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Les Bleus!

Les Bleus!

Love it or loathe it, football has been pretty hard to ignore these last few weeks. World Cup fever has swept the globe, uniting nations with the thrills, spills and excitement associated with the most important event in the footballing calendar. Even before the opening match on 14th June, the anticipation was palpable. Dates were circled in diaries, new giant-screen TVs were purchased, invitations were issued to World Cup parties, and the sale of international football shirts soared.

With the eyes of the world on Russia, the host nation went out of its way to impress both visitors and viewers. Security was, of course, a priority – focusing on terrorism, hooliganism and racism – but it was a slightly less serious subject that grabbed the headlines in the weeks prior to the competition. Aware of their own rather stern reputation, Russian workers likely to come in contact with the 1.5 million foreign visitors were taught how to smile. Staff members working on the Moscow Metro and national railway were included in the training program ensuring a warm welcome to those football fans arriving by train. The Russians, it seemed, had thought of everything.

Whilst the Russians were learning how to smile, the Italians and the Dutch were still shaking their heads in disbelief at their failure to qualify. It was hard to imagine a FIFA World Cup without these two giants on the fixture list. Of the thirty-two teams who did make it through, some fans were questioning the squad selections of their manager. Why was Leroy Sané not in the German team? Why were Marcos Alonso and Héctor Bellerín not selected to play for Spain? One could only speculate at the talent these countries did have, if they could afford to leave players of this calibre at home.

Talking of Spain, the controversy continued when their manager, Julen Lopetegui, was sacked on the eve of the competition. Fernando Hierro was named as his instant successor. Could the timing have been any worse? Only time would tell.

It’s customary for the host nation to kick off the competition, so after an impressive opening ceremony (the highlight of which was Robbie Williams’ duet with Russian soprano Aida Garifullina), Russia took on Saudi Arabia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. From Saudi’s point of view, the 5-0 defeat was a disaster. The home nation, however, was ecstatic. But it wasn’t this five goal opener that dominated the headlines. Spain’s match against Portugal was, arguably, the game of the week. This fiery contest showcased football at its very best and ended in a 3-3 thriller, including a memorable hat-trick from Portugal’s number seven. Christiano Ronaldo, take a bow.

Other games of note in the first round included Iran’s first World Cup win since 1998 (thanks to an injury time own goal from Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz), Egypt’s disappointing defeat to Uruguay (with Mo Salah on the bench and 6,000 empty seats), Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal and, in the same game, Lionel Messi’s penalty miss for Argentina. And let’s not forget Germany’s loss to Mexico – not many of us saw that one coming!

The controversial VAR system also played a part early on with players and fans still debating its practicality and added value. Even with the benefit of the Video Assistant Referee, England were denied two clear penalty awards in their opening match against Tunisia. Already, the VAR system was the subject of much debate. One could only wonder what other decisions it would influence over the course of the tournament.

With each team having played its opening game, people were already speculating the winner of the Golden Boot. The favourite was obviously Christiano Ronaldo but Harry Kane, Romelo Lukaku, Diego Costa and Denis Cheryshev all got off to flying starts with two goals each. The world’s best players were, it seemed, queuing up to score. And the race for the Golden Boot continued throughout the group stages with Harry Kane scoring a hat-trick for England in their 6-1 thrashing of Panama, Lukako netting another double for Belgium, Ronaldo increasing his tally against Morocco and local hero Cheryshev scoring again for Russia.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the group stages was Brazil’s mediocre performance. The world expects great things from this nation of football legends and the draw against Switzerland in their opener was far from entertaining. Their second match against Costa Rica was no better with their star players a long way from their brilliant best. Their blushes were spared by a stoppage time strike from Philippe Coutinho followed by a tap-in by the world’s most expensive footballer, Neymar. However, the 2-0 result was a flattering scoreline and certainly no reflection on Costa Rica’s efforts. In fact, so dull was Brazil’s performance, Neymar’s slightly strange hairstyle and his theatrical dive in the penalty box were the main talking points of the match. Thankfully, VAR called that one right and the decision went Costa Rica’s way.

But Neymar wasn’t the only one guilty of play-acting. The blatant attempts by players to influence decisions wasn’t just embarrassing, it was downright ridiculous. We saw big, strong defenders falling to the ground in feigned agony, world-class strikers taking dives more suited to a hotel swimming pool, and grown men rolling around on the floor like six-year-olds. Arguing with the referee and time wasting also featured regularly in the group games and one could only hope that the level of professionalism and sportsmanship would improve in the knock-out stage.
As for Brazil, their 2-0 defeat of Serbia ensured them a place in last sixteen. Which is more than can be said for Germany who failed to progress beyond the group stage for the first time since 1938. Their performance against South Korea was poor with the team clearly lacking belief. South Korea, on the other hand, with nothing to play for other than pride, played a brilliant game full of energy, determination and passion. Their historic 2-0 win (with both goals coming in stoppage time) would be remembered for years to come, particularly by the German fans who were wondering what might have been had Manchester City’s Leroy Sané been included in the squad.

