It seems a lifetime ago given all that’s happened since, but 12 months ago the 21st FIFA World Cup kicked off in Russia, a tournament that would see France win their second-ever star.
Kylian Mbappé truly announced himself by following in Pele’s footsteps, becoming the first teenager since ‘O Rei’ to score in a final, while Harry Kane ended up with the Golden Boot.
The prolific marksman equalled Gary Lineker’s feat in 1986 and, unlike his compatriot, would reach the semi-finals. Gareth Southgate’s men, however, were not able to overcome Croatia, who edged them in extra time.
Aside from emerging stars, and the greats cementing their legacies, there were plenty of interesting moments and incidents that went under the radar or forgotten.
Here are some of those.
1. Ronaldo grew a goatee
The debate as to who football’s ‘G.O.A.T.’ (or Greatest of All Time) remains open. There isn’t a universal answer. For some, it’s the aforementioned Pelé. Others say Diego Maradona, both of whom lifted the game’s biggest prize. Heading into Russia another contender, Lionel Messi, posed with the farm animal whose named is spelled out by the aforementioned acronym.
That might have perturbed contemporary rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who rubbed his chin during Portugal’s opening 3-3 draw with a dishevelled Spain, which saw him bag a sensational hat-trick. Next time out against Morocco he sported a goatee. Being a cynical bunch, this may have been Ronaldo’s way of making his feelings on the GOAT debate known.
On the record, he claims the look was actually a joke between him and international teammate Ricardo Quaresma.
“We were in the sauna and I was shaving, I left a goatee and told him if I scored vs Spain, I won’t shave it until the end of the World Cup,” Ronaldo told reporters.
“It brought good luck and I scored vs Spain and today vs Morocco, so I’ll keep it!”
2. Goalkeepers hated the ball
It wouldn’t be a major tournament without discussions over the actual ball used. And we got plenty of that heading into the Russian showpiece event. A number of the world’s leading shot-stoppers gave their honest opinion about the Adidas Telstar 18, which celebrated the iconic Telstar’s 50th anniversary.
David de Gea, who didn’t exactly cover himself in glory for Spain that summer, questioned the new ball, stating it was “really strange” and “could have been made a lot better”. Marc-Andre ter Stegen echoed those sentiments, adding “we’re just going to have to get used to working with it and try to get to grips with it as quickly as possible before the World Cup starts”. He wouldn’t play a single minute as defending champions Germany embarrassingly crashed out in the group phase.
3. VAR love?
This championship will forever be remembered for FIFA taking the next step in helping officials by rolling out the video assistant referee (VAR); for so many this was their first real introduction, and to say it caused plenty of talking points would be an understatement. Even before it’s debut there was a backlash, some folks believing it would hinder the game’s flow while others suggested it would create more confusion than clarity.
Fifa deemed the experiment to be a success. No red cards were issued across the opening 11 games and no fewer than four players were sent off in the entire tournament, the fewest since 1978. The increase in spot-kicks awarded (29, beating the record of 17 in 1998) was in part credited to VAR spotting fouls that would have gone unpunished. Of course, not everyone fell in love, but ultimately the right steps towards ensuring fewer controversial moments were made.
4. Mohammadi’s attempted flip throw-in
There’s no bigger stage to showcase ingenuity than a World Cup finals. We’ve seen plenty of examples in the past and Russia 2018 was no different. That being said, it’s not always going to be alright on the night. Iranian full-back Milad Mohammadi can vouch for that. During his side’s must-win game against Spain, he’d try out something that could be described as spectacular; in the final minute of stoppage time, with La Roja leading 1-0, he lined-up a throw.
No one watching at that exact moment could have foreseen what followed. Instead of launching the ball into the box, which his teammates and manager Carlos Queiroz expected, Mohammadi decided to somersault with the ball in hand, something which has been done before. But just before executing it he stopped, composed himself, and decided to undertake an orthodox approach. All this chicanery deprived Iran of 30 valuable seconds.
Throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark, who became famous after Liverpool employed him, would go on to praise him for showing courage and encouraged Mohammadi after linking-up at Belgian outfit Gent.
Can you remember this throw-in from the World Cup?
Milad redeemed himself and nailed it yesterday on Gents training camp 👊🔝 LOOK UNDER THE GIF 👀👇#miladmohammadi #throwincoach #welldone https://t.co/rb8GBBLyp9 pic.twitter.com/fnTLUjEpj2
— Thomas Gronnemark (@ThomasThrowin) January 10, 2020
“After Milad had been doing this flip throw-in attempt at the World Cup game Iran against Spain in the overtime, a lot of people were laughing all over the world because he didn’t do it,” he recently told Squawka’s Jake Entwistle.
