169 goals. 64 games. 219 Yellow Cards. Shock Exits. Dramatic comebacks.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup had everything you could want and more. Defending champions Germany didn’t make it out of the group, pre-tournament favourites Spain fell at the last 16 against a spirited Russian side that confounded all expectations, Brazil bottled it again and England reconnected with the public in reaching the semis.

To cap that off, France secured their second World Cup trophy, beating a spirited Croatia outfit 4-2 in one of the greatest World Cup finals.

Our writers give their thoughts on the tournament as a whole, the broadcasting efforts of the BBC and ITV, the best players, coaches and goals from an incredible month of football.

Meet your Reviewers

Harry Dean: Incoming Sports Editor. As a tortured Gooner, Harry was grateful for the Three Lions providing him with some temporary escapism from the looming spectre of another underwhelming Premier League campaign. The fact that England were crawling with Tottenham players throughout the tournament is just a minor detail; people are far too quick to forget Danny Welbeck’s cameo in the meaningless group stage game against Belgium anyway! You can follow Harry on twitter at @saint_sport.

Lewis Frain: Deputy Viewpoint Editor at The Saint. After yet another major tournament as a neutral supporter, Lewis was at least able to enjoy an incredible contest, though like most his Scottish compatriots, he breathed a huge sigh of relief when Mandzukic sent Croatia through to the final. England’s strong showing was entertaining but Lewis doubts whether the UK would endure had Harry Kane and co. brought football “home”. Congratulations to France especially but also to England for their best showing since 1990, us Scots shouldn’t be too happy about them falling short, we need to examine the problems in our own game. You can follow Lewis on twitter at @lewisfrain.

James Fox: Senior Copy Editor for The Saint. James’ job involves close attention to detail so he loved every minute watching Southgate’s master plan unfold. The carefully planned formation, the flawless television interviews and, of course, the set piece “love train” all reaffirmed my support for England despite being born and raised in Scotland. It was tough to take when Southgate’s men fell short in the semis, especially being surrounded by hoards of honorary Croatia “fans”. But it’ll take more than that to stop James belting out the words to “Three Lions” at every possible opportunity. You can follow James on twitter at @jamesfox1997.

Joel McInally: Deputy Sports Editor and long-suffering Newcastle fan who supports England and Scotland. Joel fully believes England would have won the World Cup if they had brought Jonjo  Shelvey, Jamaal Lascelles or Wes Morgan. Joel has been won round by Gareth Southgate as England manager to the extent that waistcoats should be made a compulsory part of all school uniforms. Joel is devastated that football did not come home but he can only assume that border control officials stopped it at Calais. Blame Brexit. You can follow Joel on twitter @JoelMcInally.

Photo: eu.kremlin.ru

It is widely accepted that this World Cup has been the best, if not one of the best, tournaments in recent memory? How did it compare with your expectations going in?

HD: Safe to say, with teams in recent World Cups playing with a certain “fear of failure”, especially in the knockout stages, leading to some rather forgettable football and with the negative perception of the Russian football culture having been drilled into me by various Western media outlets, I approached the tournament with a certain degree of trepidation. All my reservations, however, were wildly disproved; of the four world cups I have watched, this one was comfortably the most memorable. The football on show was largely very enjoyable; the France-Denmark and England-Belgium group stage matches the only two spectacles I found genuinely disappointing. Moreover, fair play to the hosts. For all the fear-mongering about hooliganism and racism in the build-up they have been seen to have put on an inclusive, entertaining show with the local fans passionate and welcoming throughout. Thanks Russia, it’s been a blast.  

LF: I have great memories of the 2014 edition in Brazil, full of excellent football and great drama that was going to be very hard to top. But Russia 2018 has delivered the goods and then some and I would say it’s been comfortably the best World Cup in my lifetime. Near enough every game was compelling either with quality football or with high drama (normally due to a VAR controversy). There were upsets aplenty and some great stories were written. The hosts journey from being the unfancied and lowest ranked team in the tournament to the conquerors of Spain and only a shoot-out away from the last four, is a standout. So too was the incredible story of Croatia, a country of 4.3 million people which is nearly 1 million fewer than Scotland, making it to the final. Credit should also be given to the hosts who managed to dispel fears of violence and racism and deliver a great show in front of packed stadiums and a welcoming atmosphere.

JF: I had high hopes going into the tournament but I must admit I didn’t expect so many of the big teams going out so early. But as spectators that was all to our benefit as we watched game after game of free-flowing, goal-packed football. The VAR controversies which were at risk of marring the tournament seemed to diminish as it progressed and ultimately France were worthy winners. Pre-tournament concerns about violence all came to nothing and Russia were exemplary hosts. In fact, if I were to nitpick I’d say it was a shame the host country wasn’t more conspicuous. I have great memories of the World Cups in both South Africa and Brazil for the superb party atmospheres which centred around the host countries. That wasn’t so much the case this time – probably just because the outstanding quality of football took centre stage.

