Home Must See World Cup 2018: Guardian writers pick their highs and lows

World Cup 2018: Guardian writers pick their highs and lows

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From Modrics magic and Pavards screamer to unwelcome theatrics and wearing the wrong 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 celebrations when Mrio Fernandes equalised and then shootout heartache for the hosts followed quickly 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 Quaresmas trademark trivela for Portugal against Iran was a luscious piece of skill that bears watching time and again.

Personal highlight It sounds a bit mawkish but watching the sun rise over Kazan Arena from my apartment, only a few hours after seeing France beat Argentina 4-3 there 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 disappointment That we did not see a more diverse tournament from the quarter-finals onwards. Europes 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 en route to our apartment, then emerged and explained that (a) the sound on his sat nav had packed in and (b) he didnt know the way to Samara anyway. At this point the risk of blank column inches across several of the UKs major organs looked severe but, with the help of our phones 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 others 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 crop 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 tournamentPortugal 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 of nature, Spain pinged their passes and looked irrepressible and an upbeat tone was set 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 Belgians genius but here he was illuminating the world stage. He provided goals, assists and mesmeric dribbles and will have been privately disappointed to finish only third, even if his declaration that his time at Chelsea may be up was a sting in the tail.

Eden
Eden Hazard passes the ball during Belgiums 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 Nachos goal, skimmed in off both posts, against Portugal and Benjamin Pavards stunning reward against Argentina.

Personal highlight Jordan Pickfords 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 suggested 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 dusk. My God, they loved me as much as I detested them. They will not be missed. That said, vanilla oil was a bit of a find, 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 see Englands players making 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.

Frances
Frances Benjamin Pavard hits his sumptuous volley against Argentina. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Personal highlight Mbapps 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 wasnt 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 cemetery. It was a history lesson like Ive 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 Belgiums 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. Showed his courage to step up in the last-16 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 Germanys 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 Mrio Fernandess equaliser. Having a stroll in Gorky Park and Neskuchny Garden. People watching on Novy Arbat. Being on a fan bus packed with Colombians when the Colombia team bus overtook. Meeting Carlos Valderrama. Finding out what a good bloke Dejan Lovren is. The emotion at the final.

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

Neymar
Neymar reacts after a challenge in Brazils 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 tube. I could not get an uber, yandex or regular cab. I had not yet discovered the game-changer that was the Google translate app. I was completely stuck and it was a horrible feeling. I would be saved by a big-hearted couple, whom I had met 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 women? 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 Inuis 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 goal Ive 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 lets not ignore the contribution of NGolo Kant, even if the Frenchman would quite happily go under the radar. Kylian Mbapp deserves a mention too he is going to be a superstar, if he isnt already.

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

Goal of the tournament Spoilt for choice. Benjamin Pavards strike against Argentina was tremendous. I also liked Nachos goal for Spain in their thrilling 3-3 draw with Portugal what technique again. But Im plumping for Denis Cheryshevs 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 highlight 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 Id find myself in that situation when I left for Russia. And what a moment when Kieran Trippiers free-kick hit the back of the net. Lets just not go there with what happened later.

Biggest disappointment The amount of play-acting but in particular Neymars rolling around. It was embarrassing watching him at times and sad, too, given his talent. Hes 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 didnt master the metro in Moscow until day 30 (I went home the following morning). Getting 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 Id probably say walking to the Mordovia Arena in Saransk for Perus first World Cup game in 36 years. I remember turning this corner and seeing 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 doesnt feel right in midfield and that showed against Croatia, so Gareth Southgate has got some work to do there. But lets just be positive: theres a feelgood factor that hasnt been there for ages. Heck, Id quite like to take my son to an England game now and I never thought Id 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 enjoyment 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 slightly coloured by the fact I saw it live but Jesse Lingards 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 lumps taken out of him all afternoon it was a welcome, beautiful interruption.

Englands
Englands Jesse Lingard, second left, curls the ball into the net for Englands third goal 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 its impossible not to have felt some of Gareth Southgates joy that evening. He said afterwards hed never get over the penalty miss at Euro 96 but you hope leading a team to a penalty shootout victory eased the burden.

Biggest 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 Mbapp.

