14 winners, 14 losers from the 2018 World Cup, the best of the modern era

Now that the golden confetti has fallen – the rain-drenched medals draped, exuberant hugs exchanged, the Champs-Elysees overflowing with euphoria – we can comfortably pose the question: Was the 2018 World Cup the greatest World Cup ever?

We ask because of the drama. Because of the late goals and the upsets. Because of … well, everything. Everything you celebrated and lamented and debated and cursed and gawked at over the past month, paralyzed by the bewitching beauty of sport’s most captivating event.

The 2018 World Cup had it all. It had charm and wretchedness. Screamers and stunners. Underdogs exalted, others cruelly punished. Some giants toppled, others prosperous. Controversy, but not too much of it.

So with all due respect to the perils of recency bias, and to the old-timers who’d mount “back in my day” counterarguments, surely it was the best World Cup ever. Or at least of the modern era.

And that’s why the entities that staged it – the ones that will profit from it – lead our list of 28 winners and losers from the 2018 World Cup …

Winner: FIFA

The 2018 World Cup cycle was one of the worst, and certainly the most tumultuous, in FIFA’s modern history. A far-reaching corruption scandal had torpedoed its credibility to all-time lows. And with the next two editions of its banner event inextricably tied to two unpopular – and arguably unfit – countries, worry was genuine.

Soccer’s global governing body, therefore, desperately needed the 2018 World Cup to be a successful one. And it unquestionably was. Chinese sponsors came in at the 11th hour. World Cup revenue beat internal projections. FIFA’s yearly profit will reportedly exceed $1 billion, and quadrennial profit will exceed $100 million. The tournament itself was wonderful, likely boosting future prospects. And despite concern, the eyes of controversy mostly fell elsewhere, or nowhere at all, during the competition.

That’s not to say FIFA is an upstanding institution, nor that the World Cup’s success was primarily FIFA’s doing, nor that we shouldn’t hold FIFA accountable for its decision to award its crown jewel first to an evil quasi-dictatorship, then to a country that sponsors modern-day slavery. But nobody will benefit more from the 2018 World Cup than the organization whose name it bears.

Winners: Vladimir Putin and Russia

Putin won the World Cup before it was a day old, and in reality well before that. His nation temporarily quashed hooliganism and swathed its many other problems in a beautiful cloak called soccer. Oh, and its national team surpassed all expectations on the field, coming within one or two penalty kicks of the semifinals.

As with FIFA, this doesn’t absolve Putin and Russia of blame or criticism for everything from their foreign election meddling to their state-sponsored doping. But they will both derive extensive benefits from the past month.

Winner: France

The French were never quite who we wanted them to be. And in the end, it didn’t matter. They were themselves. And they’re world champions. Manager Didier Deschamps was vindicated. Players were validated.

They were a collection of individuals who in many cases were the polar opposites of one another, on the field and off it, but who came together to follow in the footsteps of their childhood heroes. They were Kylian Mbappe, the teen wunderkind with blinding pace and captivating skill, born to African immigrants in a notorious Paris suburb. They were Hugo Lloris, the uber-athletic goalkeeper and unifying captain, born to a lawyer and banker in the Mediterranean city of Nice. They were N’Golo Kante, the quiet, unheralded superstar with the disruptively loud game, and Paul Pogba, his midfield partner, stoic and calm in the face of criticism, flamboyant and brilliant all the same.

In Russia, and now forever, they were and are one.

Winner: Immigration

France’s unique beauty was its diversity – its distinct personalities and backgrounds, and the way they blended together. Les Bleus represented all of France – all cultures, all socio-economic classes. They were predominantly the sons and grandsons of immigrants, of Congolese and Haitian and Catalan and Martiniquais and Guinean and Nigerian and Italian and Cameroonian and Algerian and Mauritanian and Portuguese and Senegalese and Malian and Togolese and German and Angolan and Zairian and Moroccan and Filipino descent. A few were born abroad themselves.

While some European nations that have historically maintained stricter immigration policies, and whose soccer federation have been plagued by explicit and implicit racism, failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, France represented the powers of merit-based integration and inclusion. Immigration is not the reason France won the World Cup, per se, nor the reason Belgium and England made the semifinals with diverse squads. But merit-based integration and inclusion are reasons France has such an insanely talented pool of players to pick from.

