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Russia 2018: A World Cup of Surprises

The 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup, hosted in Russia, will remain in the hearts of football lovers all over the world as one tournament filled with surprises from the beginning to the end. The football world was treated to one-month of suspense from Eastern Europe, where every prediction made turned out wrong.

The surprises started right from the first kick of the ball on 14th June. The opening matches of the World Cup over the years have recorded low score lines of a draw, or a slim win, but nobody expected what the 2018 opening fixture had to offer. Russia, the lowest ranked team, going into the World Cup, stunned the whole world by beating Saudi Arabia 5-0 at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.

Yuri Gazinsky scored the first goal of the tournament with a fine header, after 12 minutes, before Denis Cheryshev, Artyom Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin all found the back of the net four different times, to break the Asian hearts.

The hosts would go on to reach the quarter-finals stage, for the first time in their World Cup history, triumphing over 2010 FIFA World Cup winners Spain in the round of sixteen, before Croatia got the better of them in the last eight.

At the Spartak stadium Moscow, two days after the opener, Argentina, two-time champions and a hot favourite to win the World Cup, were forced to a draw by new comers, Iceland.  Sergio Aguero had opened scoring for the La Albiceleste, and four minutes later, Alfreo Finnbogason equalized, scoring Iceland’s first ever World up goal.

But the shock of the day came at the 63rd minute, when superstar Lionel Messi was awarded a penalty to win the game for Argentina. Iceland goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson saved it, leaving Messi and the world stunned.

Argentina would go on to lose scandalously 3-0 to Croatia, and needed a last minute victory against Nigeria to advance to the round of sixteen, where they lost 4-2 to France.

Lionel Messi would love to forget Russia 2018 in a hurry, as it turned out a nightmare for him. Where his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo got four goal for Portugal in the tournament (which included a hat-trick against Spain on his first match day), the Argentine could only manage one goal, in the match against Nigeria.

Germany was tipped to defend their title the won at the last edition, on the last day of this year’s fiesta. But they recorded a shock 1-0 loss to Mexico on the opening day, Hirving Lozano scoring on the counter attack after 35 minutes.

Germany recovered with a last minute victory in the second match against Sweden, needing a draw in the last match against South Korea, but they lost 2-0, finishing last in the group, and thus, the tradition of a World Cup defending champion crashing out at the group stage, which began in 2002 with France (Brazil the only exemption in 2006), continued.

Spain, 2010 winners, as well as Portugal crashed out at the round of sixteen, after failing to get the better of Russia and Uruguay respectively. Brazil lost in the quarter-finals against dark-horses Belgium, Uruguay fell to France in the last eight, and England broke the voodoo of losing penalty shootouts, when they sent Colombia home in the round of sixteen.

Since 1982, Africa always had a representative at the knockout stage of the World Cup. That was not to be in 2018, as the five African representatives; Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal all crashed out at the group stages.

The Teranga lions had a close shave with qualification, having secured the same point and goal difference with Japan, but lost the place in the knock-out round with the introduction of the fair-play rule, that saw Senegal  receive six yellow cards in three group games, as against Japan been issued four.

Belgium, a team tagged the dark horses of the show ended up as the highest scoring team of the competition with 16 goals. They finished the World Cup as bronze medalist, Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard getting the job done for the Red Devils against England in Saint Petersburg.

The new world champion will either be France or Croatia, two teams least given a chance to shine in the showpiece. The Les Blues, 1998 World Cup winners, kicked off their campaign with two victories against Australia and Peru, securing a draw against Denmark in the group stages. They went on to beat South-American opponents, Argentina and Uruguay in the knockout stages and came out winner against Belgium in the semi-finals.

Croatia on their part, with massive support from their president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who was in the stands watching the players, and in the dressing room to celebrate with them, came out group winners with maximum nine points in the “group of death” that included Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland. They survived two penalty shoot-outs against Denmark and Russia in the knockouts, before needing extra-time to beat England.

A new champion will be crowned in the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, July 15th, to round up the World Cup of surprises. It is victory for Europe once again, as they retain the title since 2006. Will it be France or Croatia?

 

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