JM: I thought it had potential in footballing terms but I was worried about Russia as a host. If anything the success of the tournament has demonstrated that many of the British press’ portrayals of life in Russia are grossly exaggerated, however I hope that it does not distract from the wider issues in Russian society. When it comes to football though, there has not been a better tournament in my lifetime. While VAR provided controversy, it mostly led to the correct decisions and defenders will have to get used to playing with it in use, with fouls that they would usually get away with now being given as penalties. I would say the only change the system needs is a new definition of ‘clear and obvious error’ as referrals were inconsistent, although once referred, the correct decision was usually made. Still, the 2018 World Cup should be remembered fondly. It had shocks, controversies, penalties and heartbreak. What more could a football fan want?

Who do you think provided the best coverage – BBC or ITV?

HD: ITV’s coverage was beset by controversy early on with the furore over Patrice Evra appearing to sarcastically applaud Eni Aluko on air and never really for me shook off the perception of its overall display being watered down and tailored to the more casual viewer. It would’ve been nice to have seen more of Gary Neville in the commentary box where he excels rather than the TV studio too. BBC did a good job of combining the perspective of current players with more exotic footballing backgrounds like Cesc Fabregas and Pablo Zabaleta with domestic stalwarts such as Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer to create a very slick final product.

LF: Overall, it was a mixed bag. The commentary team of Clive Tyldesley and Glenn Hoddle were an embarrassment. Not just in their coverage of the England games they came across as two arrogant and horrendously out of touch individuals and their bias coverage of games meant they reneged on their responsibility to present and analyse the games with a degree of professionalism. Jon Champion and Ally McCoist were the standout commentary team from either broadcaster as they were both knowledgeable and entertaining. I agree with Harry in that I think Gary Neville was underused in the commentary box as the ITV studio tends to be a series of passionate arguments rather than good analysis. The BBC were far more consistent, Gary Lineker was brilliant as always and I was impressed by the fresh insight from Cesc Fabregas and Pablo Zabaleta. Alex Scott deserves great credit as well and I would much prefer to see her as a Match of the Day regular than the likes of Phil Neville or the insufferable Mark Lawrenson.

JF: In terms of pundits I certainly preferred the Beeb. Gary Lineker is an excellent anchorman and the insights of Rio Ferdinand and Alan Shearer were authoritative and measured. Cesc Fabregas and Pablo Zabaleta offered interesting perspectives representing two great footballing nations who fell by the wayside. I particularly enjoyed Jurgen Klinsmann’s good-natured punditry towards the end. The commentary was decent despite Mark Lawrenson’s best efforts to dampen everyone’s spirits. ITV’s coverage was more chaotic and the pundits’ tendency to bicker was not endearing. Roy Keane seemed to have an agenda against everyone and Evra’s behaviour was deplorable. I don’t have much time for the “anyone but England” attitude but the commentary of Clive Tyldesley and Glenn Hoddle did stir my sympathies for those who hate the English attitude to international football.

JM: It has to be ITV for a number of reasons. The first is Mark Lawrenson made watching his games almost unbearable as all he did was complain and sound like he did not want to be there. In contrast to this, Ally McCoist’s cheeky chappy approach to commentary on ITV was a joy to watch and his obvious joy in discovering Russia’s history was fantastic to hear. The only way the tournament could have had a better ending would be if he had declared his love for Jon Champion in what would not only be a beautiful from Russia with love story, but also a great defeat for Russia’s homophobic laws. Although, the BBC did unearth a gem this World Cup in the form of former England international Alex Scott. Her insightful punditry put Phil Neville to shame, and his mansplaining following the Japan-Colombia game was a painful watch, especially as he was just repeating her punditry. I would love to see her become a more prominent pundit in football. The best bit of punditry though has to be Slaven Bilic responding to a question over VAR on ITV by saying ‘to be honest I don’t care’, as to be honest, who does? Just enjoy the football.

Who were your team of the tournament?

HD: With honourable mentions to winners France as well as England and hosts Russia, Croatia were the standout team. That a country of just over 4 million reached the final was nothing short of remarkable and indeed they breezed through a group considered by many to be the toughest of the lot. Sure, they relied on penalties to get past both Denmark and Russia, sides they were expected to beat, but if anything this just confirmed their formidable mental strength. After outlasting England in the semis a final defeat to France was no disgrace at all, with the midfield engine room of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic particularly praiseworthy.     

