There are so many ways to answer that question. There are broad trends. Indelible moments. Unforgettable stories.
One of the many ways to etch a World Cup into memory, though, is by thinking about the players who defined it. In that sense, there’s no more useful exercise than selecting a Best XI.
In fact, we’ve gone a step further. Our team of the tournament is a full 23-man squad, picked not based on reputation, nor based on simple stats, but rather performances throughout the 2018 World Cup. Playing and winning more games helps, but isn’t a requirement. The following 23 – first a starting 11 that could realistically and coherently take the field together, then a 12-man bench – are the players who contributed most to their teams as individuals over the past month.
Hugo Lloris, France — Coming off a sub-standard season at Spurs and two mistakes in pre-World Cup friendlies, Lloris was a subject of some silent French worry heading to Russia. His response was a series of full-extension saves, most notably against Uruguay and Belgium, that should have earned him the Golden Glove.
An error in the final perhaps hurt his case. But Lloris was nonetheless excellent.
Kieran Trippier, England — Who’da thunk it? Trippier, 27, wasn’t even an England international (or regular club starter) at the close of the 2016-17 season. Now he’s the Bury Beckham. He’s England’s Set Piece Tom Brady. Manager Gareth Southgate moved Kyle Walker to center back to get Trippier in the team, and the decision paid off. The Tottenham fullback/wingback was excellent up and down the right flank, and played a big role in England’s dead-ball dominance.
Raphael Varane, France — The top defender on the tournament’s top defensive unit. France’s stingy record was a product of several factors, including Lloris, the system and the best defensive midfielder in the world. But Varane was particularly overpowering. He rose to the occasion in the knockout rounds, and flicked home a vital header against Uruguay. The 25-year-old often plays second-fiddle to the overbearing and volatile Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid. As the senior member of Les Bleus back line, he took charge.
Yerry Mina, Colombia — Mina only played three games, which would typically disqualify a player from a World Cup Best XI. In the games he did play, though, he outscored opponents 3-1. And there was absolutely nothing he could do about the one concession, Harry Kane’s penalty in the Round of 16. Mina was touted as the top center back in South America when he moved to Barcelona for a bargain-bin price in January. He showed why in Russia.
Ludwig Augustinsson, Sweden — No left back truly stood out. The two that did – Marcelo and Diego Laxalt – only played 280 and 301 minutes, respectively. Others – Ivan Strinic, Lucas Hernandez – were solid but unexceptional. So Augustinsson, who was probably Sweden’s best player throughout a surprise quarterfinal run, nips the starting spot.
N’Golo Kante, France — The Golden Ball winner in a just world. The MVP in the truest sense of the acronym. He was poor in the final after picking up an early yellow card, but supreme over seven games. An extensive ode to Kante’s brilliance can be found here.
Luka Modric, Croatia — Entering the tournament, Modric seemed destined for a smaller slice of soccer history than he deserved. He had never been the best player on a Champions League team. He had never gotten out of a World Cup group stage, and had only once been beyond the Round of 16 at any major tournament. That all changed in Russia. Modric took his final chance to claim proper recognition. He was an all-around superstar, and deserving Golden Ball winner, even if he and his countrymen came up short on Sunday.
Paul Pogba, France — Constantly (and erroneously) blamed for France’s struggles, Pogba was adequately appreciated for perhaps the first time in his international career in Russia. He was the reason France could play as cautiously as it did and still maintain an attacking threat. He won the Australia and Peru games. He was a persistent threat breaking forward from midfield thereafter. And oh my goodness, that pass to Mbappe in the final …
People see his comprehensive skill set and want him to be an incessant two-way force. Instead, constrained by Didier Deschamps’ system, he played a role in France’s solidity while picking and choosing his moments to get forward. And yet he was still the top ball-progressor at the tournament:
Eden Hazard, Belgium — My goodness, he was special. The three goals and two assists don’t even begin to describe his excellence. Hazard was omnipotent on the ball, fueling Belgium’s counter everywhere from his own defensive third to the final third. His 10 take-ons, all successful, against Brazil were the most by any player in a World Cup match without an unsuccessful take-on in over a half-century. Hazard at the top of his game is a sight to behold, and he was rarely anywhere else over the past month.