France’s Kylian Mbappe was the breakout star of the 2018 World Cup, and now he’s a champions as well. He’s also one of our 14 winners from the tournament. (AP)
France’s Kylian Mbappe was the breakout star of the 2018 World Cup, and now he’s a champions as well. He’s also one of our 14 winners from the tournament. (AP)

The counter-narrative, of course, is always that the culture clashes, whether among soccer players or in society in general, are inhibitive. It was only earlier this decade that national team manager Laurent Blanc had proposed introducing quotas on African and Arab players in French soccer. It was only earlier this decade that far-right French politician Marine Le Pen had said, “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.” It was only earlier this week that U.S. President Donald Trump labeled immigration a “very negative thing for Europe,” because it was “changing the culture.”

France didn’t prove all of that to be nonsense. But it is nonsense. And Les Bleus, in so many ways, are evidence.

Loser: Everybody responsible for Argentina’s fiasco

That’s everybody from the Argentine soccer federation (AFA) all the way down to Willy Caballero (poor Willy). But let’s be clear, it starts with the AFA. It starts with years of mismanagement and corruption that has syphoned resources out of the sport in Argentina. It continues with the misguided, contradictory appointment (and now ousting) of Jorge Sampaoli; the ill-fated and eventually canceled pre-World Cup friendlies in Nicaragua and Israel; and the general lack of leadership.

[More: Who’s to blame for Argentina’s downfall?]

Sampaoli was at fault, too, for wavering between adaptation and imposition of his style and philosophies. His specific tactical decisions were self-contradictory. His players were at fault as well, first for failing to work with Sampaoli on a compromise between their way and his way, then for underperforming, then for reportedly revolting. Lionel Messi is very close to the bottom of the list of culprits, but he’s on it. This was a full-blown disaster.

Loser: Diego Maradona

Maradona’s antics can be humorous. They’re also disgraceful. He opened his time in Russia with a racist gesture toward fans. He closed it with an apology for accusing referees of match-fixing. In between, he flipped the double-bird to celebrate an Argentina goal, was half-asleep during that same game, and had a health scare. He has problems. He needs help fixing them. And he needs to do better himself.

Loser: Germany’s aura of invincibility

Four straight semifinals. Thirteen out of 18. Sixteen quarterfinals. Zero group stage exits. Germany, throughout its post-war soccer history, was unimpeachable. In 2018, that finally changed.

In 2018, Germany was complacent. It was stuck in the past, mentally and tactically. It fell victim to the same plague that had afflicted other recent defending champions, and crashed out in stunning fashion.

Loser: Real Madrid’s arrogance

Let it not be forgotten that Real Madrid derailed Spain’s World Cup. There was nothing wrong with the planet’s most powerful club chasing Julen Lopetegui after Zinedine Zidane abruptly resigned. The problem was doing so behind the Spanish soccer federation’s back. It was the federation (RFEF) not learning of Lopetegui’s intention to take the Real Madrid job until five minutes before Real’s announcement.

Lopetegui isn’t at fault. He couldn’t not take the job. It’s the best one he’ll ever get. But once Real Madrid opened negotiations with him, or ideally before it did, the club absolutely should have notified the RFEF. That it didn’t infuriated the RFEF and cost Lopetegui his World Cup. Lopetegui’s firing on the eve of the tournament cost Spain.

Loser: The Spanish FA’s selfishness

And yet as much as Real Madrid was guilty, the RFEF didn’t have to sack Lopetegui. It did so for non-sporting reasons. Players reportedly pleaded with the federation’s president, Luis Rubiales, urging him to let Lopetegui stay on. Rubiales axed his coach anyway to assert himself and the federation. He did it for optics, to stand up to Real Madrid, to give the impression that the RFEF would be bullied no more.

That, quite simply, was an absurd decision. Rubiales replaced a great tactician with a suit, Fernando Hierro, the federation’s technical director whose only head coaching experience was with a second-division club. Spain missed Lopetegui’s in-game acumen when it passed itself to death against Russia.

Winner: England

Football, in the end, did not come home. Or maybe it did. Maybe the rebirth of that silly song was about more than results and finals and on-field triumphs. Maybe it was about a soccer-mad nation learning to love itself and its team again; to ditch cynicism and pessimism and actually believe. Maybe belief and enjoyment were not stages of the journey but rather the entire purpose of it. Maybe everything else was a bonus.

[More: How England buried the long ball and kick-started its rise]

England’s project is ahead of schedule. Its semifinal run was a resounding success. Perhaps it was a bit fluky. But it was also only a beginning. It was the first step out of the darkness and into the light on the world stage. England is here to stay.

Winner: The Premier League

England didn’t win the World Cup. But the Premier League did. It even lifted the trophy. The sport’s top domestic circuit was represented in the semifinals by 40 players (out of 91). Its delegation was exactly as large as those of Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 combined. Remove England’s 23, and the Prem still had by far the most representation, both in the semifinals and the tournament overall. We can debate the actual quality of soccer in the EPL, but there’s no argument over which league has the most thorough collection of top-tier stars.

