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  • Story of Russia 2018

    By Jan Alsos

        In December 2010, Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup after beating England and joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium. It was the first time an Eastern European country had been selected to host football's biggest event. The 64 matches were spread out to eleven cities and twelve stadiums (two in Moscow). Russia spent over $14 billion hosting this event, the most expensive World Cup in history. Nine of the stadiums were built from scratch and the other three, including Luzhniki, the main stadium of this event, went through major renovations.

    32 countries qualified:

    • 14 from Europe (UEFA): Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland + Russia as hosts.
    • 5 from Africa (CAF): Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia.
    • 5 from Asia (AFC): Australia, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea.
    • 5 from South America (CONMEBOL): Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay.
    • 3 from North/Central America (CONCACAF): Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama.

        20 of the 32 teams which took part in Brazil 2014 also made it to Russia 2018. Established powers such as Italy and Netherlands failed to qualify and USA missed out for the first time since 1986. Panama and Iceland were debutants, making them the 78th and 79th countries to participate in the World Cup. The introduction of video assistant referee (VAR), was met by scepticism in some corners, but eager anticipation in other. VAR would be used in four main areas; goals, penalty decisions, direct red card situations and mistaken identity.

    (Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia)

        The pre-World Cup expectations of the Russian team were low after a string of poor results in the warm-up matches. In fact, Russia were ranked 70th on the FIFA ranking, the lowest of all participating teams in the World Cup, and had a squad almost entirely made up of players from the domestic league. In the tournament's opening match they faced the second worst ranked team, Saudi Arabia. Despite being drawn in this favourable group, many Russians feared an embarrassment and first round exit. Even more so when key player Alan Dzagoev limped off injured midway through the first half, but after an excellent 5-0 win in front of president Vladimir Putin and countless millions watching on television, optimism was back again in the Russian camp. This was the biggest win by a host country in an opening match since 1934. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov made two vital substitutions; Denis Cheryshev (for the injured Dzagoev) and centre-forward Artem Dzyuba. Cheryshev scored two against Saudi Arabia and Dzyuba scored one and assisted another. Both would be impact players in games to come.

        Uruguay met Egypt in the other match in this group. There was much uncertainty in the hours leading up to kick-off whether Egypt's super star Mohamed Salah would be declared fit after the shoulder injury he suffered against Real Madrid in the Champions League final weeks earlier. As it turned out, Salah remained on the bench. Uruguay's two star strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani couldn't break down the robust Egyptian defence on the day, but a determined central defender could instead. Jose Maria Gimenez gave Uruguay the win a minute from time when he headed in a free-kick from Carlos Sanchez.

        Russia then also beat Egypt in round two, this time with Mohamed Salah starting. Salah won a penalty after the referee consulted VAR, the foul on him was first judged to be outside the penalty area. Salah converted the penalty, but by then Russia were already three goals up. Egypt's captain Fathy had scored an own goal, Cheryshev had scored his third in the World Cup and Artem Dzyuba had scored an excellent goal as well.

        Uruguay beat Saudi Arabia in an unremarkable match 1-0 thanks to a goal from close range midway through the first half by Luis Suarez, winning his 100th cap. This result meant that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt were eliminated before the last round of group matches.

        The match between them was not without highlights. A fantastic penalty save by the World Cup's oldest ever player, Egypt's goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary (45 yrs, 161 days), caused huge celebration when he denied Fahad Al-Muwallad to level the score after Mo Salah had given Egypt the lead. But Saudi Arabia's Salman Al-Faraj converted another penalty minutes later instead to equalize. Deep into injury-time, Saudi Arabia secured the win through Salem Al-Dawsari, their first in a World Cup match since 1994.

        Uruguay soundly beat Russia 3-0 in the last match making them the first team since Argentina in 1998 to win all their three group matches without conceding a goal. Luis Suarez put the South Americans in front after ten minutes with a free-kick goal, but an early red card for Russia's Igor Smolnikov made the win easier to obtain and two more goals followed. Uruguay progressed to the next round and a meeting with Portugal. Russia would take on Spain in Moscow.

    (Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco)

        Morocco, in their first World Cup since 1998 and with 17 foreign born players in the squad, took on Iran in the group opener. It turned out to be a one-sided affair with the Africans in the driving seat for most of the game, but the ball just wouldn't go in. In the 95th minute, when everybody waited for the final whistle to be blown, substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz headed the ball into his own net and gave Iran a surprising win, their first in a World Cup since their famous victory against USA in 1998. Morocco now had a mountain to climb against the fancied European teams in the next two games.

