World Cup Memories: 2018 - The most exciting World Cup ever?

Anna Mikhailova

i24NEWS Web journalist | @AnMikailova

10 min read
France's forward Kylian Mbappe carries the trophy as he celebrates after the Russia 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.
GABRIEL BOUYS / AFPFrance's forward Kylian Mbappe carries the trophy as he celebrates after the Russia 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.

Even the most vocal critics later admitted the World Cup in Russia exceeded their expectations

Like the current hosts Qatar, the choice of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup was a controversial one to say the least.

A long list of dark clouds hung over Moscow's hosting of the event: a crackdown on protests in 2012; Russia's “gay propaganda law” in 2013; the annexation of Crimea in 2014; violations during the 2016 domestic elections; and accusations of interference in the U.S. presidential race; not to mention the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom just months before the championship. 

But despite all this, President Vladimir Putin still got his opportunity to host the world’s most popular sporting event. And no matter about the skepticism, both inside and outside of the country, it was a success. 

Jewel SAMAD / AFP
Jewel SAMAD / AFPFIFA president Gianni Infantino (C) watches as Russian President Vladimir Putin touches the World Cup trophy during the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.

After an opening performance from British pop star Robbie Williams, Putin told the 80,000 crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow: “Love for soccer unites the entire world in one team, regardless of people’s language or ideology.” And for a month between 14 June and 15 July 2018, this unity did exist.

Even the most vocal critics later admitted the Cup exceeded their expectations turning Putin’s “police state” into a friendly, vibrant melting pot, where policemen smiled and were eager to help tipsy foreign fans find their way to the hotels.

“Is it the most exciting World Cup ever?” a CNN anchor wondered when I turned on the TV in my hotel room in the middle of the championship. It sure was for the Russians. 

Nobody expected the national team to make it that far with fans sharing scornful memes about the players just days before the championship kicked off. Russia started its World Cup journey, defeating Saudi Arabia 5-0. It’s worth mentioning that at the time the Russian team was ranked 70th in the world, three places below Saudi Arabia.

Then its goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev turned into a national hero by saving two penalties which brought his team a victory over Spain. After that game, souvenirs with Akinfeev’s “Leg of God” flooded the stores.

Juan Mabromata / AFP
Juan Mabromata / AFPRussia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev stops a shot by Spain's forward Iago Aspas during the penalty shootout of the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Spain and Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2018.

The team didn’t make it past the quarter-finals, losing to Croatia after a second consecutive penalty shootout ended 4-3. Nevertheless, this loss was celebrated on the streets of Moscow all night because the Russian players demonstrated a level of soccer that their fans could finally be proud of.

It was generally the World Cup of the underdogs. The defending champions, Germany, were eliminated in the group stage.

Another favorite, Argentina, headed by Lionel Messi, failed to win their opening match at a World Cup for the first time since 1990 and continued to disappoint fans with a 1-1 draw against debutants Iceland. Messi missed a second-half penalty making Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson one of the stars of the championship.

Khaled DESOUKI / AFP
Khaled DESOUKI / AFPIceland fans clap during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Iceland and Croatia at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don, Russia, on June 26, 2018.

I interviewed Halldorsson after that match as a culture news correspondent. Yes, you read that right. A tiny European country of 370,000 people had possibly the most diverse national team in history with players having full-time jobs as postman or movie director, which was the case with Halldorsson.

Apart from making short films, he shot a Coca-Cola commercial for the World Cup, but answering my question about his career priorities, the 34-year-old keeper who started playing soccer professionally only at 27, proudly replied he saw himself as a player.

More than the team itself that was eliminated after being defeated by Croatia 2-1, the World Cup audience fell in love with Iceland’s supporters, who were named best fans of the 2018 World Cup. A touching video where they sang a traditional Russian folk song “Kalinka” immediately made them popular even among Russians who weren’t interested in soccer. Their “Viking clap” and the thunderous “Hoo!” chants rocked Russian stadiums from Moscow to Volgograd.

Going back to Argentina - it was kicked out of the tournament by the future eventual winners, France, with Paris’ rising star Kylian Mbappe scoring 2 out of 4 goals. Ironically, the same day Messi headed home, his long-time rival in La Liga, Christiano Ronaldo, was eliminated from the quarter-finals after Uruguay defeated Portugal 2:1.

However, the early departure of their team didn’t stop Argentinian fans from having the best time in Russia, turning Moscow’s central Nikolskaya street into their improvised headquarters. It was practically impossible to make your way around the Russian capital during the World Cup without hugging and dancing with Argentinian fans at some point. 

Anna Mikhailova
Anna MikhailovaArgentinian fans at the Nikolskaya street in Moscow, Russia, during the 2018 World Cup.

But what this World Cup should really be praised for is showing both foreigners and Russians the country outside the two capitals, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The matches took place in 11 Russian cities, some of which were never particularly known for touristic attractions.

There was a sense of a looming disaster until the last moment, with media reports saying the stadiums weren’t ready or that the local hotel staff didn’t speak English. Yet, it worked out just fine.

All foreign fans I spoke with praised the free trains organized to all the World Cup destinations that allowed them to get to their team’s matches and to see half of the biggest country in the world on their way.

Anna Mikhailova
Anna MikhailovaFans during the 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Spain and Iran in Kazan, Russia, on June 20, 2018.

I, however, didn’t get to share this experience as my friend and I arrived at a Moscow railway station at 1 am and didn’t find our train to Kazan, the capital of Russia’s predominantly Muslim Tatarstan Republic, where we were supposed to attend the Spain-Iran game the following evening.

By the time we realized our train had left at 1 am the previous morning it was too late to book plane tickets. However, the fans' cooperation didn’t let us down. At 6 am we were sitting in a minivan with a group of other soccer lovers determined to make a 500-mile ride in less than 12 hours. Not only did we make it to the game on time but also got to enjoy a walk around summer Kazan meeting Spanish and Iranian fans fascinated by the city’s beauty. 

Anna Mikhailova
Anna MikhailovaView from the Luzhniki Stadium during the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England in Moscow, Russia, on July 11, 2018.

Needless to say, setting my alarm clock for 3 am to monitor the World Cup ticket website was worth it. I spent all my birthday money on snatching a ticket to see the semifinals where English fans sang their hearts out hoping “Football was coming home” for the first time since 1966. 

Spoiler - it didn’t as Croatia beat the English 2-1. But as they say in Russia “it’s the participation that counts.” 

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