Outdoor World

World Cup 2018: Guardian writers pick their highs and lows

From Modrics magic and Pavards screamer to unwelcome theatrics and wearing the incorrect T-shirt, our writers give their take on the tournament in Russia


Nick Ames

Match of the tournament Russia v Croatia had it all: a spectacular goal from Denis Cheryshev, unbearable tension during a see-sawing extra-time period, raucous festivities when Mario Fernandes equalised and then shootout heartache for the hosts- followed rapidly by an acknowledgment that they should hold their heads high.

Player of the tournament Luka Modric. He was influential from the first game but by extra time of the Croatia v England game it was impossible to take your eyes off him. Modric has played more fluently but the way he dragged himself and his team through against the odds was breathtaking.

Goal of the tournament It seems a long time ago now but Ricardo Quaresma’s trademark ” trivela” for Portugal against Iran was a luscious piece of skill that bears watching time and again.

Personal highlighting It sounds a bit mawkish but watching the sun rise over Kazan Arena from my apartment, merely a few hours after insuring France beat Argentina 4-3there in a stunning game of football, gave rise to a feeling of immense gladness simply to be here. Nobody would take covering this tournament for granted.

Biggest frustration That we did not insure a more diverse tournament from the quarter-finals onwards. Europe’s primacy was disconcerting and, while we may have to wait to see if it is a trend , not entirely surprising. It was a regret off the pitch, too, because the vibrancy that tens of thousands of Latin American fans brought to the early stages was one of the aspects that made this month special.

Trickiest off-field moment The weight of responsibility has rarely felt heavier than when, having booked a minibus to take yours truly and seven colleagues from Kazan to Samara in time for England v Sweden, the vehicle arrived an hour and 20 minutes late. That was the good news. A confused driver, who had somehow got lost on the way to our apartment, then emerged and explained that( a) the sound on his sat nav had packed in and( b) he didn’t know the way to Samara anyway. At this point the risk of blank column inches across several of the UK’s major organs looked severe but, with the help of our telephones and a rotation of front-seat assistants, we just about muddled through the six-hour journey in time to cover the quarter-final.

Fondest memory of Russia Less a specific memory than simple pleasure that visiting supporters and locals interacted so joyfully and saw each other’s best sides. In regional cities such as Samara and Volgograd, particularly, one could see just how much it meant to people who had never experienced anything like this before; the only shame is that so few fans from western Europe, in particular, felt emboldened to join in.

What now for England? The good feeling of this summer must be bottled because normality will kick in soon and the reality is that, if England are to succeed, they need to ensure the best players are given a workable pathway to the top. The current harvest are decent but not good enough to lift major trophies: until top clubs’ development processes tilt in favour of the players that will remain the case.

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Dominic Fifield

Match of the tournament Portugal 3-3 Spain, a game which set the bar high for the tournament and probably gave both teams false hope as to their own capabilities in Russia. Cristiano Ronaldo was a force-out of nature, Spain pinged their pass and looked irrepressible and an upbeat tone was defined for everything that followed. The World Cup, if not necessarily Spain and Portugal, lived up to expectations thereafter.

Player of the tournament Eden Hazard. The Premier League has long grown accustomed to the Belgian’s genius but here he was illuminating the world stage. He goals, assists and mesmeric dribblings and will have been privately disappointed to finish merely third, even if his declaration that his time at Chelsea may be up was a sting in the tail.

Eden Hazard passes the ball during Belgium’s World Cup third-place play-off victory over England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/ Guardian

Goal of the tournament Right-backs had some fun in Russia. Take your pick between Nacho’s goal, skimmed in off both posts, against Portugal and Benjamin Pavard’s stunning reward against Argentina.

Personal highlight Jordan Pickford’s save from Carlos Bacca, and Eric Dier claiming a penalty shootout for England. Followed closely by the glory of The Motherland Calls and the Stalingrad memorial.

Biggest disappointment Argentina, who I had bafflingly indicated might win the tournament. There was no pace , no energy and far too much reliance on Lionel Messi. They were fortunate to escape the group and beaten more convincingly by France than the 4-3 scoreline suggested.

Trickiest off-field moment The flies, the flies, the flies of Volgograd, who swarmed all day off the Volga marshes. Oh, and the mosquitoes of Repino, who came out with a vengeance at twilight. My God, they loved me as much as I loathed them. They will not be missed. That said, vanilla petroleum was a bit of a discover, and more pleasant than DEET.