        Spain had internal problems and controversially fired coach Julen Lopetegui just days before the World Cup started, because he was secretly negotiating with Real Madrid for the suddenly vacant job offered to him after Zinedine Zidane stepped down. Lopetegui had just weeks earlier extended his contract as coach for Spain, and the Spanish FA did not enjoy his sudden change of heart. Fernando Hierro was promoted as short-term solution as Spain's coach in the tournament.

        Spain and Portugal gave the watching world top entertainment in a 3-3 draw in Sochi, featuring a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. Although Spain looked the better team for long stretches, and Nacho scored a superb half-volley goal in off the post for 3-2, it was Ronaldo's superb free-kick equalizer shortly before the end which was the icing on the cake. Ronaldo joined Pelé, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose as goal-scorer in four World Cups.

        Already after four minutes in Portugal's next match against Morocco, Cristiano Ronaldo was again unstoppable in the penalty area and headed in 1-0, his 85th goal for Portugal beating Ferenc Puskas as top scorer for a European national team. Morocco, just like against Iran, looked good on the ball, but had no end product and bowed out of the World Cup after only two games. Spain beat Iran unconvincingly 1-0 later that night after a fluke goal by Diego Costa. In a game with few chances, Iran had a goal correctly disallowed for offside by VAR.

        The final round of matches in the group brought a great deal of drama. Portugal took the lead against Iran right on half-time with a trademark outside-of-the-foot shot by Quaresma. Iran managed a late equalizer from the penalty spot after yet another VAR decision on a handball incident, and Mehdi Taremi could have won the game for Iran and sent them through to the round of 16 at Portugal's expense, had he not missed one-on-one with the goalkeeper well into injury time.

        In the other game, Spain came from behind twice to force a 2-2 draw against the already eliminated Moroccans. After 14 minutes, a bad mix-up between Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta allowed Khalid Botaďb to steal the ball and run half the length of the pitch to score. Spain equalized five minutes later through Isco after nice combination play between Diego Costa and Iniesta. After 81 minutes, Youssef En-Nesyri gave Morocco the lead again when heading home a corner. Substitute Iago Aspas equalized for Spain in injury time after the referee first had disallowed the goal for offside, but VAR came to the rescue for Spain after a long delay. Spain won the group and would face Russia in the next round. Portugal would go up against Uruguay.

    (France, Peru, Denmark, Australia)

        When France met Australia in Kazan for the opening match in this group, we got the first ever on-field VAR review in the World Cup. Australia's Josh Risdon fouled Antoine Griezmann, but referee Andres Cunha of Uruguay first waved play on before he stopped the game after communicating with his colleagues in the video room. Penalty was given and Griezmann gave France 1-0. Minutes later it was Australia's turn to win a penalty after a clumsy handball by Samuel Umtiti. Mile Jedinak made no mistake from the spot. France scored the winner nine minutes from time when Paul Pogba's shot was deflected off Aziz Behich before hitting the crossbar and bounced down an inch or so over the line as goal-line technology confirmed.

        Peru were back in the World Cup for the first time since 1982, and their large contingent of travelling supporters made them almost a home team in Saransk for the game against Denmark. The squad was boosted by the return of their captain Paolo Guerrero who originally was banned for 14 months for failing a drug test, but the Court agreed on lifting the suspension temporarily while it considered the Peruvian's appeal. Despite having most of the chances, Peru couldn't find a way past Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Christian Cueva missed a penalty right on half time. Instead it was Denmark scoring the winner through Yussuf Poulsen in the second half after a nice pass from Christian Eriksen.

        Eriksen was on fire from start in Denmark's next game against Australia, scoring a great goal on half-volley set up by Nicolai Jřrgensen. The lead was wiped out before half time though as Australia benefitted from a VAR decision of a handball in the penalty area. Just like against France, Mile Jedinak scored from the spot.

        France beat Peru 1-0 which mathematically eliminated the South Americans before the last round of group matches. Kylian Mbappe, 19 years and 183 days old, became the youngest ever goalscorer for France in a World Cup match when he tapped in the winner from close range after 34 minutes. French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris celebrated his 100th cap by keeping a clean sheet.

        Peru finally got their first goal and their first win against Australia. Paolo Guerrero scored one and set up the other for André Carrillo in the 2-0 victory.

