The cream has risen to the top. From the 32 teams that started the campaign at Russia 2018, we are now down to 16.

By all accounts, and despite what Sanjay Manjrekar thought, this has been one of the most entertaining group stage of the football World Cup finals we have witnessed. The sheer number of goals scored, the drama with VAR, the elimination of defending champions Germany in the most dramatic fashion, and some utterly bizarre off-the-field incidents – all these have contributed to the thrill of watching the greatest show on earth.

But as we move on to the knockout stages, where the entertainment-factor is usually replaced with tension, as teams eye the big prize, it’s only fair we take our time to salute some of the teams who are going back home, but only after playing a massive role in making the tournament a thrill-a-minute ride. (That is if you ignore the 90 minutes of your life that you wasted by watching Denmark v France).

Highly competitive World Cup

How about this for a few of statistical nuggets:

  • Every team that came to the World Cup scored at least twice for the first time in history
  • Out of the 16 final round fixtures, only two were dead rubbers: Egypt vs Saudi Arabia and Tunisia vs Panama. And both those games saw World Cup history created. Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary became the oldest man to play in the tournament’s history while the above-mentioned record of each team scoring at least two goals was created thanks to Panama taking the lead against Tunisia, a game that also witnessed the 2,500th goal to be scored in the World Cup.
  • Every team, with the exception of Panama and Egypt, that was eliminated before the third and decisive round of fixtures began, ended up earning at least a point in their final fixture. Down and out, but not leaving Russia without a fight.

The stage was set by Iceland, one of the two tournament debutants alongside Panama, when they held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in their opening game. While all the talk was about Argentina missing out on a win, Iceland were worthy owners of a point. Argentina eventually sneaked through to the round of 16, but Nigeria gave them one heck of a fight.

Iran and Morocco showed in Group B that they weren’t there to just make up numbers. Heck, who would have thought both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would have had their penalties saved! Hannes Halldorsson, a film-maker not too long ago, and Alireza Beiranvand, a man who slept outside the stadium doors in Tehran to earn a chance to play top-level football, saved penalties from two of the greatest players to have ever played the game. Morocco and Iran played their part in making the final minutes of Group B incredible. Spain and Portugal progressed but not before being pushed to the limits by Iran and Morocco. When Iran and Morocco are left disappointed by not beating the likes of Portugal and Spain, you know their efforts were special enough.

For Peru, in Group C, the story could have been so different had Christian Cueva scored the penalty in the game against Denmark. After all the struggles they had to undergo to come to Russia, Peru put in their heart and soul into every game they played and eventually finished with three points after a win against Australia.

Group F saw the most epic of endings with South Korea pulling off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the World Cup by beating the world No 1 side in their final game. Despite it becoming clear that they weren’t going to progress, they fought tooth and nail to finish with a win in that match – a win that made South Korea, Mexico’s favourite team. The scenes of Mexican fans celebrating with the Koreans will be one of the lasting images of this Russia 2018.

And finally, we’ll leave you with this. The only real one-sided thrashing in this tournament was England defeating Panama 6-1. The Three Lions had a 5-0 lead at the end of the first half. It was a no-contest from the word go. For anyone who wasn’t an England fan, there was no incentive to watch the second half.

But if you bit the bullet and saw the entire game, you would have seen a moment that captured the essence of the World Cup. Trailing 6-0, Panama scored a goal through Felipe Baloy to make it 6-1, the crowd went absolutely ballistic. The Panamanian fans did not care one bit that the scoreline became 6-1 instead of 6-0 – to them it was their first ever first World Cup goal. The celebrations showed how an insignificant goal in the bigger picture, meant the world to a tiny nation from the Americas.

The fact that the most boring group match was between France and Denmark, two fancied nations, followed by perhaps England and Belgium, it tells you all you need to know about how the smaller nations punched above their weight.

Ultimately, only the deserving teams progressed. With the exception of Japan and Russia, and to a much-lesser extent Sweden and Switzerland, there are no real underdogs remaining in the tournament. In all likelihood, one of the fancied teams is going to walk away with the glittering trophy in a couple of weeks’ time. History suggests, however entertaining the group stages are, the knockouts tend to be cagey, intriguing affairs – that in itself doesn’t make it any less entertaining, mind you.

But as we look ahead to a different kind of madness in the coming days, it’s time to bid adieu to the Irans and the Moroccos and South Koreas of this World Cup. Without them, and their fight-till-the-end attitude, the World Cup wouldn’t have been half the spectacle that it has turned out to be. They might have been the ‘smaller nations’ so to speak, but they fought as they hard as they could.

We will miss you.