Fondest memory of Russia St Petersburg. An incredible city, a glorious blend of Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam, with a dash of Scandinavia thrown in. It was heartening to assure England’s players constructing the most of their days off to visit its sights, from the Hermitage to the Winter Palace, via the fairground.

What now for England ? For once England leave a tournament in a promising place. They have a plan, a manager with a vision and a crop of young players waiting in the wings to make their mark. The Nations League, which starts in the autumn, will not be straightforward but it could cultivate the renewed interest in international football. The World Cup was all about progress. Now they must maintain it.

Thomas Hitzlsperger

Match of the tournament Portugal v Spain.

Player of the tournament Eden Hazard.

Goal of the tournament Benjamin Pavard against Argentina.

France’s Benjamin Pavard hits his sumptuous volley against Argentina. Photo: Kieran McManus/ BPI/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Personal highlighting Mbappe’s solo run against Argentina.

Biggest disappointment The Germany team.

Trickiest off-field moment Because England did so well and Gareth Southgate became so popular, I was asked to wear a waistcoat in the Tv studio. The crew were really excited about it but I wasn’t happy at all. I decided against it. Fortunately, they kept me on until the last day …

Fondest memory I went to Volgograd before the World Cup and was overwhelmed, having visited the Mamayev Hill monuments and Rossoschka, a Russian-German military graveyard. It was a history lesson like I’ve never experienced.

What now for England? Keep the team spirit alive and practise more possession and fewer set pieces.

David Hytner

Match of the tournament Belgium v Brazil. For Belgium’s counterattacking masterclass in the first half and the breakneck drama after the interval. The pace and intensity were incredible.

Player of the tournament I loved the way Paul Pogba handled himself but Luka Modric was the stand-out performer. I have long thought he was the finest central midfielder in world football and he oozed class and control. Indicated his heroism to step up in the last-1 6 shootout against Denmark, having missed a penalty in extra time.

Goal of the tournament Toni Kroos v Sweden. OK, it seriously messed with me on deadline but the intelligence, technique and execution, with Germany’s World Cup hopes on the line, were extraordinary. I thought it would spark Germany into life. I was wrong.

Personal highlight So many. Here are some. Watching Brazil live. Enjoying Tite( Cheechee ). Being there for Mario Fernandes’s equaliser. Having a stroll in Gorky Park and Neskuchny Garden. Person watching on Novy Arbat. Being on a fan bus packed with Colombians when the Colombia team bus overtook. Meeting Carlos Valderrama. Find out what a good bloke Dejan Lovren is. The emotion at the final.

Biggest frustration Neymar was the coolest kid in the world at Brazil 2014. I remember him doing keepie-uppies as he strolled out for a train session and looking as though he did not have a care- as 200 million Brazilians invested their dreamings in him. The king turned into a princess here. His theatrics did him no credit.

Neymar reacts after a challenge in Brazil’s group game against Serbia. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/ Getty Images

Trickiest off-field moment My first full day was in Rostov-on-Don, where I was covering Brazil v Switzerland. I had to get to the stadium for the press conferences. There was no tubing. I could not get an uber, yandex or regular taxi. I had not yet discovered the game-changer that was the Google translate app. I was wholly stuck and it was a horrible feeling. I would be saved by a big-hearted couple, whom I had satisfied the night before, and they drove me to the stadium. It set a good tone.

Fondest memory of Russia My take-away was the heartfelt desire of Russian people for their country to be appreciated. Every single Russian I met in every single city ran through the same questions. What do you think of Russia? What do you think of our city? And, invariably, what do you think of our girls? It mattered to them that visitors departed with different perceptions. Moscow is now one of my top five cities.

What now for England? Quite simply, to enjoy the positivity for as long as it lasts.

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Stuart James

Match of the tournament Belgium 3-2 Japan. I expected Belgium to stroll to victory but Japan were absolutely terrific. When Japan went 2-0 up, through Takashi Inui’s superb goal, James Ducker, from the Telegraph, and I looked at each other in the press box as if to say:’ What on earth is happening here ?’ Belgium, to give credit where it is due, responded brilliantly. What a way to win the match, too- the best counterattacking aim I’ve ever seen.

Player of the tournament Hard to look beyond Luka Modric, who has been so influential for Croatia in what will surely be his last World Cup, but let’s not ignore the contribution of N’Golo Kante, even if the Frenchman would quite happily go under the radar. Kylian Mbappe deserves a mention too- he is going to be a superstar, if he isn’t already.