“And a lot of journalists were contacting me and saying ‘Oh, don’t you think it was funny?’. No! Of course I can see it’s a funny situation, of course I’m a human like everyone else but I said I just think he was totally brave to have the courage to do that one minute before the game ends. It was fantastic, but of course he didn’t do it so that’s the way it is.
“I’m also coaching Gent from Belgium and I’ve been coaching them the last two seasons. This summer, I think it was August or September, Jess Thorup the head coach from Gent, said to me: ‘Hey, we bought a new full-back and his name is Milad from Iran’. ‘Milad’, I said, ‘Oh that’s amazing, that’s the guy who…’ and then I told him about his experience at the World Cup.
“So, I was together with Gent in a training camp in Oliva in Spain here in January and of course the main focus was normal, long, fast and clever throw-in all around the pitch, but then I took Milad to the side and said to him, ‘We’ll work on your flip throw-in because I thought it was fantastic what you did at the World Cup – even if it didn’t really work”.
5. Viva Peru
Everyone loves supporting an underdog and in Russia 2018 that honour belonged to Peru, playing in their first World Cup since 1982, and they made a good fist of it. Placed in a group featuring eventual champions France, Australia and Denmark, very few counted on them escaping Group C, but they came real close.
Ricardo Gareca’s men finished third, two points behind runners-up Denmark, whom they lost to in their opening game. They’d push France to the limit, suffering another 1-0 defeat, before running out 2-0 winners over Australia. By then, Peru’s undeniable fighting spirit had won over neutrals.
6. Caballero’s moment to forget
Willy Caballero has been part of Argentina’s national team picture since 2005 but only has five international caps to show for it. Two of those appearances came in Russia, but it was his second game against Croatia that many remember, for all the wrong reasons. Up until Ante Rebic putting Zlatko Dalić’s men in front, eight minutes after the break, the former Manchester City shot-stopper had a reasonable outing.
That changed when he decided to be clever with a Gabriel Mercado back-pass; instead of launching the ball up-field, he decided to chip the onrushing Rebic, only for the ball to Croatia’s winger who expertly volleyed the would-be finalists into the lead. It was a mistake that led to unfortunate messages.
“With the mistake for Croatia’s goal I went to lift it to give it to Toto Salvio, but I hit the ground,” he told TNT Sports.
“The ball had an unexpected effect and it went to Rebic. Everyone thought I wanted to chip it but it wasn’t like that; I never hit a ball like that in my life.
“I wanted to lift it and hit it long because the two strikers were coming. The day after my mistake at the World Cup, everyone had my number. I did not have a good time.
“Very extreme messages were sent to me, including death threats. And they made me think a lot about my family and my future.”
7. Kante’s humility shines through
The last half-decade has seen N’Golo Kanté emerge and cement himself as one of Europe’s premier defensive midfielders. His relentless energy was the cornerstone behind Leicester City’s historic championship success and that carried through at Chelsea and the French national team. Kanté became such a beloved figure with his teammates and fans, that he was personally given a rendition of a song penned in his honour to the tune of Les Champs-Elysees as France lifted the trophy.
The Parisian remains such a humble figure that after Les Bleus triumphed in Moscow at Croatia’s expense he was reportedly too shy to ask for the World Cup trophy as Didier Deschamps’ side celebrated. Steven Nzonzi took it on himself to bring Kanté the spoils which became an instant heartwarming moment.
8. Batshuayi’s ‘goal celebration’
— Michy Batshuayi (@mbatshuayi) June 28, 2018
Belgium enjoyed their best showing at a World Cup finals by finishing third, but given the calibre of their squad, it could — and should — have resulted in a more successful outcome. They finished as the competition’s top scorers with 16 goals, shared between 10 players (and one own goal). Among them was Michy Batshuayi, but his effort against Tunisia is not what people remember of him at the tournament.
No, it was how the Chelsea man celebrated after Adnan Januzaj scored past England in the group phase. Batshuayi would pick up the ball, with the intention of blasting it into the net. Instead it ricocheted off the post and hit him square in the face before. Never a dull moment involving Batsman.
9. Neymar’s hair day
This was going to be Neymar’s tournament, come hell or high water. The extremely-gifted Brazil forward saw his 2014 championship, played on home soil, come to a premature end after suffering injury. He entered Russia 2018 having nursed another knock, but it was going to be alright on the night. Or so he thought.
It proved to be another frustrating tournament, with Neymar making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His choice of hairstyle — blonde curls that many compared to spaghetti — also grabbed attention with Manchester United legend Eric Cantona paying homage the only way he can.