Photo: The Kremlin

LF: Obvious credit must go to the eventual champions France as winning a World Cup is no fluke and requires an immense amount of teamwork, professionalism and quality. Other standouts would be Russia who were a joy to watch in the group stage and pushed their superior opponents all the way in the knockouts and of course Croatia, who were brilliant in the final’s first half.

JF: There were a number of standout teams in a tournament which showed just how far behind South American football is compared to that of Europe at the moment. Teams such as Russia, Croatia and England all surpassed expectations but ultimately we have to hand it to France. They seldom looked troubled in any of their matches thanks to an absolutely outstanding back four that showed experience well beyond their years. Midfielders Pogba, Kante and Matuidi all put in tremendous shifts and the brilliance of Mbappe was allowed to shine thanks to the consistency of Giroud and Griezmann up front. They were the most talented, most well-balanced and most hard-working team in the tournament and thoroughly deserve to be crowned world champions.

JM: While France were the best team and Croatia and England were brilliant for upsetting the apple-cart, it has to be Russia. Going in as the lowest ranked side in the competition they punched massively above their weight and showed the power of the 12th man. No one could have begrudged them a World Cup semi-final had they defeated Croatia on penalties. A special mention should go to Sweden who, in ditching Zlatan Ibrahimovic, showed that the team is greater than the individual.

Of the 64 games played this summer in Russia, which game stood out to you most and why?

HD: Spain-Portugal was seen to be the game of the group stage before the tournament and it more than lived up to its billing. It was a thrilling back-and-forth clash that went against the narrative of these sort of meetings in the group phase being cagey affairs. Ultimately the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo balanced out against the all-round promise of the Spain side to produce a wild 3-3 draw. Despite both teams teams largely disappointing in the rest of the tournament, this match-up – on just the second day of the competition – set the tone for the hugely enjoyable football that was to come in the rest of the tournament.

LF: Spain-Portugal was an absolute joy to watch, football at its very best. The final as well was a thriller and far better than the finals of previous tournaments. But I think the game of the tournament should either be France/Argentina or Belgium/Japan. Both had quality goals and dramatic comebacks. France’s eventual run to the trophy makes me lean towards the former, it felt like the turning point.

JF: Spain-Portugal was indeed an outstanding match and a great way to kick off proceedings. England vs Colombia was also a personal highlight as it will have been for any England fan. But I think Belgium-Japan was perhaps the best of the lot. After a dull first half the game came to life with two Japan goals which looked for all the world to have killed the game off, before perhaps the most spirited comeback of the whole tournament saw Belgium pull level, and then have the last laugh with a superb team goal showcasing the individual qualities of De Bruyne and Lukaku.

JM: While Spain-Portugal was a superb first-round game, the best match for the neutral should be France-Argentina as it had great goals, a penalty and probably was the final game of Messi’s disappointing international career. An honourable mention has to go to England-Colombia for the sheer sh*thousery on display and the game was capped off by a thrilling penalty shootout that finally allowed England fans to dream.

Best goal of the tournament?

HD: We’ve been lucky to have witnessed numerous fabulous strikes over the past month, all of which can’t be mentioned here. For me though the honour must go to Benjamin Pavard’s effort for France against Argentina. It was the perfect combination of power and finesse as it shot into the top left-hand corner of the goal. Angel Di Maria could easily have also won this prize for his superb goal in the same game emphasising just how significant Pavard’s strike was as without it France could easily have not ended up lifting the trophy.  

LF: There have been several great strikes and team goals from Messi’s against Nigeria and Cheryshev’s against Saudi Arabia to Quaresma’s belter against Iran and yes Trippier’s free kick. But for me purely for the great technique on show, it goes to Benjamin Pavard’s effort against Argentina. The Stuttgart full-back truly hit the sweet spot.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

JF: Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain perhaps wouldn’t be many people’s first choice because it took place in the first round of games and counted for fairly little in the grand scheme of things. But what a moment it was. The whole game had been so remarkable with each moment more incredible than the last and there was a strong sense of fate when Ronaldo, having already scored twice, stepped up in the dying minutes. We all knew how poor his free kicks had been for some time now, but something told you in that moment he wasn’t going to miss. The strike itself was one of which few other players would’ve been capable: to get it up and down that quickly over an enormous Spanish wall with the world’s best keeper behind was truly spectacular. At that moment the 2018 World Cup had arrived.

JM: Benjamin Pavard. No explanation needed but if you want one then read Harry’s as it’s a good one.

Best Player of the tournament?