Kylian Mbappe of France takes a corner in the group game against Peru. Photo: Michael Regan/ FIFA via Getty Images

Goal of the tournament Spoilt for option. Benjamin Pavard’s ten-strike against Argentina was tremendous. I also liked Nacho’s goal for Spain in their thrilling 3-3 draw with Portugal- what technique again. But I’m plumping for Denis Cheryshev’s second against Saudi Arabia. Elegantly stroked into the top corner with the outside of his left boot, it was a thing of beauty and set the tone for this World Cup.

Personal highlighting Watching and reporting on England in their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, when I was 14 years old. I never imagined for a minute that I’d find myself in that situation when I left for Russia. And what a moment when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick hit the back of the net. Let’s just not go there with what happened later.

Biggest disappointment The amount of play-acting but in particular Neymar’s rolling around. It was embarrassing watching him from time to time and sad, too, dedicated his talent. He’s not alone, though, and it has got to the stage where Fifa needs to confront the issue head-on. Sadly, it will probably ignore it.

Trickiest off-field moment I could write a book on this one. I got lost quite a lot and didn’t master the metro in Moscow until day 30( I went home the following morning ). Get in and out of the hammock in my apartment in Sochi was testing. And I somehow ended up with five courses after ordering soup for lunch in Saransk. Thank heavens for Google translate, which prevented more buffoonery like that and became my best friend.

Fondest memory of Russia So many to choose from but I’d probably say walking to the Mordovia Arena in Saransk for Peru’s first World Cup game in 36 years. I remember turning this corner and find thousands and thousands of red and white shirts stretching as far as the eye could see. They were marching, singing, laughing and smiling- having the time of their lives. It was an extraordinary sight and gives me goose bumps whenever I think about it.

What now for England? The balance doesn’t feel right in midfield and that demonstrated against Croatia, so Gareth Southgate has got some work to do there. But let’s just be positive: there’s a feelgood factor that hasn’t been there for ages. Heck, I’d quite like to take my son to an England game now and I never believed I’d say that.

Martha Kelner

Match of tournament I watched the group match between Spain v Portugal in a poky hotel room in Volgograd on a 13 -inch TV made at least a couple of decades ago. But even that could not dampen the pleasure of a game for the ages. It lived up to all the hype. As for that Ronaldo free-kick at the end, he just knew he was going to score. Incredible.

Player of tournament Eden Hazard may not have reached the final but he was consistently brilliant for Belgium, turning in three man-of-the-match performances. He was still captivating his audience in the mixed zone after the third-place play-off, all but announcing that he wanted out of Chelsea.

Goal of tournament Might be somewhat coloured by the fact I considered it live but Jesse Lingard’s 25 -yard curler against Panama – his first international goal- was a stunner. Yes, the opposition were limited and England were already well on their way to a rout but after watching him having clumps taken out of him all afternoon it was a welcome, beautiful interruption.

England’s Jesse Lingard, second left, curls the ball into the net for England’s third objective in their 6-1 win over Panama. Photograph: Dave Shopland/ BPI/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Personal highlight Being inside Spartak Stadium to witness England finally win a penalty shootout. You try to remain impartial as a journalist but you also report what you experience and it’s impossible not to have felt some of Gareth Southgate’s joy that evening. He said afterwards he’d never get over the penalty miss at Euro 96 but you hope leading a team to a penalty shootout victory eased the burden.

B iggest disappointment That Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could not assert themselves more on the tournament. But that blow was softened by the emergence of another superstar in Kylian Mbappe.

Trickiest off field moment Getting stuck in some fairly epic match-day traffic in Kaliningrad before England played Belgium there. We were still for half an hour about three miles from the stadium with the clock ticking closer to kick-off. Cue abandoning my taxi, hiring a motorcycle from a nearby shop and cycling to the stadium over the main highway, which mercifully they had shut for the afternoon.

Fondest memory of Russia Satisfying a 17 -year-old girl waitressing at a restaurant in Samara, a city 1,000 km south-east of Moscow. When I told her I was from London, she could not contain her excitement. She wanted to know everything about England and we’re now friends on social media. In fact this whole trip has been a reminder not to confuse people with politics. Particularly the younger generation of Russians have been friendly, inquisitive and so welcoming.

What now for England? To continue progressing, to blood new talent such as Ryan Sessegnon and Phil Foden. And to use the knowledge that Euro 2020 will feel somewhat like a home tournament, with seven games at Wembley, to develop their sights on the future.

Amy Lawrence

Match of the tournament France 4-3 Argentina. If your heart didn’t soar at the sight of what Kylian Mbappe did here, you’ve no business watching athletic( Argentinians excepted ). The interweaving storylines, high emotions, brilliant aims, pas of batons and lurching drama made for an all-time classic.