Of the final group matches, none were more exciting than those in Group H. The games between Japan and Poland and Senegal and Colombia kicked off simultaneously with the group positions changing constantly throughout the ninety minutes. Unable to separate Japan and Senegal by points, wins, goal difference or goals scored, eventually Senegal were illuminated based on the number of yellow cards received over the three games. A cruel way to lose out but fair-play won the day.

So, with the last sixteen confirmed, it was time to say goodbye to those teams going home. Germany’s exit was, without doubt, the biggest surprise of all but many were also disappointed by Egypt’s poor performance. Few would have predicted three games without a win, without or without Mo Salah. As for those going through, Croatia suddenly became the team to watch. Three wins out of three saw them top their group ahead of Argentina who, so far, had been disappointing. Belgium also took maximum points from the group games despite making numerous changes for their final match against England. Uruguay also finished top of the table with an impressive nine points.

If the group games were anything to go by, the 2018 World Cup would definitely be one to remember. It was already shaping up to be one of the most exciting tournaments to date with shock results, VAR controversy and goalkeeping blunders all adding to the drama. And the drama continued in the first round of the knock-out stage with (arguably) the two best players in the world going home on the same day. Lionel Messi’s Argentina were outclassed by France who beat them 4-3 in Kazan. Kylian Mbappe was the hero of the match netting two second-half goals and breaking the hearts of Argentina fans, some of whom were no doubt asking why Sergio Agüero spent most of the tournament on the bench. Ronaldo’s Portugal also fell at the first hurdle of the knock-out stage following a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay. They may be superheroes in the eyes of their fans but it takes a team to win a match and on this particular day, the teams just weren’t good enough.

Next to exit the competition was Spain. For reasons known only to him, new coach Fernando Hierro dropped Andrés Iniesta for their crucial tie against Russia. Coupled with Stanislav Cherchesov’s excellent defensive tactics, this resulted in a 1-1 draw after extra time and, therefore, a penalty shootout. Prior to the tournament, Russia was the lowest ranked team in the competition but their passion and belief saw them win 4-3 on penalties. They didn’t need lessons on how to smile now! The home supporters were ecstatic and their goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, was most definitely the hero of the day. In the meantime, the Spanish fans were left wondering what on earth went wrong. Unbeaten in the last two years, they could only watch in disbelief as Russia marched on to their first quarter final since 1970.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the second game of the day also resulted in a penalty shootout. After a promising start (two goals in the first four minutes) Croatia’s game against Denmark was dull to say the least. A penalty award in the closing stages seemed sure to result in a late win for Croatia but Luka Modric’s poor spot kick was saved by Danish keeper, Kasper Schmeichel. So, the inevitable penalty shootout followed. Both keepers pulled off brilliant stops but it was Croatia who emerged victorious with Denmark joining Spain on the plane home.

Next up was Brazil. Would they play any better in their match against Mexico? The energy sapping temperatures certainly didn’t help – it was hotter in Samara than it was in either of their home countries – and fatigue was clearly evident in the second half. However, it was Brazil who went on to win, securing their place in the quarter finals for the seventh consecutive time. Neymar and Roberto Firmino were the names of the score sheet but it has to be said, the tournament favourites were still lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.

Brazil would play the winners of the match between Belgium and Japan. Fifty-eight places separated these two teams in the world rankings putting Belgium as clear favourites to win the game. So it came as a shock to everyone when Japan went 2-0 up. The second goal from Takashi Inui was an absolute bullet from twenty-five yards and surely a contender for goal of the tournament. Whilst Belgium lacked character and spirit, Japan it seemed, had both by the bucket load. However, a double change by coach, Roberto Martinez, had the desired effect and by the seventy-fourth minute, the score was level. It was substitute Nacer Chadli who fired Belgium into the next round with virtually the last kick of the game. The goal came from an opposition corner (why did Japan not just kick the ball around the corner flag?) with goalkeeper Courtois rolling the ball out to the feet of Kevin De Bruyne, the result of which was a brilliant team goal and heartbreak for Japan.

When it came to Sweden and Switzerland, neither team looked anything like world beaters. Sweden were missing the on-pitch influence of the great Zlatan Ibrahimović , and whilst Xherdan Shaqiri had been the stand-out player for the Swiss so far, it was hard to imagine either side progressing any further in the competition. It was an awkward, nervy game which was settled in the end by an unfortunate deflection off the boot of Manuel Akanji, giving Swiss keeper, Yann Sommer, no chance in goal. The main talking point came in the final minute of the game when the referee sent off defender, Michael Lang, and awarded a penalty to the Swedes. A VAR review deemed the foul to be outside the box and the subsequent free kick was squandered. Not that it mattered; Sweden had already booked their ticket to the quarter final.