        With six points in the bag before kick-off, France rested many players in their final group game against a Denmark team needing only a draw to secure a place in the next round. France didn't risk anything going forward, and neither did Denmark, who also wanted to keep their 18 game unbeaten run going. Both teams looked satisfied with the only goalless draw of this World Cup. Group winners France would meet Argentina in the next round, Denmark would take on Croatia.

    (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria)

        Iceland, one of two debutants in this World Cup, is the least populated country in history to qualify; only 350,000 inhabitants. They impressed in the European Championship two years ago getting to the quarter-finals knocking out England on the way, so they were not without experience at this level of tournament competition. Still, it was somewhat surprising to see them hold Argentina to a draw after coming from behind. Sergio Agüero put Argentina ahead after 19 minutes, but Iceland replied four minutes later with a goal from Alfred Finnbogason. Despite heavy pressure from the South Americans in the second half, they found no way past goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, who even saved a penalty from Lionel Messi.

        Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0 in the group's other match. An own-goal by Etebo and a Luka Modric penalty goal sealed the three points. A bizarre incident occurred when Croatia's Nikola Kalinic refused to come on as a substitute in this game, complaining about a back injury. Coach Zlatko Dalic decided to send him home.

        Croatia then dismantled Argentina 3-0 in the high profile game of this group. The action unfolded for real after a goalless first half. A mistake by Argentina's goalkeeper Willy Caballero was taken advantage of by Ante Rebic, who volleyed the ball home. Luka Modric added a second with a precise shot from outside the penalty area, before Ivan Rakitic scored the third in stoppage time when Argentina had given up. In Argentina, a television channel decided to hold a minute's silence on air to mourn the death of the national team - even if there was a lifeline available in the third game. If anything, it reflected the mood in the country. Coach Jorge Sampaoli was under huge pressure. Was he really in charge of this team or was he just Messi's puppet on the bench? This win secured Croatia their first spot in the last sixteen since their bronze medal winning campaign in 1998.

        Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 in Volgograd with two nice goals by Ahmed Musa in a game Gylfi Sigurdsson also missed a penalty for Iceland. The result meant all four teams had a chance of progressing to the knock-out stage before the last round of group matches.

        Argentina met Nigeria for the fifth time in the World Cup group stage since 1994, and had won every time, so too this time. Lionel Messi gave Argentina the lead with his first and only goal of this World Cup latching on to a nice pass from Ever Banega and finished off in style. Victor Moses equalized for Nigeria on a penalty early in the second half, and Argentina looked to be on their way out when Marcos Rojo saved them four minutes from the end.

        In Rostov, Iceland lost 2-1 to Croatia's second string line-up and bowed out of their first World Cup with the point they earned against Argentina. Croatia won the group with three wins and booked a place in the next round against Denmark. Argentina grabbed the second place spot and would face France.

    (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia)

        Costa Rica, the surprise package from four years ago, met Serbia in the opening game of this group. In a tight contest, Aleksandar Kolarov became the match-winner for Serbia with a splendid free-kick goal in the second half.

        Brazil, the only country to have appeared in every World Cup, met Switzerland in their first match. After being carried off the field severely injured in the quarter-final of the home World Cup in 2014, Neymar had his sight set on Russia 2018 for redemption, but his World Cup participation was in jeopardy back in February when he suffered a foot injury in a club match for PSG. Thankfully, Brazil's star man recovered in time. Against Switzerland it was his team-mate Coutinho who stole the limelight with a cracking goal. But Switzerland, ranked 6th by FIFA before the World Cup, came back and equalized with a header from Steven Zuber. The draw meant Brazil had failed to win their World Cup opener for the first time since 1978 (1-1 vs Sweden). Valon Behrami became the first Swiss player to appear in four World Cups.

        Brazil's next match was against Costa Rica. It turned out to be a frustrating game with Keylor Navas stopping everything. Neymar was involved in a penalty incident denied by VAR after Dutch referee Kuipers had a look at it. Time was about to run out when Coutinho finally scored in injury time. Neymar added a second in the 97th minute, the latest ever goal scored in a World Cup game in regulation time. These late goals effectively eliminated Costa Rica from the competition with a game left.

        Controversies were sparked in the group's key match between Switzerland and Serbia regarding goal celebrations. The Swiss won 2-1, with the winning goal coming in the last minute, but both of their goalscorers with Kosovo-Albanian roots, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, were fined 10,000 Swiss francs for doing the double-headed eagle gesture, symbolizing Albanian nationalism to some people.

