If you were told that Croatia and France would be playing the FIFA World Cup final ahead of the tournament’s kickoff, you would have dismissed it with a huge laugh.
Soccer experts had predicted Germany to defend the title while a few put their money on Spain, Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Neymar’s Brazil. Hardly anyone would have thought of these two playing the final of football’s showpiece contest. But that is how this edition of the World Cup in Russia has been — full of shocks and surprises.
After a month-long duel among the top 32 teams in the world, Croatia has made it to their first ever final. On Sunday (July 14) in Moscow, they will be up against a resurgent France, who won the trophy in 1998.
It was supposed to be the World Cup of the greats like Messi and Ronaldo. It was supposed to settle the debate on who is the greatest footballer on the planet with either of them standing atop the world. As it turns out, they may have to end their careers without the coveted trophy as their return to the next edition in Qatar looks distant.
Contrary to popular belief, this edition kept throwing surprising results right from the beginning. At the end of the group stage, defending champions Germany were knocked out. At the end of the Round of 16, France knocked out Argentina while Uruguay saw off Portugal to throw the tournament wide open.
Brazil went a step ahead but only to return home in the quarterfinals. Dark horses like England, Croatia and Belgium, who were not given much of a chance, started growing in confidence believing that it is their time to shine.
The trend of upsets started right with the qualifiers. While this edition saw newcomers Iceland and Panama, some big names of world football even failed to qualify.
The biggest name that missed out was four-time champions Italy. The disaster ended the careers of players like Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi. Joining them were the finalists of 1974, 1979 and 2010 and semifinalists of 2014 – The Netherlands. The Orange Army’s failure to make it to Russia drew curtains on Arjen Robben’s career.
From South America, the current Copa America champions Chile fell through. Cameroon and Ivory Coast too missed the flight to Russia.
When the competition for the top trophy of the Beautiful Game kicked off a month ago, nobody expected Germany’s exit in the first round. Their campaign started off on a disastrous note with a loss in their opening match to Mexico. It looked like they had sorted out the problems quickly when they scored a crucial 2-1 victory over Sweden, but in a match that they needed to win with a two-goal difference, they suffered a humiliating 0-2 loss against South Korea, ending the reigning champions run. It was for the first time since 1938 that Germany had to bid bye in the first round.
In the Round of 16, Argentina, who scraped through to the second round after a 1-1 draw with Iceland and 0-3 drubbing by Croatia, ran out of luck as they were knocked out by France in one of the most entertaining matches. Uruguay extinguished Ronaldo’s aspirations after Edinson Cavani’s brace sunk Portugal at the same stage.
However, the Cup also saw the dream run of hosts Russia who ended the tiki-taka style at the World Cup defeating the European giants Spain 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in regulation time, thus drawing curtains on one of the modern era’s greatest players – Andrew Iniesta’s career.
The lone fancied team in quarterfinal line-up was Brazil and the Neymar-led team too departed when they suffered a 2-1 loss to Belgium. Uruguay’s run too came to an abrupt end when they lost to France, thus ending the journey of all South American countries. For the first time in the history of the World Cup, there was no representation from South America in the semis leading to an all-European battle.
The World Cup is a stage where heroes are born and it is also where great players turn legends. Two of the game’s most celebrated players – Messi and Ronaldo – let go of this golden chance. Both have a huge success at the club level and share a record 10 Ballon O’dr trophies – five each.
However, nothing can be compared to the success at the World Cup. There can be comparisons of Messi and Ronaldo to yesteryear greats Diego Maradona or Pele. But the current legends can never fill the shoes of these heroes without a World Cup trophy.
In this edition, Ronaldo scored four goals while Messi found the back of the net just once. When it really mattered, both players failed to deliver. To be realistic, both do not have a good record in knockouts at World Cups. While Ronaldo did not score in 514 minutes of action in knockout games, Messi failed to score in 715 minutes.
For Brazilian superstar Neymar, it turned out to be another nightmare. The ghosts of the 2014’s humiliating 1-7 drubbing in semis at the hands of Germany were still fresh and he had to deal with another one in this edition. Much was expected from Egypt’s Mohammed Salah but the injury-hit Liverpool star failed to make an impression.
While most of the attention was on Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, it was the low-key players who shone the brightest. England captain Harry Kane, who is among frontrunners for the golden boot with six goals, led from the front and guided England to semifinals where they suffered a heart-breaking loss against Croatia. He played a key role in England’s resurgence.
Having faced so much criticism for not performing at the world’s biggest stage, there were not many who rated England highly. But the side performed exceeding all expectations to reach the semifinals. The last time they made it big was in 1966 when they took the trophy.
France’s Kylian Mbappe used the stage to perfection to announce his arrival. The 19-year-old has been the talk of the town since his super show against Argentina. His speed and agility are trademarks of a superstar in the making. Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku too showed his stature as a world-class player with his acute angles and impeccable precision. He, along with captain Eden Hazard, played a key role in Red Devils’ fortunes.
Hosts Russia were the least ranked team in the fray at 70. If not for the hosting rights, many believed, Russia did not stand a chance to even play. However, by the end of the quarterfinals, they showed the world what they can do. After notching fine wins in the league stage against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they stunned the 2010 World Champions Spain on penalties. Their journey has been an incredible story.
However, it was Croatia who were the biggest surprise. They announced their intentions with a 3-0 drubbing of Argentina but few envisaged them in the final.
There were questions raised against FIFA over granting the hosting rights to the country that is so inscrutable. However, in the end, it was Russia who emerged true winners.
While their performance on the field elevated their stature as a footballing nation, their efficiency in conducting a tournament of such magnitude flawlessly, thrashed all misgivings of the western world. They welcomed the world and provided a splendid stage and an experience of a life for fans from across the world.