Sweden would play either England or Colombia in the next round. It was a tight game with Colombia displaying signs of petulance and provocation throughout. The referee struggled to control the South American team and lengthy delays were frequent. England were awarded a penalty in the first half and it was a full three minutes before Harry Kane was able to step up and fire his team ahead. In the interim, Wilmar Barrios was shown a yellow card for head butting Jordan Henderson (why was it not a red card?) and Johan Mojica was seen scuffing the penalty spot with this boot in a blatant attempt to sabotage the spot kick. Underhand tactics indeed. Despite their unprofessional conduct, Colombia went on to score in added time, forcing a further thirty minutes of extra time and ultimately, a penalty shootout. Unfortunately, England’s dismal shootout record (only one win in seven major tournaments) meant that most of their fans were now shielding their eyes, waiting for the inevitable. Gareth Southgate’s team, however, had other ideas and blasted their way to a 4-3 victory. Could their fans now dare to dream?

One thing was for sure, you wouldn’t want to leave your seat before the final whistle. At this stage of the competition, a quarter of all games had been decided after the 88th minute!
The first of the quarter final matches saw Uruguay take on France. Since the start of the tournament, Luis Suarez and his mates had been quietly going about their business, notching up wins and progressing nicely. But whilst goalkeeper, Hugo Loris, treated fans to a dazzling display in the French goal, the performance of his opposite number cost Uruguay the match. What should have been a straightforward save from in-form Antoine Griezmann, actually resulted in one of the most horrendous goalkeeping blunders in World Cup history. His gaffe gifted the French a 2-0 win and so France were the first team to go through to the semi-finals.

Belgium’s game against Brazil was most definitely a game of two halves. The first forty-five minutes were tight with neither team allowing the other to play. It was Belgium who broke the deadlock, the deflected corner being credited to defender, Fernandinho. Kevin De Bruyne made it 2-0 with a glorious strike from twenty yards and whilst Brazil threatened in the second half, they still lacked their trademark finesse. Neymar’s play-acting antics continued but even he couldn’t save his team from the inevitable defeat. Renato Augusto’s goal was small consolation. Belgium, it has to be said, fully deserved their win and ensured an all-European semi-final contest for the first time since 2006.

With Sweden and England both having reputations for defensive discipline and excellent tactics, this was a difficult match to predict. But it was England who went ahead after yet another successful set-piece; this time Harry Maguire heading home Ashley Young’s corner. England’s young goalkeeper (and smallest in the competition), Jordan Pickford, produced a collection of magnificent saves to keep his team in the game and Tottenham’s Dele Alli scored the winner after fifty-eight minutes to seal the win.

The home nation had high hopes against Croatia and they couldn’t have wished for a better start when Cheryshev scored his fourth of the tournament to put them 1-0 up. The Croatians equalized forcing the match to extra time in which both teams managed to score. It was a roller-coaster of emotions for both sets of fans but only one team could win. The dreaded penalty shootout would decide. In a cruel twist of fate, it was Mario Fernandes, the player who put Russia level in extra time, who missed the crucial spot-kick. Their players and fans could only watch as Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic blasted Croatia into the last four.

Despite their defeat, Russia could be immensely proud of their World Cup journey. They were never expected to progress beyond the group stage and surprised everyone with their determination and belief. A place in the quarter finals was beyond their wildest dreams and their unexpected success would be remembered for years to come. Not only had the Russians organised an impeccable tournament, they had contributed massively on the pitch as well as off it. Bravo!

As for the Golden Boot, England’s Harry Kane was still two goals clear of his nearest semi-final rival, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, and three clear of Griezmann and Mbappe of France. But with two games each left to play, it was still anyone’s prize with Eden Hazard and Luka Modric still in the race.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that from the four teams left in the competition (France, Belgium, England and Croatia), forty players were signed with clubs in England’s Premier League. Compare that with twelve from La Liga, eleven from Ligue 1, nine from Bundesliga and eight from Serie A. Confirmation, should you need it, that the English Premier League is (one of) the best in the world. Not that I’m biased, obviously.