Player of the tournament Mulling this over in the days before the final the cases for Luka Modric and Mbappe felt particularly strong. Not much changed there during the final- both are absolutely deserving of the highest accolades- but something about Paul Pogba, the way he has commanded games, built his mark, played his role so emphatically for the team, and influenced the final swung it.

France’s Paul Pogba holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup. Photo: Dylan Martinez/ Reuters

Goal of the tournament Welcome to the old screamer versus purity of technique versus team aim dilemma. Belgium’s match-winner against Japan was severely impressive especially in the context of a match they were trailing 2-0. Lionel Messi’s cushioned second touch against Nigeria is a thing of beauty in itself. Benjamin Pavard’s lasered volley just about gets my nod.

Personal highlighting Away from the stadia, being in the evocatively named Snob Bar in Kazan riveted to the 3-3 humdinger between Spain and Portugal accompanied by high-speed house music and a guy lolling around in a giant polar bear costume for no obvious reason. In the stadium, ensure the Swedes and Mexicans start an impromptu dance-off to their” Bye Bye Germany” song after the dramatic, topsy-turvy aiming to Group F.

Biggest frustration Not being able to lay my hands on a” Rock Arsenal” T-shirt- Ekaterinburg’s finest radio station, don’t you know- despite an extensive hunting.

Trickiest off-field moment Trying to survive 90 minutes of Japan v Senegal sitting next to someone who had absolutely no idea how to manage some severely intense body odour.

Fondest memory of Russia Peruvians. They seemed to be everywhere I went. Watching the world go by from the banks of the Iset River in Ekaterinburg, somewhere I doubt I would have ever ventured to without this World Cup, was lovely and of course enhanced by little groups of wandering Peruvians.

What now for England ? Creativity. Find it, nurture it, encourage it, use it. A culture of doing well in tournaments is now in place across the age groups. Adding finesse at senior level is the missing ingredient that could make a telling difference.

Sid Lowe

Match of the tournament Spain 3-3 Portugal, my first game, was quite a route to start a tournament in which I seemed to get lucky often( confession time: journalists don’t always feel “lucky” exactly when games are dramatic and decided by late goals ). Even Switzerland-Serbia, supposedly a nice quiet night, turned out grand. Argentina-Nigeria inside the ground was quite something. But the best games were not mine. Enjoyed Belgium-Brazil( and, unfashionably, I think Brazil were good ). But my favourite was probably Belgium-Japan.

Player of the tournament Rakitic? Kante? Mbappe? I’m leaning towards Eden Hazard and Luka Modric , not least because in true sports journalism style this judgment is being delivered before it’s actually over. In honour of this World Cup, could another rewrite be on the way after the final? Yes, it could. He may not have been the best but when it comes to what actually happened over the month, the things that players actually did, the impact they had, the effectiveness, the key moments, then Antoine Griezmann.

Goal of the tournament 1. Cheryshev. 2. Cheryshev. 3. Cheryshev. OK, OK, it’s actually Toni Kroos or, better still, Belgium’s winner against Japan. Merely it’s not for me: ensure also’ personal highlight ‘, below.

Personal highlighting Watching the brutal beauty of Edinson Cavani’s goal against Portugal, a 100 -metre one-two between him and Luis Suarez, the ball smashed from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, before flying in off Cavani’s face. Inside a stadium, I’ve rarely been hit- and it truly did feel as if you’d been hit- by a objective quite like that. And then there’s Felipe Baloy scoring for Panama. Wonderful.

Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani scores his side’s opening goal against Portugal. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/ AP

Biggest disappointment In a word: Spain. Also, from a cynical point of view, I can’t help wondering what might have been for Belgium and Uruguay in the other half of the draw- two teams I would have liked to see reach a final. Off the pitch: not really get the chance to experience Moscow which, when I was all too briefly acquainted with it, looked great. Or England-Colombia, for that matter.

Trickiest off-field moment Being in A& E worryingly close to kick off on England’s semi-final but I had left Russia by then so that probably doesn’t count. A cup, two tea pouches, a tea spoonful and no kettle: eh? The couple we thought had departed the restaurant and headed home returning just as we were’ borrowing’ the still almost-full bottle of wine they had( or had not) left behind. Or how about the very, very first moment? Land in Moscow late, switch telephone on … Lopetegui’s done what , now ?!

