Illustration by Anya Chytrowski
Russia, a country that seemingly dominates news headlines for all the wrong reasons, performed admirably this summer as they hosted the 32-nation World Cup in style. The 21st World Cup was the most expensive in history, and arguably the greatest of all time. Filled with controversy, heartthrob stories, and beautiful play, this tournament truly had it all.
Before the tournament even began, the intense qualification process yielded numerous stunning headlines. International powerhouse Italy failed to qualify for the first time since 1958, and after losing to Trinidad & Tobago, the United States embarrassingly missed out for the first time since 1990. Meanwhile, the small nation of Iceland managed to qualify for the first time ever despite a population of just over 300,000.
It didn’t take long for shocking storylines to emerge. The 2014 champions Germany failed to advance out of the group stage for the first time in sixteen tournaments. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been overwhelmingly surprising, as four out the last five World Cup winners have failed to advance to the round of sixteen in the following tournament. Meanwhile, hosts Russia exceeded expectations, reaching the quarterfinals and eliminating Spain in the process.
One of the main narratives entering the tournament was how Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two greatest players of their generation, would fare in what was likely their final major international tournament. Having already obtained international success in 2016 with Portugal, Ronaldo was burdened with less pressure and expectation. But after carrying Argentina through the qualification process, there was little Messi could do to cover the numerous deficiencies in the Argentinian squad. Both teams were eliminated in the round of sixteen, allowing emerging superstars to claim the spotlight.
These stars included nineteen year-old French youngster Kylian Mbappe, who set the tournament alight and won Young Player of the Tournament. Croatia’s diminutive genius in midfield, Luka Modrić, claimed the award for the Tournament’s Best Player,
receiving unprecedented credit as he led his team to their first ever World Cup final. Belgium’s Eden Hazard earned the Silver Ball for the tournament’s second best player as Belgium surpassed expectations on its way to a respectable third place finish.
Ultimately, the French national team proved to be too much for the competition, defeating Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium, and finally Croatia en route to their second ever World Cup championship. Despite boasting what was undoubtedly the strongest team on paper, France was not a favorite entering the tournament, as the squad had always proven to be less than the sum of its parts. But at the end of the day, the French were deserved victors.
Now that the 2018 tournament is over, it is fitting that we look forward to the upcoming tournament. While the 2022 tournament in Qatar will be the first to take place in the Arab world, and the first during the months of November and December, it will also likely be the last tournament to feature just 32 teams following a proposed 48 team format.
And the 2026 tournament? For the first time since 1994, the competition is coming to the United States. Hopefully by that time we’ll have a team capable of qualifying.