        Brazil secured top spot in the group with a comfortable 2-0 win against Serbia. Paulinho and Thiago Silva scored the goals that took Brazil through from the group stage for the 13th straight time (since 1970) and a date with Mexico in the round of 16.

        Because of the development in the other match, Switzerland's spot in the knock-out stage was not in danger. They could afford to throw away the lead twice against an already eliminated Costa Rican side, without getting worried. The match ended 2-2 with a bizarre penalty goal in injury time. Bryan Ruiz's effort hit the bar, before bouncing off Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer and into the net. It was only the third own-goal by a goalkeeper in World Cup history. Switzerland would play Sweden in the next round.

    (Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea)

        The defending champions Germany started their campaign at the ground they hoped to defend their title in the final a month later; the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. But their energetic opponents Mexico had other plans. In a well executed counter-attack, Hirving Lozano gave the Central Americans the lead before half-time. The Germans could not recover, and lost their opening match for the first time since 1982 (vs Algeria). Supporters jumping for joy back in Mexico shook the ground hard enough to set off earthquake detectors. Mexico's Rafael Marquez equalled countryman Antonio Carbajal and Germany's Lothar Matthäus of appearing in five World Cups.

        Sweden beat South Korea 1-0 after a penalty from stalwart defender Andreas Granqvist. VAR once again interfered after the referee first waved play on for the foul on Viktor Claesson. Having struggled in the warm-up matches, this was Sweden's first goal in international football in over 400 minutes. It was also their first win in a World Cup opener since 1958 when they hosted the tournament.

        Mexico beat South Korea 2-1 in round two, featuring Javier Hernandez's 50th international goal after Carlos Vela first had given them the lead from the penalty spot. Heung-Min Son scored a fine goal for the Koreans in stoppage time, but to no avail.

        There was big drama in Sochi for the game between Sweden and Germany. Ola Toivonen gave the Swedes the lead with a nice chip after 32 minutes. Marco Reus equalized shortly after the interval. Jerome Boateng was then sent off after 82 minutes with two yellow cards just a few minutes apart. Germany's future in the World Cup looked very dark, but a superb 95th minute goal from Toni Kroos after a clever free-kick move on the left side of the penalty area, gave the Germans a much needed win.

        On the final matchday, Sweden played Mexico in a game that had the fastest ever booking. Jesus Gallardo was shown the yellow card after only 15 seconds. We had to wait 50 minutes for the first goal though. A missed shot from Viktor Claesson turned into a perfect assist to Ludwig Augustinsson for Sweden's first goal. Captain Granqvist scored the second from the penalty spot, before an own-goal by Edson Alvarez settled the scoreline at 3-0. Mexico thought they had blown the chance to reach the last sixteen, but received surprising help from South Korea.

        Two goals in injury time meant a 2-0 win for the Koreans against a stunned German team. There was no pleasant home coming for the eliminated Koreans though. Eggs were hurled at them at the airport in Incheon. Mexico qualified for the knock-out stage for the seventh consecutive time, Brazil the opponents this time. Sweden topped the group and now faced Switzerland in the next round.

        Germany crashed out of the World Cup in the preliminary round for the first time since 1938. Just weeks before the World Cup started, Joachim Löw extended his contract until Qatar 2022. The president of the German FA backed Löw by saying he would be staying on in the job regardless of the outcome in the Korea game. Löw was also criticized by many people for not selecting Manchester City star Leroy Sane in the squad. Key players like Jerome Boateng, Thomas Müller, Sami Khedira, and Mesut Özil all underperformed, and the team lacked a reliable striker who could turn all the possession football into goals. Özil in particular was attacked in the media by everybody from random fans, to politicians and ex-players, and decided to retire from the national team. Germany joined the list of recent champions failing at the first hurdle as title defenders like France 2002, Italy 2010 and Spain 2014.

    (Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama)

        Panama made their World Cup debut in 2018. There was an emotional moment on Panamanian television with hosts and presenters hugging and crying when they saw their national anthem being played at a World Cup stadium for the first time. On the field, Panama stood up well in the first half against one of the pre-tournament favourites, Belgium, third on the FIFA ranking. But when Dries Mertens' excellent dipping volley gave Belgium the lead early in the second half, there was no doubt where the three points would go. Romelu Lukaku added two more goals in a comfortable 3-0 win.

        A young England team started their campaign in Volgograd against Tunisia. Harry Kane spearheaded England's attack with the captain's armband and two goals in the 2-1 win. The winning goal came in injury-time, headed in from close range.