Trickiest off field moment Getting stuck in some pretty 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 bike 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 Meeting a 17-year-old girl waitressing at a restaurant in Samara, a city 1,000km 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 were 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 train their sights on the future.

Amy Lawrence

Match of the tournament France 4-3 Argentina. If your heart didnt soar at the sight of what Kylian Mbapp did here, youve no business watching sport (Argentinians excepted). The interweaving storylines, high emotions, brilliant goals, passing 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 Mbapp 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, made his mark, played his role so emphatically for the team, and influenced the final swung it.

Frances
Frances Paul Pogba holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Goal of the tournament Welcome to the old screamer versus purity of technique versus team goal dilemma. Belgiums match-winner against Japan was seriously impressive especially in the context of a match they were trailing 2-0. Lionel Messis cushioned second touch against Nigeria is a thing of beauty in itself. Benjamin Pavards lasered volley just about gets my nod.

Personal highlight Away from the stadiums, 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, seeing the Swedes and Mexicans start an impromptu dance-off to their Bye Bye Germany song after the dramatic, topsy-turvy ending to Group F.

Biggest disappointment Not being able to lay my hands on a Rock Arsenal T-shirt Ekaterinburgs finest radio station, dont you know despite an extensive hunt.

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 seriously 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 way to start a tournament in which I seemed to get lucky often (confession time: journalists dont 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? Kant? Mbapp? Im leaning towards Eden Hazard and Luka Modric, not least because in true sports journalism style this judgment is being delivered before its 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, its actually Toni Kroos or, better still, Belgiums winner against Japan. Only its not for me: see also personal highlight, below.

Personal highlight Watching the brutal beauty of Edinson Cavanis goal against Portugal, a 100-metre one-two between him and Luis Surez, the ball smashed from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, before flying in off Cavanis face. Inside a stadium, Ive rarely been hit and it really did feel as if youd been hit by a goal quite like that. And then theres Felipe Baloy scoring for Panama. Wonderful.

Uruguays
Uruguays Edinson Cavani scores his sides opening goal against Portugal. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Biggest disappointment In a word: Spain. Also, from a cynical point of view, I cant 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 getting 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 Englands semi-final but I had left Russia by then so that probably doesnt count. A cup, two tea bags, a tea spoon 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 phone on … Lopeteguis 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. (Englands 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 doesnt have to come last.

Nick Miller

Match of the tournament Maybe just because I was there, but I havent 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 mind has been astounding.

Goal of the tournament Christian Eriksens against Australia was probably the best I saw live, but just because it was so unusual I loved Benjamin Pavards against Argentina.

Personal highlight The game wasnt hugely 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 stories behind it are inescapable.

Biggest disappointment Morocco. I got 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 Vladimirs Big House flashed before my eyes but my press pass turned out to satisfy the lust for admin.

Fondest 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.

Fans
Fans in in Nikolskaya Street celebrate Russias victory over Spain. Photograph: Mikhail Pochuyev/TASS via Getty Images

What now for England? Heres a hot take for you: I genuinely dont know. In theory 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 didnt happen in a few years.

Barney Ronay

Match of the tournament In the flesh, Spain versus Russia. Perhaps the most lop-sided match Ive ever seen and one of the oddest. Sensible people will point to the fact Spain lost their manager and just didnt 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 its about the craft with Modric and his ability to drag a game his teams way was of the highest class. Put him in five or six other teams here and they could have made the final too.

Goal of the tournament Ricardo Qaresma for the one-off trivela-style curler, a wonderful piece of individual skill he keeps on doing year after year. And Belgium in the last minute against Japan for the ultimate high-pressure team goal, made by
Kevin De Bruynes laser-pass and Romelu Lukakus dummy.

Personal highlight 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 rogues. Nlton Santos, Jairzinho, Romrio, Lenidas and Carlos Alberto are turning in their graves watching the current diving, weeping lot. And half of them arent 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 couldnt remember with any real certainty what city I was in. I looked at my boarding pass, but I wasnt 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, amazing supermarkets and the busking folk dance 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 amazing folk dance dont 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 goals, capped by Cristiano Ronaldo hiking up his shorts and curling that free-kick round the Spanish wall in injury time. Very satisfying draw.

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