Kylian Mbappe was the young man at the forefront of France’s great form, but others such as Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Hugo Lloris were also having a marvellous tournament and were proving instrumental in France making it to the world’s grandest stage, the World Cup Final.
When the decider finally came around, France were made to work for their win. The 4-2 scoreline will go down as one of the most remarkable in history, and the clash had as many twists and turns as any fan could ever hope for. Ultimately, the French came out on top, lifting the World Cup trophy for the second time in the nation’s history. After the bitter disappointment of their doomed 2010 and 2014 campaigns and the pain of collapsing in the Euro 2016 final on home soil, there were no more questions about France’s quality. At last, the French had proved all their doubters wrong to earn the title, champions of the world. Allez Les Bleus.