HD: For me, it’s impossible to look beyond the “boy wonder” here: Kylian Mbappe. Although he was relatively quiet in the group stage, he came alive in the knockout stages when it really mattered. In particular his dazzling performances against Argentina and Belgium were ultimately what saw his side over the line. With Messi and Ronaldo now both north of 30, he is the presumptive heir to the title of world’s best player.  

LF: Luka Modric. Croatia’s captain really solidified himself as the world’s top midfielder. His ball retention, great engine and array of passing is second to none and he was fundamental to Croatia’s run to the final. Croatia only really click when Modric is playing well.  Highlights would be his terrific goal against Argentina and his response in the shoot-out against Denmark, stepping up and scoring after missing in extra-time, a true leader. Credit should also go to Eden Hazard who showed the world class ability we know he is capable of and Kylian Mbappe, who at 19 years old is a frightening prospect if he continues to deliver the goods.

JF: It has to be Mbappe. I think in years to come this may well be remembered as the “Mbappe World Cup”. We all knew how good he was beforehand but to play with so much confidence and brilliance at that age on the biggest stage of all is remarkable.  

JM: Yes it was probably Luka Modric but I am going to say Kylian Mbappe. While Messi and Ronaldo were let down by their teammates and Neymar let himself down, Mbappe was a sensation. He put in brilliant contribution after brilliant contribution and provided that spark that every great side needs. He could go on to be truly unbelievable.

Best Coach of the tournament?

HD: The pressure on Stanislav Cherchesov and his Russian team was immense before the tournament: without a win in 7 games and most local pundits poised to deliver a withering assessment on the performance of a side considered perhaps the weakest ever to host the tournament. However Cherchesov performed a minor miracle in hauling this injury-ridden squad to the quarter finals and re-igniting Russia’s love affair for their national team. His calm demeanour throughout clearly eased the enormous expectations on his players and his tactics in the last 16 against Spain was something of a masterstroke, ensuring he will forever be viewed favourably by the Russian footballing public.

LF: I’ll resist calls for Gareth Southgate to win every accolade he can, though he does deserve credit for fostering an incredible team spirit and making the waistcoat the biggest advancement in football fashion since Tim Sherwood’s gilet(s). However, I actually think Roberto Martinez deserves a lot of credit. Like most people I looked at his record at Everton and Wigan and thought he was incapable of organising a backline. However, crucially equipped with some of the Premier League’s top defenders, Belgium were solid at the back whilst still playing an attractive and expansive brand of football that got the best of their incredible attacking talents. Though they fell just short against France, they came back brilliantly against Japan and brushed aside the favourites Brazil in convincing fashion. The golden generation delivered a bronze medal, they never came close to that under anyone else.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

JF: I have to give this to Gareth Southgate. First of all, the way he treated everyone involved with the England camp and the way he dealt with the media was first class. It was so refreshing to see an England manager carry himself with such honesty and the positive energy which radiated from the players is entirely down to him and his staff. Top marks to Gareth for matters off the pitch. Tactically also Southgate brought new ideas and it made the tournament a whole lot more enjoyable knowing in advance how England would set up. The 3-5-2 was certainly the formation which best suited the players available to Southgate and having a system in which every player knew their role was undoubtedly one of the reasons England surpassed expectations in this tournament. That said, one or two areas of the pitch were somewhat lacking: playing Kyle Walker at centre back was a great way to fit both him and Kieran Trippier in the starting XI but at times his defensive frailties were exposed. I also felt Danny Rose should’ve had more game time over Ashley Young, whose performances this summer were never more than mediocre. Nonetheless, in this World Cup Southgate has done better than any England manager since Bobby Robson.

JM: This has to be shared by Gareth Southgate and Stanislav Cherchesov simply because they overcame national scepticism to capture the hearts and minds of their nations and to make them believe again. Southgate in particular was a gentleman throughout and the England team he coached has no doubt inspired a new generation of football fans who will one day be telling their kids about the great World Cup of Russia, 2018.

Best XI of the tournament

HD: (3-5-2): Thibaut Courtois, Yerry Mina, Andreas Granqvist, Diego Godin; Kieran Trippier, Lucas Hernandez, Ivan Perisic, Luca Modric, Kevin De Bruyne; Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane

LF: (4-4-2): Danijel Subasic; Kieran Trippier, Diego Godin, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez; Eden Hazard, Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, Ivan Perisic; Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe

JF: (4-3-3): Jordan Pickford; Kieran Trippier, Raphael Varane, John Stones, Lucas Hernandez; Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, Philippe Coutinho; Ivan Perisic, Kylian Mbappe, Eden Hazard

JM: (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois; Kieran Trippier, Diego Godin, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez; Luca Modric, Paul Pogba; Kevin De Bruyne, Ivan Perisic, Antoine Griezemann; Kylian Mbappe

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