The World Cup is over, and for many people around the globe it means going back to giving their full attention to their day-to-day activities, but this tournament won’t be forgotten too quickly. There has been plenty to talk about, controversies which took the central stage even before the games began, plenty of excellent performances and sublime games, and moments that have ensured this particular World Cup has its place in the history of this sport forever.
The fact that Qatar was the country selected as to host this tournament was obviously the reason why it had to take place at the start of winter in the northern hemisphere – the temperatures which occur there in the summer simply wouldn’t do for it. And while that in itself posed a serious challenge for the teams and the players, who are usually in the midst of their club season activities at that time of the year, several other problems, pointed out by the western media, were more pressing to deal with.
Qatar did everything they needed to do to make this World Cup a great sporting event and according to many who were there, they fully delivered. However, criticism continues to arrive at the host country’s account regarding the workers who lost their lives during the building of the stadiums where the games were played, as well as of its intolerant laws regarding homosexual relationships.
And while some believe a country like that should not have been chosen to host the World Cup, others feel that these issues have been brought forward and placed into the light exactly because Qatar was chosen to organize it.
These issues are obviously very serious, and there are no easy answers. On one hand, there is a cultural difference between the values of the Middle East and the West, but on the other, basic human rights shouldn’t be denied to anyone and no cultural difference can justify their potential absence in a country.
But let’s get back to the actual football now.
Argentina suffer Saudi shock
Listed among the top favourites to lift the trophy going into the tournament, Argentina were stunned by Saudi Arabia in their opening match in Group C. It started well enough with Messi netting a 10th-minute penalty for the Gauchos, but Saleh AL-Shehri equalized three minutes into the second half and Salem Al-Dawsari sent the world into shock five minutes later with a brilliant strike.
From that point on, it was clear that Scaloni’s men needed to bounce back straight away to avoid an early exit, and bounce they did, even though not many who saw that defeat believed them capable of it.
Mexico, Poland, Australia, Netherlands, Croatia and eventually France all fell at their feet.
Croatia end Brazil hopes
It was actually Brazil that most people saw as the main favourites to win the World Cup, including the bookies who placed the shortest odds on it, but the Selecao couldn’t make it past Croatia in the quarterfinals despite the vast quality in their ranks.
There were a couple of questions regarding the selection of the players who wore the country’s colors in Qatar, the biggest among them being the absence of Liverpool star Roberto Firmino and the place taken by Tottenham Hotspur’s Richarlison, but Richarlison quickly put those talks to bed with a fantastic display and two fine goals as Tite’s men marched past Serbia in the opening round. A 1-0 victory over Switzerland followed and a 0-1 defeat to Cameroon, unexpected but basically insignificant.
Nonetheless, the issue of Tite’s omission of Firmino returned soon enough, with Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus picking up a serious knee injury and ending his time in Qatar after the group stage, and Richarlison remaining as the only designated centre-forward in the squad.
Why exactly Tite chose to take just two central attackers which he trusted (and Flamengo’s Pedro whom he gave a total of 62 minutes across two matches) while taking no less than six wide ones remains a curious question, but it sure came back to bite the 61-year-old tactician in the quarterfinals.
After Vinicius Junior, Neymar, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta all netted in a 4-1 win over South Korea in the round of 16, it was Croatia who stood up to the Selecao, and it took Brazil 106 minutes to break through their resolute defending and the excellent Dominik Livakovic between the posts. And just as they it looked Neymar’s strike would see Brazil safely through, Bruno Petkovic struck back with three minutes of the extra 30 remaining on the clock and took the game to penalties. Livakovic turned up for his country again, getting the better of Rodrygo and Marquinhos, and the Brazilian dream came to a shocking end.
Morocco end Cristiano Ronaldo dream
Having won the 2016 European Championship with Portugal along with every trophy he competed for at club level, Cristiano Ronaldo sought to cap his illustrious career with the World Cup but it wasn’t to be.
It was slightly more difficult for Portugal even to qualify for Qatar than they had hoped, with Serbia getting the better of them in Lisbon and taking the top spot in their qualifying group. It meant Portugal had to go through Turkey and North Macedonia in the play-offs, but they eventually got there.