Winner: Europe

Even with Germany flopping, Europe sent 10 of its 14 teams to the Round of 16. Even with Spain failing, soccer’s dominant continent gave the quarterfinals six of their eight participants. And it had a monopoly on the semis.

Much of the semifinal exclusivity is a product of randomness. It’s happened four times before, in 2006, 1982, 1966 and 1934. That’s not exactly a trend. But there are reasons Europe could be pulling ahead.

Loser: Africa

No teams in the knockouts for the first time since 1982, when only two African nations – both first-timers – participated. Not great. But also more unfortunate than anything else …

Loser: Valiant group underdogs

The 2018 World Cup will be remembered for its upsets. But oh, there absolutely could have been more. Several of the World Cup’s best and most likable underdogs were dumped out at the group stage in cruel fashion.

Morocco was arguably the better team in each of its three games, yet didn’t win a single one thanks to a 95th-minute own goal, some agonizing misses and a stoppage-time VAR-awarded Spanish equalizer. Iran, in the same group, gave Portugal and Spain all they could handle, and came close to an upset of the Portuguese, but took just one point from the two games.

Elsewhere, Nigeria felt aggrieved as Argentina celebrated Marcos Rojo’s ridiculous winner. Peru, like Morocco, captured hearts and very easily could have won two games, but doomed itself against Denmark. Iceland and South Korea delivered two of the group stage’s biggest shocks, but didn’t progress. And Senegal … I mean … this is as difficult to swallow as World Cup exits get.

Loser: Predictive models and self-assured prognosticators

The idea that statistical models can project World Cup outcomes is patently absurd. Heck, the idea that anybody can predict World Cup outcomes is absurd. Samples of evidence are so unrepresentative, their sizes so minuscule, time horizons so vast. The format of the tournament itself is so susceptible to flukiness.

Nonetheless, every year, we try. And this year in particular, the World Cup laughed in our faces. The three consensus favorites went out in the quarterfinals, Round of 16 and group stage, respectively. The legacy of this World Cup will be the upsets and the unpredictability. Let’s remember it four years from now.

Winners: The fittest

In many cases, the World Cup adhered to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” theory. Those who were equipped with the mental and physical endurance to go 90 (and sometimes 120) minutes survived. Those who weren’t didn’t. There were an astounding 24 goals in the final three minutes or stoppage time of second halves. That’s 24 goals between minute 88 and 90-plus in 64 games. And fourteen of them were equalizers or winners.

There were also four penalty shootouts. And one of two semifinals was won in the 108th minute. Croatia’s unbending will and physical fortitude were particularly extraordinary.

Winner: Croatia

For years, corruption and infighting precluded Croatian soccer from becoming the underdog story it had so often tempted us with. Finally, in 2018, with the so-called golden generation nearing the end of the road, its talent became unshackled. It coalesced into a fearless team whose passion enthralled us, and who very easily could have won a World Cup.

Think about that for a second. A nation of some 4 million people, a refereeing decision or fluky goal away from conquering all comers. In the end, the bluebloods hung on. But Croatia embodied the powers of mental strength and resilience, all the attributes necessary to break into international soccer’s elite.

Winners: Set-piece believers

There is a growing belief, especially among the analytics-inclined sectors of the soccer community, that set pieces represent a market inefficiency. That teams don’t spend nearly enough time drawing up specific dead-ball schemes and drilling them. And that teams who place more importance on corners and free kicks can exploit the inefficiency – especially in the international game.

The believers were vindicated in Russia. Of the 169 total goals, 71 – or 42 percent – were scored on set pieces. Those numbers smashed previous records. England reached the semifinal despite scoring only three goals from open play, because it scored nine from dead balls. It hired a set-piece specialist, studied other sports, and watched the goals roll in. One can only assume others will now follow its lead.

Winners: Goal-scoring defenders

Set-piece goals and defender goals go hand in hand. But the 28 tallied by defenders in 2018, compared to just 16 four years earlier, went beyond towering headers and scrappiness. Nacho and Benjamin Pavard guaranteed themselves spots on all top-10 lists with near-identical technique:

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And how about Marcos freakin’ Rojo, out of nowhere!?

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Losers: Injury-hit South American stars

Ugh. Two of the sport’s most enjoyable stars, James Rodriguez and Edinson Cavani, missed knockout-round games with injuries, and their absences completely undid their respective nations’ campaigns. James’ ailment led Colombia manager Jose Pekerman to opt for three offensively defensive midfielders, and led to a bloodbath of a Round of 16 game against England. Cavani’s calf strain blunted Uruguay, turned a two-man attack into a one-man show, and extinguished La Celeste‘s upset hopes.

