This was my ninth World Cup but it was one I went into with the least anticipation and excitement but once it all began in Russia it was business as usual for me. Watching all those films set in Russia beforehand for ‘On Screen #9‘ actually helped me to get in the mood even if the locals were presented in a negative fashion for the majority of them!
After 64 games, the tournament concluded with France beating Croatia in the final which they seemed to reach without really getting into top gear other than for patches against Argentina in the second round (or Round of 16 as people tend to call it these days!) in what was one of the best matches thanks to Kylian Mbappe (one of the players of the tournament) terrorising the defences with his pace. Even in the final they were fortunate to go ahead when Croatia seemed in control. They then got lucky with the VAR penalty decision in their favour before taking control in the second half and romping to a 4-2 win.
Past World Cup’s have usually only had one representative (at best) of Leicester City but this time there were ten foxes spread across six teams. There were three representatives for Nigeria, two for England and Portugal respectively, and one for each of Japan, Denmark and Tunisia. Whats more, they all got some game time.
Of course the two in my home country England’s squad were of most interest. It seemed clear going into Russia 2018 that striker Jamie Vardy was going to be a bit-part player and I wonder if he was even fit. Centre back Harry Maguire played every game and really was one of the stars of the team with the best moment being his opening goal in the 2-0 quarter final win over a lacklustre Swedish outfit.
The England team have really failed to capture the hearts and imagination of us English fans in tournaments gone by but this time was different. Expectations were low and most people thought quarter finals at best but Gareth Southgate, an appointment rightly questioned by many when he took the reins, did a great job in moulding together a young side that ultimately overachieved and got further than most expected.
This was all done whilst playing some really good football at times and totally reset the nations attitude towards the national team. Pride was regained and it was once again fun to watch a team that the fans could relate to. Given our terrible shoot-out record, the highlight had to be getting that monkey off our back and beating Colombia.
As someone who is quite into Japanese football, I naturally followed the fortunes of the Samurai Blue closely. I actually went to Thailand for the World Cup qualifying game in 2016 which got Japan’s campaign up and running and for their first match in Russia I made the effort to watch it in a bar as it was on at a decent time.
Silly hats and wigs were the order of the day for my friend Mostyn and I and it was a good atmosphere as things started and ended very well for the Japanese as they ran out 2-1 winners against Colombia.
Their next match was an exciting 2-2 draw with Senegal but that adjective could certainly not be used for their final match against Poland. With ten minutes to go the Poles were 1-0 up but still going out. In the other game, Colombia were beating Senegal 1-0 and as it stood Japan were sneaking through ahead of the african team on fair play (less yellow cards). The Japanese adapted a high risk strategy of shutting their game down by passing the ball back and forth between the defenders without any intent to attack. It really was not in the spirit of the game (ironic given they proceeded on fair play!) but it was one that ultimately worked. I was disgusted with it at the time but on reflection a day or two later I accepted that if England had done it successfully I probably wouldn’t have cared.
When Haraguchi and Inui put Japan two up against Belgium I really did start to believe that it was going to happen but Belgium clawed it back to 2-2 and extra time was on the cards. Then, Japan had a corner deep into injury time, and the negativity of the previous match turned into positively trying to win this one. It was a tactic that backfired spectacularly as Honda’s corner was caught by the keeper who rolled it out and before you knew it the ball was down the other end and in the back of the net with pretty much the last kick of an extraordinary game.
Like many others, I really enjoyed seeing Peru (and their amazing fans) at their first World Cup since 1978 and was glad to see they at least went out on a high with victory in their final match against a disappointing Australia side. Outside of the usual big teams from Europe and South America, I also liked the look of Morocco even if they did fail to win a match.
Elsewhere my allegiance was dependant on Leicester City players so I was keen to see Denmark progress (which actually isn’t anything new as I’ve long had a soft spot for the Danes) with Kasper Schmeichel between the sticks. He had a great tournament and only conceded one penalty during regulation time during their four games. He also saved a penalty in extra time against Croatia and then stopped another two in the subsequent shoot-out but still ended up on the losing side!
Elsewhere, two of my tournament highlights both came in Group F. Unlike many English fans, I don’t actually have too much of a problem with Germany but now I’ve got that disclaimer out of the way I have to say that their defeats to Mexico and South Korea were hugely enjoyable. The formers 1-0 victory against them was one of the best performances of the World Cup and reminiscent of the Leicester City title winning team of 2015-16 as they soaked up the German pressure and hit them with fast counter-attack play. The Korean victory was enjoyable for more comical reasons as German goalkeeper Neuer got dispossessed deep into the Korean half on the left wing, and Korea rounded off a 2-0 victory.
So the French are on top of the world again for the second time. I really hoped their opponents would be England but it wasn’t to be. Fair play to Croatia though who played extra time in their three knockout games prior to the showpiece occasion. It was a hugely enjoyable World Cup overall and the best one for a while but I guess things will be quite different in four years time when it’s in Qatar during the lead up to Christmas.
Click here to read Tokyo Fox’s World Cup 2014 Overview
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Click here to read ‘World Cup Opening Titles: Japan/Korea 2002’