        Belgium clearly looked the superior team in this group and had no problems with Tunisia. The 5-2 win could have been more. Quality players in every position and with a few stand-out individuals such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to lead the way, this was a team people wanted to see against sterner opposition.

        The England World Cup fever started for real when the floodgates opened against Panama in game two. 5-0 up at half time, people wondered whether there could be a possible record win with double digits. In the end it stopped at 6-1, England's biggest win in a World Cup match, with Harry Kane getting a hat-trick, the third by an English player in World Cup history, and the first since Gary Lineker against Poland in 1986.

        This meant England and Belgium were through to the last sixteen before the final round of group matches and the match between them. Both teams fielded line-ups with mostly reserves. There was also a twist to the plot. The losing team would end up on the weaker half (on paper) of the knock-out stage set-up. Adnan Januzaj scored the game's only goal after 51 minutes. This was Belgium's first win against England since 1936. England would meet Colombia and Belgium would take on Japan in the next round.

        Tunisia beat Panama 2-1 in the match between the eliminated teams. Panama joined Egypt as the only country with three defeats in this World Cup.

    (Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan)

        Colombia were one of the positive surprises of the previous World Cup, but got a nightmare start against Japan in the opening game of this group when Carlos Sanchez was sent off after only three minutes when blocking Shinji Kagawa's goal-bound effort with his arm inside the penalty area. Kagawa converted the penalty. Colombia equalized before the break with a cheeky free-kick under the jumping wall by Juan Quintero. James Rodriguez, the top scorer of Brazil 2014, struggled with a slight calf injury picked up in training, and didn't start the match, but came on in the second half to bring more creativity to his outnumbered team-mates. However, Yuya Osako scored Japan's winning goal after 73 minutes. This was the first time an Asian team had beaten a South American team in World Cup history.

        Ranked 8th by FIFA before the tournament and with Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski to lead the team, many people thought Poland could do well in this World Cup, especially after being drawn in this favourable group. But Poland ran into problems against Senegal, who took the lead when Idrissa Gueye's shot deflected off Thiago Cionek for 1-0 after 37 minutes. Senegal doubled the lead through Mbaye Niang in the second half before Grzegorz Krychowiak pulled one back towards the end.

        Japan and Senegal then drew 2-2 in an entertaining game in Ekaterinburg. Japan came from behind twice to salvage a point. Keisuke Honda scored the last goal making him the top scoring Asian player in World Cup history with four goals.

        James Rodriguez was back in the starting line-up when Colombia outclassed Poland 3-0. He set up the first goal for Yerry Mina and the third for Juan Cuadrado. Radamel Falcao scored the second. As in both their previous two World Cup participations in 2002 and 2006, Poland suffered elimination already after two matches.

        With nothing but pride at stake, Poland won their last match 1-0 against Japan. In the other match, Colombia beat Senegal 1-0 after a powerful header by Yerry Mina 16 minutes from time. This result put Colombia on top in the group and an encounter with England in the next round.

        With Japan and Senegal equal on points and goals, we had a new tie-breaker in use; the Fair play rule. Since Japan had picked up four yellow cards and Senegal six, the Asian team progressed to the round of sixteen and a meeting with Belgium. Senegal's elimination meant Africa would be without representation after the first round group stage for the first time since 1982.

    ROUND OF 16
    (Fra-Arg, Uru-Por, Spa-Rus, Cro-Den, Bra-Mex, Bel-Jpn, Swe-Swi, Col-Eng)

        The knock-out stage got off to a cracking start when France met Argentina in Kazan. This was one of the best matches in the tournament. One teenager stood out as the star of the show; Kylian Mbappé of France. Early in the first half, he picked up the ball deep into the French half and ran a full 70 yards in full sprint before he was brought down illegally by Marcos Rojo - penalty given. Antoine Griezmann gave France 1-0 from the spot. Angel Di Maria equalized shortly before half time with a wonderful left footed shot from long range. Shortly after the interval, Argentina took the lead when an effort from Lionel Messi was diverted into the net by Gabriel Mercado.

        France fought back and their youthful full-backs played leading roles when Didier Deschamps' men levelled the score after 57 minutes. Lucas Hernandez crossed from the left over to Benjamin Pavard on the right, who struck the ball sweetly with the outside of the right foot bending into the far corner. This was later voted Goal of the Tournament. Shortly after, Mbappé took centre stage and put the game beyond Argentina with two quick goals, the latter after a wonderful counter-attack move. Substitute Sergio Agüero scored a consolation goal in injury-time set up by Messi, but France won deservedly 4-3 in this rollercoaster game.