In an alternate universe, both play, and maybe the European dominance narrative is flipped on its head.

Winner: Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe did not need a so-called coming-out party. He is already the second-most expensive player in soccer history, already a top-10 player in the world, already a bonafide superstar. But a threw one for himself anyway. He introduced himself to the casual fan. Now he’s a megastar, and perhaps soon a global icon.

Loser: Neymar’s reputation

There was no bigger subject of ire at the 2018 World Cup than Neymar’s embellishment. I’ve defended him and other embellishers, and will continue to defend him and them. But if enough people are offended or angered by his theatrics, they’re a stain on his reputation, even if there’s a method to the madness.

And it appears plenty were offended, because the “HE’S A CRYBABY” cries drowned out the rational among us, who noted how brilliant Neymar was for Brazil. That’s why the subhead above is carefully worded – Neymar the player wasn’t a loser, but his personal brand was.

Winner: The Neymar Challenge

I’ll admit, though: the Neymar Challenge was, and still is, stupendous. I can’t get enough of it. It’s taken over soccer practices and everyday life:

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Mexicans seem to have taken it and run – er, rolled – with it. We are all indebted to whoever popularized it. It’s the big social media winner of the 2018 World Cup.

Loser: Mexico

Mexico got in its Neymar jabs. (In Miguel Layun’s case, literally.) But it missed a massive opportunity.

Through one round of matches, Juan Carlos Osorio was the World Cup’s biggest winner. Through two, El Tri was in dreamland. All it needed to secure a semifinal path that ultimately would have gone through Switzerland and England was a draw with Sweden.

But Osorio strayed from his rotaciones, and got it wrong. Mexico crumbled. Brazil beckoned, and triumphed. The curse of the fifth game lives on. This should have been Mexico’s chance to shed it, once and for all. Everything had aligned. Instead, back to square one.

Loser: Fox

Let’s keep this succinct: Fox’s coverage was bad.

Actually, nah, a bit less succinct: Passively bad and actively bad. It had as many unlistenable broadcast teams as good ones. Its studio analysis was very rarely insightful. The whole thing was Foxified, so much so that for several non-Spanish-speaking fans I’ve spoken to, Telemundo became the network of choice.

Fox forged unnecessary storylines – the Messi-Ronaldo debate chief among them – and imposed them on a tournament whose stories write themselves. It drained the World Cup of a lot of what makes the World Cup the World Cup. And when Messi and Ronaldo were eliminated – because, oh yeah, soccer is a complex team game that transcends two individuals – Fox was lost. It somehow couldn’t capitalize on the most exciting tournament in recent memory.

It’s impossible to know just how much its poor strategy and execution contributed to poor ratings and the network’s reported shortfall. Most of that was due to time difference and the USMNT’s absence. Regardless, Fox was a big loser.

But hey, it did get people thinking: Maybe Joseph Stalin was actually good?

Losers: Team doctors and concussion protocol

Team doctors continue to let players trot right back onto fields after suspected head injuries. FIFA doesn’t enforce its own protocol or enact new rules. Rinse. Repeat.

Winner: VAR

We were prepared for controversy. Expecting disaster. We got the former. But not the latter. VAR was excellent.

It still drew complaints, but the vast majority of them were misguided. More accurately, they were misdirected. Criticism previously hurled at referees – how could you miss that call!? – went to VAR – how could you not review that!? – instead. In the vast majority of cases, A) the play was reviewed, just not by the head ref at the pitchside monitor, and B) remember, VAR’s objective was not to fix every debatable decision. If it were, it would have fallen to fans’ main fear: that it would interrupt the flow of the game.

It didn’t do that. It was mostly unobtrusive. Were there a few goofs? Yeah. A few clear and obvious errors that didn’t get fixed? Sure. But the major errors did get reversed. VAR, against all odds, was clearly a net positive. If you want it to be perfect and are determined to denounce it otherwise, VAR isn’t the problem; you are.

Losers: People who say sport and politics don’t mix

The idea that sport and politics don’t mix is merely a convenient excuse for people to avoid political discussions or narratives they’re uncomfortable with. It is almost invariably tinged with hypocrisy. FIFA president Gianni Infantino is one of those people.

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Sport and politics do mix, and rarely more so than at the World Cup. They did on multiple occasions in Russia. And the overlap is one of many aspects that make soccer’s quadrennial extravaganza unmatched sporting theatre.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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