I haven’t written anything about the soccer played in Russia during the 2018 World Cup. This was my way of protesting against the Cup being held in Putin’s thugocracy. I did not want to promote the event, even in a very small way.
However, several readers have asked me to comment on the tournament. Now that it’s over with, I see no harm in offering a few thoughts and naming my all-tournament selections.
Many commentators called this the best World Cup they could remember. I’ve followed them all closely since 1978. For me, the only one that rivals this year’s is the 1986 Cup.
What I liked most was the near absence of crap teams. Panama was awful (making it all the more shocking that the U.S. didn’t qualify). Saudi Arabia and Egypt were poor, as was Poland until its last match when it no longer mattered. Every other team was decent or better, in my estimation.
I also liked the fact that there was only one 0-0 draw.
On the other hand, only three teams played excellent football consistently — France, Belgium, and Brazil. It seems to me there were more top-notch teams in 1986 — Argentina, West Germany, France, Brazil, and even England once the Everton boys (Peter Reid and Trevor Steven) were inserted into the starting midfield. But I may be romanticizing 1986.
This year, the three best teams ended up on the same side of the bracket during the knock-out stages, so the key clashes occurred in the quarterfinals (Belgium over Brazil) and the semifinals (France over Belgium).
The most exciting matches occurred earlier in the tournament. They included Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal; Germany’s dramatic win over Sweeden on the final kick of the game; and Argentina’s dramatic win over Nigeria — all in the group stages — and Belgium’s comeback from two goals down to beat Japan 3-2; England’s win on penalty kicks over Colombia; and France’s victory over Argentina in a seven-goal thriller — all in the round of 16.
VAR (video assisted refereeing) was used at this World Cup. I thought it might spoil the tournament, but it didn’t because VAR was used judiciously. Stoppages for reviews were not frequent and most of the ones that occurred were resolved quickly.
Most importantly, video review didn’t change the game or its rules the way it has in the NFL where, thanks to replay, we’re no longer sure what constitutes a catch. Penalty kicks were not awarded based on minimal contact in the penalty area that the referee didn’t see in real time. The concept of “not enough contact” (also known as “not for me”) survived VAR at this World Cup. Whether it will survive long-term isn’t clear.
I did miss being able to jump out of my seat and scream when a goal is scored. Now I often have to wait to make sure the play won’t be reviewed. From my family’s perspective, VAR came decades too late.
Here are my 2018 World Cup all-star selections:
Thibaut Courtois — Belgium
Diego Godin — Uruguay
Andreas Granqvist — Sweden
Rafael Varane — France
Ivan Rakitic — Croatia
Luka Modric — Croatia
Paul Pogba — France
Philippe Coutinho — Brazil
Neymar — Brazil
Eden Hazard — Belgium
Arten Dzyuba — Russia
Kasper Schmeichel — Denmark
Kieran Trippier — England
Marcelo — Brazil
Simon Kjaer — Denmark
Yerry Mina — Colombia
N’Golo Kanté — France
Ivan Perišić — Croatia
Aleksandr Golovin — Russia
Lionel Messi — Argentina
Cristiano Ronaldo — Portugal
Kylian Mbappé — France
Guillermo Ochoa — Mexico
Thomas Meunier — Belgium
Ludwig Augustinsson — Sweden
Harry Maguire — England
Jose Gimenez — Uruguay
Casemiro — Brazil
Kevin De Bruyne — Belgium
Takashi Inui — Japan
Isco — Spain
Denis Cheryshev — Russia
Edson Cavani — Uruguay
Player of the Tournament — Hazard
Two of my favorite English Premier League players — England’s Harry Kane and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (ex-Everton) didn’t make my list, even though Kane led the tournament in goals and Lukaku was co-runner-up (along with France’s Antoine Griezmann who also didn’t make it). Both had good tournaments, obviously, and deserve honorable mention.
However, of Kane’s six goals, three were on penalties (to be fair he won two of them) and a fourth came when a low shot flicked off his heel and into the net. Kane knew little or nothing about this “shot.” In addition, three of Kane’s goals came against hapless Panama. Kane wasn’t much of a factor in England’s quarter-final and semi-final matches.
Lukaku scored two of his four goals against horrid Panama and the other two against a Tunisia side that was only okay. He did play a major role in Belgium’s great comeback win over Japan in the round of 16. His dummy on the winning goal will go down in World Cup lore. However, Big Rom had a relatively poor match against France in the semi-final.
The three center forward I selected all excelled in big matches. Dzyuba, the Russian giant, tormented center backs throughout the tournament and scored Russia’s only goal in the round of 16 win over Spain. Mbappe starred for France in both the semi-final and the final, in which he scored a goal. And he contributed two goals in the 4-3 win over Argentina.
Cavani scored twice in the round of 16 victory over Portugal. Unfortunately, he was injured late in that match and thus couldn’t play in the quarter-final against France. Cavani also gets points for his tireless work, as always, at the defensive end, though Kane, Lukaku, and Griezmann all were conscientious on defense as well, I thought.
With the English Premier League season set to kick off in a little more than a week, the 2018 World Cup is very much in the rear view mirror. It leaves a nice after-glow, however, and perhaps this post will bring back good memories for those who followed the event.