The first semi-final between France and Belgium took place in St. Petersbug. As expected, it was a competitive, even game. It remained goalless at half time but Belgium’s Eden Hazard was the stand-out player of the half. In the second half, however, Kylian Mbappe stepped up a gear and lit up the pitch with his talent and flair. France scored shortly after the break, thanks to a Samuel Umtiti header (which may or may not have been helped into the net by Marouane Fellaini’s hair). Crucially, a challenge on Hazard just outside the box on the eighty minute mark was deemed not to be a foul by the referee. Replays of the incident showed a clear foul but there was no signal from VAR so Belgium were denied a goal scoring opportunity. The game ended 1-0 with both keepers pulling off excellent and memorable saves. It was a surprise result for those convinced that the team who knocked out Brazil, would go on to win the trophy. France, it seemed, had other ideas.
England couldn’t have wished for a better start to their semi-final clash against Croatia. Kieran Trippier’s free kick put them 1-0 up after just five minutes. But the set-piece specialists struggled to extend their fragile lead and Croatia always looked like scoring, eventually netting an equalizer in the sixty-eighth minute. Having been forced to play extra time in their last two matches, yet another extended game was, no doubt, the last thing the Croatians wanted. However, they battled like warriors and refused to give in to fatigue. England squandered more than one goal scoring opportunity giving Croatia the chance to grow in confidence and eventually strike their killer blow. Mandzukic was the man to break English hearts with just eleven minutes left to play, his goal guaranteeing Croatia a place in the World Cup final. Not bad for a nation smaller in size than London.

So, the scene was set for an all-European clash between France and Croatia. It was a tough one to call with France definitely starting the game as favourites. However, it was hard to write-off the Croats based on their gritty displays in both the group and knock-out stages and the under-dogs had the lion’s share of possession for much of the first half. However, against the run of play, it was France who went ahead – but could there ever be a worse time to score an own goal? Mario Mandzukic – the hero of the semi-final – headed Griezmann’s free kick into the back of his own net and put himself in the record books for being the first player ever to score an own goal in a World Cup final. Unlucky.

They did hit back with a set piece of their own but their luck changed again thanks to a controversial VAR decision, resulting in a penalty for France. The referee was advised to look at the replay of a possible hand-ball by defender, Ivan Perisic. He did indeed take a long, hard look and concluded that Perisic deliberately handled the ball in the box. It was a scandalous decision and one that made a mockery of the entire VAR process. That said, Antoine Griezmann took full advantage of the unexpected opportunity and slotted the ball into the back of Danijel Subasic’s net.
Despite the injustice, Croatia refused to give up. However, once again, the wind was taken out of their sails, this time by a pitch invasion – the first ever in a World Cup final. Although the officials were quick to remove the offenders, the momentum of the game was lost and Paul Pogba put France 3-1 up shortly after.

It has to be said that for most of the game, Croatia managed to keep French wonder-kid, Kylian Mbappe, fairly quiet. But he was always going to have the final word and so, after sixty-six minutes, he deceived goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, and became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958. Already there was talk of him being a future winner of the Ballon d’Or. Watch this space.

As if there hadn’t been enough talking points in the match already, Hugo Loris then added to the drama with the worst goalkeeping error you’re ever likely to see in a World Cup final. Loris had ample time and space to clear the back pass from Samuel Umtiti but, for reasons known only to him, chose to step around the advancing Mandzukic, gifting the Croat an open net and a second goal for his team. Luckily, it had no bearing on the outcome but still, Loris will have nightmares about that howler for the rest of his life!

The last twenty minutes of the match were somewhat dull but it had already gifted us with memories galore and had everything you could want from a World Cup final – we hadn’t seen six goals in a final since 1966. On the balance of play, there’s no doubt France deserved to win but, thanks to a dubious VAR decision, Croatia will forever ask themselves ‘what if?’ In the meantime, Didier Deschamps became only the third person ever to win a World Cup final as both player and manager, joining Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in an exclusive club of true World Cup legends.
There was some consolation for Croatia. Their captain, Luka Modric, was awarded the Golden Ball after media representatives voted him the best player of the tournament, a high accolade indeed. As for the other awards, unsurprisingly Kylian Mbappe won young player of the tournament with Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois collecting the Golden Glove. His team mate, Nacer Chadli, won goal of the tournament for that fabulous team goal against Japan and England’s Harry Kane won the coveted Golden Boot – not bad considering he didn’t score in their last three games.

So, what now? Football has dominated our screens since the middle of June and now it’s all over. We can read about it, talk about it and argue about it. We can reflect on the team selections, refereeing decisions and substitutions. Thanks to technology, we can re-watch the wonder goals, goalkeeping blunders and near misses. We can also debate the pros and cons of VAR and its influence on this tournament. We should also be grateful to each and every player who contributed to an extraordinary World Cup competition. But let’s not forget to thank Russia for a job well done. For a nation who didn’t know how to smile, it certainly has plenty to be happy about. And last, but by no means least, let’s congratulate France on a well-deserved win. Vive la France!

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