        Later that night in Sochi, Portugal lost to Uruguay which meant the two most iconic footballers in the world over the last decade, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, had been eliminated from the World Cup on the same day with two weeks left of the tournament. At the age of 31 and 33 respectively, both had now starred in four World Cups without any of them scoring a goal in the knock-out stage. In Sochi, it was Edinson Cavani who was the hero with two great goals. The first came after seven minutes when he started the move and got at the end of a perfect cross from Luis Suarez with a bullet header. After Pepe equalized for Portugal ten minutes after the break, Cavani scored the match-winning goal just after the hour with a curled shot outside the reach of goalkeeper Rui Patricio. The only blemish on a great night was Cavani limping off injured fifteen minutes from time. Uruguay had now won four matches in a row in a World Cup for the first time since the road to their title in 1930.

        The following day Spain met hosts Russia on Luzhniki in Moscow and took the lead after 12 minutes after a bizarre own-goal. A free-kick from Isco was whipped into the penalty area and hit veteran defender Sergey Ignashevich on the heel when he was busy wrestling Sergio Ramos to the ground in the penalty box. The ball flew into the net past a helpless Igor Akinfeev. A clumsy handball by Gerard Pique gave Russia a penalty in the 41st minute which Artem Dzyuba converted. Spain struggled to create much in this game. Their slow tempo possession football failed to rip up the rigid Russian defence. Aleksandr Erokhin came on as the first ever fourth substitute in extra time, but nothing could stop this match from going to penalties. Akinfeev became the hero in the shoot-out shutting out Koke and Aspas. Yet another big favourite sent home on an early flight. Russia cruised on to the last eight against all pre-tournament odds.

        Also the second game that day went to penalties. Croatia and Denmark met in Nizhny Novgorod and the goals in regulation time came before many spectators had found their seats. Mathias Jřrgensen gave Denmark the lead in the first minute after some goalmouth scramble following a long throw-in from Jonas Knudsen. Mario Mandzukic levelled the score from close range three minutes later after the ball pinballed around in the penalty box. Croatia could have won the game deep into extra-time when they were awarded a penalty after Ante Rebic was fouled by Mathias Jřrgensen, but Luka Modric's attempt was stopped by Kasper Schmeichel. However, in the shoot-out Modric was one of three Croatian goal-scorers when they ran out 3-2 winners. Christian Eriksen was one of the Danes failing from the spot.

        Brazil had few problems with Mexico on the third day of the first knock-out round. Neymar shone brightly and was a key man behind both goals in the 2-0 win. He gave Brazil the lead after 51 minutes from close range. He first set up Willian with a clever heel-kick and got the ball in return in front of goal to score. Two minutes from the end, Neymar's effort on goal was partially saved by Ochoa before Roberto Firmino followed up to score. After a fine start in the World Cup, Mexico faded and were eliminated in the round of 16 for a remarkable seventh time in a row (since 1994).

        Few people pointed out Belgium-Japan as a possible World Cup classic when the knock-out stage set-up was ready, but what a game they produced in Rostov that night. After a cautious first half without goals, everything changed after the interval. Japan scored two quick goals early in the second half. Gaku Shibasaki sent Genki Haraguchi through on goal and the latter fired the ball perfectly past Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for 1-0. A few minutes later, passive Belgian defenders allowed Takashi Inui to rifle home a low drive inside Courtois' left hand post for 2-0. Would Belgium's golden generation underachieve in a major tournament yet again?

        Coach Roberto Martinez brought on Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini midway through the second half, and that helped turn the game. But it was Jan Vertonghen's goal after 69 minutes, a wicked looping header from out wide in the penalty area, which brought the game to life again. Five minutes later, Eden Hazard crossed perfectly to Fellaini who equalized with a header. Three minutes into stoppage time, Keisuke Honda's free-kick forced Courtois to make a good save. On the following corner, Courtois collected the ball, rolled it out to Kevin De Bruyne for a quick counter-attack. The Manchester City star found Thomas Meunier on the right who crossed it directly to Romelu Lukaku who let it run for Chadli to score in the final seconds. This was the first time a team had come from two or more goals down to win in regulation time in the knock-out stage of a World Cup since Portugal beat North Korea in 1966 (0-3 to 5-3).

