The day after a gripping World Cup final, it’s easy to get carried away about how great the tournament has been. Truth be told, even if the title clash was a cagey affair that was decided by the odd mistake or moment of brilliance, Russia 2018 had seen enough drama and entertainment before the finale, to merit a heartfelt ‘thank you’.
So, here we are. After a month of drama, own goals, penalties, screamers, shock results, refereeing controversies and, above all, near non-stop entertainment – it’s time to bid farewell to Fifa World Cup 2018. It is debatable if this was the greatest World Cup ever (for, there are enough reasons to support that argument) but it would be impossible to arrive at a consensus. What is beyond dispute, is the fact that no one who followed the entire tournament is ever likely to forget how thoroughly mesmerised we all were over the 64 matches and 169 goals.
The best place to begin is with the champions, of course. So, thank you, France for providing the stage for Kylian Mbappe to burst onto the world stage. Smug regular followers of European football would shrug their shoulders and say they knew all about how good he was, but for millions around the world who get sucked in by the magic of the World Cup every four years, to see a teenager look so at ease, and terrorise defenders with his pace, would have been a surreal experience.
But it wasn’t just about Mbappe, was it? Thank you France, for showing through someone like Olivier Giroud, that football is often about the collective over the individual. It’s easy to to make a joke out of the fact that he did not have a single shot on target after 500-odd minutes on the pitch, but that would negate how he worked his socks off as the center-forward, bringing the other obviously-more-talented players in the French side into play.
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The World Cup also wouldn’t have been half as entertaining as it turned out to be but for the contributions of the so-called smaller nations in the group stages. So, thank you, Iran, South Korea, Morocco, Iceland, and the likes for not reading the proverbial script and going toe-to-toe against the biggest names in world football.
To see 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 save penalties against Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to see Son Heung-min and the South Koreans in tears after knocking out Germany, despite knowing they weren’t going to progress any further, and the moment Panama fans celebrated their solitary goal in a 6-1 thrashing because that was the first time they had seen their country score at the biggest stage – these are the moments that might not make headlines decades down the line when we look back at Russia 2018, but showed playing in the World Cup is not always about the results.
Thank you to Messi (for creating art in the form of your goal against Nigeria), to Cristiano (for that epic hat-trick against Spain that set the tone for the World Cup in many ways), to Neymar (not just for the indisputable flashes of brilliance, but also providing the internet with enough meme fodder to last for the next four years).
Thank you, Japan for flying the flag of Asian teams at the World Cup. The achievements of the 2002 World Cup still remain greater, in the strictest sense of the word. But for you to play the way you did against Belgium in what was, arguably, the match of the tournament, is the stuff footballing dreams are made of. And you took it one step further, with your amazing fans, staying back to clean the stands even after a heartbreaking defeat. For all that, Arigatou Gozaimasu.
Thank you Belgium, for playing the best football in the tournament. The winners medal might continue to elude you, but a best-ever finish at the World Cup is just reward. Thank you England, for breaking out from the tired trope of bringing star names to the World Cup and disappointing your fans and instead bringing a *team* of young players, who united the nation and made them fall in love with you again. The World Cup may not have come home, but football sure did.
Thank you, as well, to Russia for hosting a World Cup that is unlikely to be forgotten by us during our lifetime. It’s a relief, really, that the controversies over the past month were from events on the football pitch, and not off it – for the most part. The Russian team deserve their share of credit as well for their never-give-up attitude. To go past Spain and to almost knock Croatia out in the knockout stages, despite being the lowest ranked team in the tournament, is an achievement worth celebrating.
Thank you Croatia, for never giving up. While France emerged the champions, it’s your determination and fight that symbolised what this World Cup stood for. Without bringing up the population figures, it was remarkable to see a team of players, battle-hardened by their experiences away from the pitch, never shy away from a challenge. Conceded first against Denmark and Russia, fought back and won a shootout. Conceded first against England, fought back and won in extra time. Conceded first against France, fought back but couldn’t get past the finish line. And in your captain, you had the player the world was rooting for to succeed. You might have finished second-best, but you sure did win yourselves the support of millions of neutrals around the world. The Golden Ball might be scant consolation for your captain Luka Modric, and he might not have received it with great joy, but he sure made fans around the world smile with his displays on the pitch.
And finally, thank you most of all, to football. For showing that a World Cup can truly live up to its name. For showing that no country is too big to win and no country too small to dream. For showing that the beautiful game is, at the heart of it, an inclusive force that brings joy to millions around the world, when few other things can.
That, ultimately, is what the greatest show on earth is all about.