Fondest memory of Russia

Match-day cakes in the hotel, of course. Football street lights. 2am sunrises and walking through St Petersburg at dawn.

What now for England? Carry on, while recognising the reality beneath the feel-good factor.( England’s World Cup record is actually remarkably consistent .) Play, and try to play: there is plenty to be positive about. Be nice still. Nice is good. And nice doesn’t have to come last.

Nick Miller

Match of the tournament Maybe only because I was there, but I haven’t been more viscerally thrilled by a game for a long time than Belgium v Japan. If anything summed up the strangeness of this World Cup, it was a knockout game being turned round by Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli.

Player of the tournament Luka Modric. To play as well as he has would be remarkable under normal circumstances, but to do so with the looming prospect of a trial on his intellect has been astounding.

Goal of the tournament Christian Eriksen’s against Australia was probably the best I assured live, but only because it was so unusual I loved Benjamin Pavard’s against Argentina.

Personal highlighting The game wasn’t tremendously memorable in the end but I was at Brazil v Switzerland. Watching Brazil at a World Cup is like visiting some sort of venerated monument: often not that impressive on the face of it but the history and tales behind it are inescapable.

Biggest disappointment Morocco. I get swept up in gushing pre-tournament predictions and thought they might embarrass Portugal and/ or Spain, but their performances turned out to be akin to a limp bit of lettuce.

Trickiest off-field moment It was broadly fine, other than the scandalous confiscation of my deodorant at the Luzhniki. Oh, and I was also stopped at a metro station and instructed to produce my passport, which I did not have on me. Brief visions of a future at Vladimir’s Big House flashed before my eyes but my press pass turned out to satisfy the lust for admin.

F ondest memory of Russia People dancing in the Moscow streets after Russia beat Spain. The impromptu party that formed around a busking, instrumental post-rock band in a park was a particular highlight.

Fan in in Nikolskaya Street celebrate Russia’s victory over Spain. Photo: Mikhail Pochuyev/ TASS via Getty Images

What now for England? Here’s a hot take for you: I genuinely don’t know. In hypothesi it should be bright, a talented young team due to be supplemented by further promising young talent coming through, but how often do theories work out in international football? I fear this will turn out to be one of those long, hot, strange summers that will feel as if it didn’t happen in a few years.

Barney Ronay

Match of the tournament In the flesh, Spain versus Russia. Perhaps the most lop-sided match I’ve ever seen and one of the oddest. Sensible people will point to the fact Spain lost their manager and simply didn’t play their system well. But still hard not to wax on about the limits of possession football and the weird agony of watching Spain pass the ball. Plus of course the hysteria of Russia and penalties.

Player of the tournament Luka Modric. Best player for a tiny nation in the final. Ran further, aged 32, than any other player at the World Cup except his teammate Ivan Perisic. But of course it’s about the craft with Modric and his ability to drag a game his team’s route was of the highest class. Put him in five or six other squads here and they could have built the final too.

Goal of the tournament Ricardo Qaresma for the one-off trivela-style curler, a wonderful piece of individual skill he maintains on doing year after year. And Belgium in the last minute against Japan for the ultimate high-pressure squad objective, made by
Kevin De Bruyne’s laser-pass and Romelu Lukaku’s dummy.

Personal highlighting The absence of any fighting or trouble , not to mention mind games, wars of words, handshake-refusals or anything much apart from the football.

Biggest disappointment Get a grip Brazil. This was once a team of tough guys, charmers and rascals. Nilton Santos, Jairzinho, Romario, Leonidas and Carlos Alberto are turning in their graves watching the current diving, weeping lot. And half of them aren’t even dead.

Trickiest off-field moment After a lot of early running around- five flights in three days, five games in six days- I did briefly fall asleep on a stool in an airport departure lounge. When I woke up I couldn’t remember with any real certainty what city I was in. I looked at my boarding pass, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right one. Eventually asked someone.

Fondest memory of Russia Football, people, meat, beer, beetroot, wide streets, huge buildings, all-night bars, astonishing supermarkets and the busking folk dancing duo from some conservatoire who popped up on the street in Moscow one night and performed an astonishing routine for a few roubles in a hat. This is from someone for whom the words” astonishing folk dancing” don’t exactly trip off the tongue

What now for England? Fifty years of hurt.

Andrew Roth

Match of the tournament Spain-Portugal kicked this tournament into high gear. Spain at moments played the best football of any country at the World Cup and both sides scored lovely objectives, capped by Cristiano Ronaldo hiking up his shorts and curling that free-kick round the Spanish wall in trauma day. Very satisfying draw.

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