        Sweden beat Switzerland 1-0 in Saint Petersburg in the first game on the last day of this round. The Swedes wasted some great chances early on, but took the lead after 66 minutes with an Emil Forsberg shot that was deflected past Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer. In injury-time, substitute Martin Olsson one-on-one with the goalkeeper, was judged to be brought down inside the penalty area by Michael Lang. The referee pulled it back outside the area after consulting VAR. Lang was sent off. Sweden progressed to the quarter-final, their first since 1994.

        The England vs Colombia match in Moscow was the last in the round of sixteen and the third to go to penalties. A frustrated James Rodriguez was not fit to feature in this game, but had to watch from the sideline. The eventual golden boot winner, Harry Kane gave England the lead on a penalty after 57 minutes - his sixth goal in the tournament. This looked to be the winner until Colombia won a corner in the last minute of stoppage time. For the third game in a row, defender Yerry Mina rose high to head home an important goal for Colombia - this time taking the game to extra-time. No goals followed in the extra half hour of football. Penalties loomed, and Gareth Southgate's extra preparation on this type of challenge paid off. After losing on penalties three times in the World Cup over the years, England this time emerged successfully 5-3. Eric Dier scored the deciding penalty.

    (Uru-Fra, Bra-Bel, Swe-Eng, Rus-Cro)

        Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, now in his fourth World Cup, could not select Edinson Cavani for the game against France in Nizhny Novgorod because of the injury the PSG striker picked up against Portugal. It was a blow to Uruguay and to the game that lost an attraction. France took the lead after 40 minutes with a glancing header from centre-back Raphael Varane after a free-kick from Antoine Griezmann. Just minutes later, Uruguay had a similar set-piece opportunity at the other end of the field, but French keeper Hugo Lloris produced one of the best saves in the tournament to stop Martin Caceres' header. France virtually secured the win after 61 minutes when Griezmann's shot was fumbled into the net by Fernando Muslera. The Uruguayan goalkeeper had had a fine tournament up until then.

        In Kazan later that night, Brazil and Belgium delivered one of the best matches in the World Cup. The difference on the day was efficiency. Belgium took the lead after 13 minutes when Nacer Chadli's corner was headed in by Vincent Kompany via Fernandinho's shoulder. The red devils doubled their lead after half an hour when Romelu Lukaku's splendid work set up Kevin De Bruyne who fired a bullet past Alisson. The second half was more one-sided with Brazil running the show, but they found no way past Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois until substitute Renato Augusto scored in the 76th minute. Neymar had a shot brilliantly saved by Courtois in stoppage time, a match-winning moment. Considering the quality of the opposition and the stage in the tournament, this was arguably the greatest single win for Belgium ever. It took them to the semi-final for the first time since 1986. The poster boys of world football had fallen early in this World Cup one by one. Now it was Neymar's turn.

        The following day, England took on Sweden in Samara. It turned out to be a more comfortable win than expected for England. Sweden had been a tough nut to crack over the last couple of years. They qualified from a group with France and Netherlands and then knocked out Italy in the UEFA play-offs, but Janne Andersson's men couldn't reach that level against England. Marcus Berg up front struggled with inefficiency throughout the entire tournament, so too in this game. England took the lead after 30 minutes when Harry Maguire headed in a corner from Ashley Young. The second goal came on the hour when Dele Alli headed in a cross from Jesse Lingard. England progressed to their first semi-final since 1990.

        Russia and Croatia met in the last quarter-final in Sochi. Both teams advanced to the quarter-final on penalties, and they were forced down that route yet again this night. Denis Cheryshev gave the home team the lead with a cracking goal from long distance after a nice one-two with Artem Dzyuba. Croatia levelled the score before half time when Andrej Kramaric headed in a pass from Mario Mandzukic. Ivan Perisic had a shot against the post in the second half, but the game went to extra-time. A corner from Luka Modric after 101 minutes was headed into the net through a crowd of players by Domagoj Vida. But Russia had one more reply. Mario Fernandes made it 2-2 five minutes from time with a header after a free-kick from Alan Dzagoev. Croatia won 4-3 on penalties with Ivan Rakitic scoring the winner for the second straight shoot-out.

    (Fra-Bel, Cro-Eng)

        The last four without Germany or Brazil hadn't happened since the inaugural World Cup in 1930, and only France of the current four had been in a World Cup semi-final since the turn of the millennium. The first semi-final night in Saint Petersburg was a tight contest between France and Belgium decided by a single goal shortly after the interval. Defender Samuel Umtiti steered home a header from a Griezmann corner. Both goalkeepers, Lloris and Courtois, made some excellent saves keeping the score low. Belgium dominated possession, but France always looked dangerous on the break and created most of the big scoring chances. Belgium's unbeaten run of 24 matches (since September 2016) came to an end. France marched on to the World Cup final, their third in history.

