By Colin Giuliani// Sports Editor
The 2018 World Cup in Russia was full of surprises. Croatia, a team that was in turmoil nine months before the tournament, fired its manager and was on the brink of failing to qualify and advance to the finals for the first time. Germany, a team that had made it to the semifinals in each of the past four tournaments, failed to make it out of the group stage and finished dead last in its group. Also, Russia, a team that entered the tournament ranked 70th in the FIFA Rankings, made it to the quarterfinals, becoming the lowest-ranked team of all-time to make it to this stage. Here are four of the major takeaways from the most recent edition of the World Cup.
France wins its’ second title
While the World Cup had its’ fair share of surprises, the champion came as a shock to very few people, like France, one of the favorites entering the World Cup, defeated Croatia 4-2 in the finals to win its’ second World Cup ever, and its first since 1998. During the group stage, France left much to be desired, scoring three goals in three matches, and scoring one goal from the run of play. However, in the knockout stage, France’s offense got going, scoring four goals against Argentina, and 11 goals in the four knockout matches. The two men leading the charge were Antoine Griezmann, who finished the tournament with four goals and won the Bronze Ball for being the third best player at the tournament, and Kylian Mbappe, a 19-year old who scored four goals and won the Best Young Player Award. Mbappe scored France’s final goal at the World Cup and became just the second teenager to ever score in a World Cup final alongside Brazilian legend Pele.
France’s run atop the world might not be ending anytime soon, as of the 11 players to start in the final, seven of them will be under the age of 30 by the time the 2022 World Cup hits. Between their second-place performance at Euro 2016 and their winning performance at the 2018 World Cup, France has a chance to cement itself as the world’s next dynasty.
VAR: The Next Big Thing
One of the central questions entering the 2018 World Cup was how the video assistant referee, or VAR, would influence the game. For the first time at a World Cup, referees could pause the game to look at the replay and could use this to determine whether or not a goal was offside, whether or not a penalty kick should be in play, or whether or not a penalty decision should be disallowed. Would VAR slow the game down and ruin the flow of the game? As it turns out, not at all. As the first implementation of VAR at the World Cup, it was a smashing success. While the usage of VAR led to 29 penalty kicks being awarded (by comparison, just 13 penalty kicks were given at the 2014 World Cup), the usage of this technology overturned a lot of bad decisions, and did so quickly, as the average review time was 80 seconds.
Pierluigi Collina, the chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, stated that the percentage of correct calls made by officials jumped from 95 percent to 99.3 percent with the use of VAR. Collina added, “we would have preferred to speak of 100 percent, but 99.3 is something that is very, very close to perfection.” The implementation of VAR was widely considered to be a success and will be something that will be improved upon for future tournaments. For a first step, though, it was surprisingly good.
Germany and the Champions Curse
Perhaps the biggest shock of the 2018 World Cup was the failure of Germany to advance out of the group stage. While many pegged Group F as the Group of Death, as the group consisted of Sweden and Mexico alongside the defending World Cup champions, nobody saw the Germans failing to make it out of the group. After the first two matches, all Germany had to do to advance to the round of 16 was defeat South Korea; before the match, Germany had gone 6-0-0 against Asian opponents at the World Cup and had won these matches by a combined score of 23-3. However, after a shock 2-0 loss, Germany was eliminated from the group stage for the first time and was out in the first round for the first time since 1938.
While Germany did not enter the World Cup in great form (they had won just one of their previous six matches entering the tournament, and had failed to keep a clean sheet in five out of those six matches), there is something to be said about the “Champions Curse.” Since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998, four of the five champions were eliminated in the group stage. After winning the World Cup in 1998, France finished last in its’ group in 2002, including a 1-0 loss to Senegal, widely considered to be one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. After winning the World Cup in 2006, Italy finished last in its group in 2010. And after winning the World Cup in 2010, Spain failed to advance out of the group stage in 2014, despite winning its previous three major international tournaments (European Championships in 2008, World Cup in 2010, European Championships in 2012). There are many reasons for the Champions Curse, from complacency to a rather conservative squad selection (relying heavily on players that won the previous World Cup instead of younger players); however, when this trend happens four times in the past five tournaments, then it is something worth acknowledging. Joachim Low, somewhat surprisingly, is going to stay on as the manager of Germany despite the team’s early exit, so it will be interesting to see if he can right the ship in the coming months. If he cannot, however, then to say he is sitting on the hot seat would be a massive understatement.
The Best World Cup Ever
By all accounts, the 2018 FIFA World Cup has a pretty good argument for being called the greatest World Cup of all-time. There were 169 goals scored across all 64 matches, which was the second highest total in World Cup history (there were 179 goals scored at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil), and out of 64 matches, only one (a group stage match between France and Denmark) ended in a scoreless draw. The tournament started with a bang, as the first 36 matches of the tournament featured at least one scored goal, which set the record for most consecutive matches with a goal to start the World Cup (the previous record was 26, set back at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland). It ended on a bang too, as the final match featured six goals, which was the highest scoring final since 1966 when England defeated West Germany 4-2; for perspective, the previous two World Cup finals ended with 1-0 score lines.
There was controversy about Russia before the commencement of the tournament, including allegations that Russia bribed its way into hosting, the lack of LGBT rights, and incidents at previous soccer games in Russia of fans making racist chants directed towards black players. However, to the surprise of many, the World Cup went remarkably well. Former German midfielder and 1990 World Cup champion Lothar Matthaus stated, “this is one of the best World Cups I have seen in the last 40 years.” Steve Rosenberg of BBC News stated, “in more than 20 years of living in Moscow, I cannot remember a time when the city has felt more relaxed, more cosmopolitan, more welcoming… Russia has come across as friendly and hospital: a stark contrast with the country’s authoritarian image.” And Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, stated that the 2018 World Cup was “the best World Cup ever.”
Some fans have even called the 2018 World Cup the last traditional World Cup of all-time, as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will take place in the winter, and every World Cup from 2026-on will consist of 48 teams. If this is the last World Cup as soccer fans know it, then looking back on it, they saved the best for last.