The FIFA World Cup 2018 finally came to an end with European powerhouse France winning the coveted tournament in a spectacular fashion.
Didier Deschamp’s side beat Croatia 4-2 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to bag their 2nd World Cup trophy after a period of 20 years.
Les Bleus perhaps had to thank the champion side that boasted of 80% Africans with 50% of the squad being Muslims. But they all came together to complete the task at hand and write their names in history books.
In this exceptional World Cup, Russia needs to be lauded for their show both on and off the field.
This World Cup was one of the best ever in terms of results, charisma, the friendliness post fear of racial attacks, cleanliness and also the atmosphere that had millions of fans from several nations flocking the European country to catch a glimpse of the football superstars.
If the likes of Germany, Spain, Argentina and Brazil failed to give a solid account of themselves, several smaller sides impressed largely.
There were also teams that gained a lot like a young Three Lions side and galactic filled Belgium. And not to forget was Croatia, who by far brought the charm and spirit alive in the Russian summer.
Here we look at the three best teams that won everybody’s heart with some sturdy performances throughout the World Cup.
The warning for every other country is that, unlike in 1998-2000 and 2006, France may not have peaked despite winning the most coveted trophy the sporting world can produce. France could be in line to produce a sporting dynasty and that was seen through their performances throughout.
France had the 3rd youngest team in Russia and they managed to keep their pre-tournament favourites tag alive. In the group stage, they topped the proceedings and the results earned the side a round of 16 date with Argentina.
That match had it all as the world saw a new superhero in teenager Kylian Mbappe come to life. France brushed aside Argentina 4-2 in a game that had some stunning link-up play which was blended with top quality goals.
The victory against Uruguay felt like a routine one in the quarters as Deschamps’s side thwarted Uruguay all night. What bode well for France was their depth in the squad which was bolstered by a superb defence.
Perhaps their success lied mainly on goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and their compact defensive line led by Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane.
The biggest test for France was against Belgium in the semis and that’s when Lloris came into action. His right-hand save after making a dive to keep Nacer Chadli’s goal-bound shot needs to be praised.
France closed down Belgium and stood true to their line in closing out pockets of space that were often enjoyed by the Belgian players.
Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe continued their peripheral rise to make a sound impact in the finale. And the team cashed in on the tired legs of Croatian players to mark a solid 2nd half display.
Antoine Griezmann needs to be sounded out too for making an immense contribution that saw him score four goals in the tourney. France’s overall game and dynamism were top notch and they excelled throughout with some sheer balance in the side.
Zlatko Dalic’s squad contained a clutch of high-class players who knew that this would most likely be their final World Cup, and certainly their last as a group.
This was one of the best Croatian side, with a mix of matured as well as young players, who fought like tigers on the pitch. They defied fatigue and vulnerability with a sense of belief that they could achieve some wonderful things.
However, with most of their world-class names in their thirties, this was the last-chance that gave them extra motivation.
Croatia gave the fans absolute joy and entertainment throughout that started with a 3-0 thrashing of Argentina. That match sparked their revival and many predicted this team could quite go the distance.
After topping their group, the fun started in the knock-outs. Croatia never did it the easy way, but they always found that intensity to make a comeback and take the game to the end. Three successive knockouts saw them get to extra-time with two games decided via penalty shootouts.
Croatia downed Denmark via penalties to play their best game of the tournament against a determined Russia. They found their way through to the next round – on penalties once again. The game swung into many possibilities. But what struck us most was their desire to always come back after conceding early on.
Against Denmark in the last 16, they scored three minutes after conceding the opening goal. Against Russia in the quarter-final, they scored eight minutes after conceding the opening goal. Against England in the semi-final, they overturned a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 in extra-time. Against France in the final, they initially trailed for just ten minutes.
In the final they pressed France in possession and robbed them high up the pitch. For an hour they fought and kept themselves in the game, but three knockout games meant that there were players that looked exhausted from their journey.
France capitalised on the same. Croatia was clearly motivated by the notion of being the unfairly overlooked underdog.
One rarely sees a side progress past three knockout ties after extra-time and overcome the inevitable physical and mental fatigue. But this team needs to be lauded for overcoming the odds and fighting.
The hosts were the butt of all jokes when the tournament started. Many wrote them off at the very start. But Russian players wanted to tell a different story.
They wanted to excel at home and the rollicking of Saudi Arabia in the opener got fans excited like never before. Another thrashing of Egypt post a defeat against Uruguay saw them finish second in Group A.
Then came their biggest night in football history. A dramatic penalty shootout win over 2010 champions Spain got the entire nation to its feet and made them believe in fantasies.
The hero of the night was CSKA Moscow goalkeeper and Russia captain Ivam Akinfeev, who saved two spot-kicks. His second stop sealed the victory and provided a moment of realisation that this side just did the impossible. Russia saw their name in the quarter-finals for the first time in 48 years.
Russia overcoming Spain will make fans never forget the night in Sochi for the rest of their lives. That belief in the squad was once again evident in the quarters against Croatia.
Denis Cheryshev’s sublime opener set the tempo before Croatia equalized. The game went on to extra-time and suddenly the hosts found themselves trailing 2-1. But Russia wasn’t done yet. How could they?
The mood in the country was electric and it soared higher when Mario Fernandes headed an equalizer in the 115th minute.
That goal and Fernandes’ dramatic extra-time leveler counted for nothing but the memories in the end – as Croatia went through 4-3 winners on spot-kicks.
But Russia can be hugely proud of what they went on to achieve. The players clearly showed they understood only too well that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was at stake.
They almost pulled off another sensational triumph but failed to replicate the heroics against Spain. Nonetheless, their efforts were recognized by the fans, who applauded their team off the pitch for a final time in emotional scenes.