Ronaldo scored Portugal’s first goal of the tournament from the spot and Joao Felix and Rafael Leao got on the scoresheet as well in what turned out to have been a thrilling 3-2 victory over Ghana in the opening round. Like Brazil, Fernando Santos’ men relinquished the final game of the group stage, losing 2-1 to South Korea after beating Uruguay 2-0, and they went on to annihilate Switzerland 6-1 in the round of 16.
Santos chose to leave Ronaldo on the bench for that clash, naming Goncalo Ramos ahead of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, and the Benfica striker repaid the coach’s faith with a hat-trick before Ronaldo came on for the final 15 minutes. The brave decision to start without Ronaldo was praised far and wide as Portugal obviously played a fantastic game, and Santos chose not to change what appeared to have been the winning formula when he named his starting XI against Morocco in the quarterfinals.
But Morocco, providing the World Cup with arguably its greatest surprise, proved a much tougher nut to crack than Switzerland. It was an extremely disciplined team performance from Walid Regragui’s team, rewarded fully in the 42nd minute when Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri rose to head past Diogo Costa in the Portugal goal. Ronaldo came on after 50 minutes, joining Ramos upfront to add some formidable firepower, but Morocco held out to become the first African nation ever to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.
It was a huge heartbreak for the veteran superstar, which will have made the mood within his camp even worse after his unceremonious exit from United before the World Cup, but realistically speaking, his dream never really looked like coming true. With all due respect to Portugal, there were better teams out there, and one of them was Morocco.
Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and the final
Morocco’s success was a great story of this tournament, but France put an end to it in the semifinals and went on to face Argentina for the trophy.
As much as Ronaldo had hoped to lift the World Cup, Lionel Messi’s hope was no less and
going into the final, it was obviously a case of now or never. In the other corner was Kylian Mbappe, his club teammate, one of the hottest prospects for the future of the game, and a player who had already been crowned world champion even though 12 years younger than the Argentina superstar.
Messi entered the fray as motivated as ever, causing France all sorts of problems from the start, and when his former teammate Ousmane Dembele brought down Angel Di Maria in the box, there was absolutely no question about who would step up to take the penalty. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner played a huge part in the second goal for Argentina too, releasing Alexis Mac Allister in behind before the Brighton and Hove Albion man squared it for Di Maria to score. The break came with Lionel Scaloni’s team two goals to the good, but Mbappe obviously wasn’t going to bow down and go out quietly.
The 23-year-old hit back in style, converting a penalty himself in the 80th minute to reduce the score and slamming a stunning volley equalizer one minute later.
The contest went into extra-time and when Messi scored his second in the 108th minute, Mbappe once more took on the challenge and leveled things up from the spot with just two minutes to go. It was a brilliant game, well-worthy of being called a World Cup final, and two of the best players the world currently has did battle in a magnificent fashion.
Mbappe scored in the shootout as well, getting the better of Emiliano Martinez from the spot for the third time, but the Aston Villa man is known not only for his vast quality as a shot-stopper, but also as a man who uses any means necessary to disrupt penalty takers. His antics worked a charm against Aurelien Tchouameni and Kingsley Coman even if he was booked for it, while Messi again, Paulo Dybala, Leandro Paredes and Gonzalo Montiel all scored for Argentina.
And that was it. A great World Cup final has yielded the greatest trophy in football to the player considered by many the greatest of all time even before it happened. Lionel Messi has done what his arch-rival in the eyes of many of his fans, Cristiano Ronaldo, could not do. He has crowned his incredible career with the World Cup after playing his 26th World Cup game – a new all-time record. That, on top of such a thrilling final, will probably remain as the moment this World Cup will be remembered for the most.
In the end, Messi walked away with not only the World Cup but also the award for the best player of the tournament, Martinez was given the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper, and Enzo Fernandez was named the best young player, leaving Mbappe to settle for the Golden Boot as the top scorer with eight goals in seven matches.
But Messi’s time is surely coming to its inevitable end, despite him vowing not to retire from international football just yet. Mbappe’s time has only just begun, and the fact that he’s still only 23 seems frighteni
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