Neymar, Brazil — The flopping furor was quite annoying and distressing, especially because it clouded legitimately outstanding individual performances from the PSG winger. First, consider that he hadn’t played a competitive match since February. And take into account that his three group stage foes, knowing his recovery from injury was ongoing, hacked the heck out of him. Yet he was still the most consistently dangerous attacker at the tournament:
Neymar’s tournament ended in disappointment because Brazil’s did, thanks to an incredibly fluky loss to Belgium. And he, admittedly, was faulty in front of goal, just like his teammates. But overall, he was superb.
Kylian Mbappe, France — Ordinary in the group, occasionally more flash than substance late on, but in general magnificent. The run – yeah, you know the one we’re talking about – was mind-blowing.
The entire Argentina game felt like Mbappe’s coming-out party, even if he didn’t necessarily need one. And he closed down his own party by becoming the first teenager to score in a World Cup final sence Pele. Oh, and he was the second-youngest of the 736 World Cup participants. That fact is still stupefying.
The rest of the 23
Kasper Schmeichel, Denmark — Heroic against Peru in victory and Croatia in defeat. More penalties faced (3) than goals conceded (2).
Thibaut Courtois, Belgium — Golden Glove winner. Fantastic against Brazil in the quarters.
John Stones, England — Kept out of the 11 only by his slow reaction on Mario Mandzukic’s semifinal winner. He was active and commanding on the ball, atypically fierce in duels and menacing on set pieces.
Lucas Hernandez, France — Very solid defensively. And his attacking escapades helped changed the Round of 16 match against Argentina.
Denis Cheryshev, Russia — Began the tournament as a bench player. Left it with arguably two of the top five goals, four overall, and plenty of other impressive work.
Casemiro, Brazil — His presence was the main reason Brazil didn’t concede a single goal from open play in its first four games. His absence – via that stupid yellow card suspension rule – was the main reason the Selecao conceded and lost to Belgium.
Ivan Perisic, Croatia — Perisic’s combination of skill and relentlessness embodied Croatia’s incredible run. He was the best player on the field in the semifinal. His goal in the final was wonderful.
Philippe Coutinho, Brazil — The worldie against Switzerland, the winner against Costa Rica, and two lovely assists to fellow midfielders. With defenses primarily focused on checking Neymar, Coutinho picked up the slack.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal — Two standout performances, two subpar ones. But the wow factor of the opener lands him a place on the bench.
Mario Mandzukic, Croatia — Tireless. Predatory. Brave. A poacher, and yet so much more. We’ll remember the semifinal winner, but the entire 2018 World Cup was peak Mandzukic.
Romelu Lukaku, Belgium — The four goals, all against Tunisia and Panama, come with an asterisk. Lukaku’s role in lethal counterattacks against Japan and Brazil were more impressive, and bring him as close as can be to our Best XI.
Also considered: Jordan Pickford (England); Mario Fernandes (Russia), Benjamin Pavard (France), Sime Vrsaljko (Croatia), Harry Maguire (England), Joao Miranda (Brazil), Diego Godin (Uruguay), Domagoj Vida (Croatia), Diego Laxalt (Uruguay), Marcelo (Brazil), Ivan Strinic (Croatia); Aleksandr Golovin (Russia), Blaise Matuidi (France), Ivan Rakitic (Croatia), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium); Antoine Griezmann (France), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
– – – – – – –
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Here are the top 18 moments of the 2018 World Cup
• President Trump congratulates France … and Putin after World Cup final
• England’s Harry Kane wins most unimpressive Golden Boot ever
• France storms to second World Cup title in 4-2 victory over Croatia