        The following night in Moscow was more dramatic. England took an early lead through Kieran Trippier on a beautiful free-kick, his first ever goal for his country. Croatia didn't panic. They had been behind against Denmark and Russia in previous rounds and still won. After half an hour, Harry Kane wasted a double chance to put England two up. Croatia dominated the game in the second half with Luka Modric pulling the strings, and equalized after 68 minutes when Ivan Perisic beat Kyle Walker to the ball after a cross from Sime Vrsaljko. A few minutes later, England escaped when Perisic hit the post. The game went to extra-time and John Stones had a header cleared off the line by Vrsaljko. After 109 minutes, English defenders hesitated for a second and were punished when Perisic headed the ball in behind the defence for Mario Mandzukic to score the winner from close range. Croatia became the thirteenth country to reach a World Cup final and population wise the smallest since Uruguay in 1950.

    (Belgium - England)

        The Belgians were on fire from start in the bronze medal match. Thomas Meunier was suspended in the semi-final against France, but the wing-back needed only four minutes to cut in from the right and score after a good pass from Nacer Chadli. Meunier was the tenth Belgian player to score in this World Cup, equalling the record number of goalscorers for one team in one tournament of France in 1982 and Italy in 2006. Belgium looked the better team on the day, but England could have equalized midway through the second half when Eric Dier chipped the goalkeeper, but Toby Alderweireld cleared away the ball on the goal line. Eden Hazard put the game beyond England when he scored one-on-one with Jordan Pickford after a pass from Kevin De Bruyne. Belgium secured third place, their best ever World Cup performance. They won six matches without winning the tournament, which had only happened three times before (Poland 1974, Italy 1990 and Netherlands 2010). Back home in Brussels the team received a heroes' welcome as if they had won the World Cup. Finally, the golden generation had delivered on the biggest stage. Also in England, fans re-connected and found new appreciation for the national team which hadn't been there for years.

    (France - Croatia)

        The World Cup Finals have been close and defensive contests in the modern era, often decided on penalties or late goals in low scoring games in extra-time. France's 4-2 win against Croatia in Moscow changed that. Six goals hadn't been scored in regulation time since 1958. It was a worthy end to a very good World Cup. Set-piece goals had been one of the main talking points in this tournament. It was fitting that France took the lead through one of those. Antoine Griezmann curled a free-kick into the penalty area after 18 minutes to an unlucky Mario Mandzukic steering the ball into his own net with the back of his head, the first ever own-goal in a World Cup final.

        The Croatians were famous for their come-backs, and it took only ten minutes for them to reply. France struggled to get the ball away in the penalty box and Domagoj Vida found Ivan Perisic who launched a powerful shot with his left foot past Hugo Lloris. Drama followed a few minutes later when France won a penalty after a VAR decision. Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana first waved play on, but changed his mind after looking at the pictures of Perisic handling the ball. Griezmann converted the penalty.

        After 59 minutes, Paul Pogba scored with a left foot shot from outside the box after his first attempt had been blocked. Six minutes later, Kylian Mbappé sealed France's triumph with another long range effort, a low drive with his right foot. Mbappé became the first teenager since Pelé in 1958 to score a goal in a World Cup final. Croatia got a consolation goal in the 69th minute when Mandzukic stole the ball from Lloris who tried to dribble him. Mandzukic became only the second player in history to score a goal and an own-goal in the same World Cup match, and the first to do so in a final.

        France deservedly won the World Cup, their second title. The traditional powerhouse teams disappeared one after another at an early stage, some already in the qualifiers, but France upheld a high standard despite losing key defender Laurent Koscielny before the tournament. The defensive backbone remained solid, and excellent individuals in all areas of the pitch mastering various styles, laid the foundation to their triumph. France could rest with the ball in the team, could counter-attack and were strong on set-pieces. In the latter stages, France often let the opponents have more of the ball. Didier Deschamps became the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and coach (after Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo).

        Luka Modric won the Golden Ball as best player in the tournament. This was the fifth time in the last six World Cups that a player from the losing finalists picked up that award. Kylian Mbappé won best young player award, Thibaut Courtois of Belgium best goalkeeper and England's Harry Kane the golden boot as top scorer. Russia delivered an excellent World Cup from an organizational point of view. More than three million spectators made sure the stadiums were mostly full.



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