Russia 2018: it’s been an extraordinary
World Cup. Drama, upsets, controversy, and some sublime football. Here are our favourite
moments of perhaps the most exciting World Cup ever. Panama’s first ever World Cup goal (vs England) Felipe Baloy. Thirty-seven years old, 13 clubs.
Winning his 98th cap and with three goals to his name in an international career spanning
17 years. Ricardo Avila swings in a left footed free kick. Panama are 6-0 down with 13 minutes
left to play. Baloy emerges from a cluster of static white shirts, throws himself forwards,
right leg extended, guides a perfect finish hard and low past the outstretched left hand
of the England ‘keeper. A hug from Blas Perez, a kiss blown to the jubilant fans who
have made the journey of six thousand miles. Panama’s first ever World Cup goal. Schmeichel saves vs Croatia Twenty-five minutes into extra time, a place
in the quarter-finals at stake, penalty Croatia. Modric places the ball down on the spot, strikes
it, and Schmeichel flings himself to his left, cradling the saved shot. Teammates surround
him. Peter looking down from the stands, the other Great Dane. And then, the shoot-out.
A blur of yellow plunging right, trailing leg, Badelj’s hands cover his face. Then
up steps Pivaric, Schmeichel’s arms stretched high, diving right, celebrating with a thrown,
clenched fist, echoed by his father. It’s not enough, but no one could have done more. Dier penalty vs Colombia After normal time, extra time, goals, fouls,
a brutal, sapping game, nothing could separate England and Colombia. And so, to penalties.
The rocks on which England have foundered so many times. Henderson’s shot, brilliantly
saved by Ospina. Pickford’s heroics give England a chance. And up steps Eric Dier.
Spurs. Bottler. He’ll miss. They always lose. Looks down, looks at the keeper, a few
steps and strikes it. 4-3, Pickford under a heap of bodies, Dier redeeming years of
failure from 12 yards. England’s first ever success in a World Cup penalty shoot-out. Korea Republic second goal vs Germany Germany, defending Champions, have 30 seconds
to save their World Cup. Everyone is forward, a throw in to Manuel Neuer, sweeper keeper
turned midfielder. Desperation, then confusion, as Ju Se-jong steals in, takes the ball, turns
and heaves it up the pitch with his left. And there, despite the exhaustion, the chasing
and pressing, is Son Heung-min, hurling himself after the pass. Sule does his best, but Son
is quicker, gives himself the easiest left foot tuck into the goal, peeling away, jumps
arms outstretched into a bundle of teammates. Ozil, on his haunches. The unthinkable has
happened. Mario Fernandes header vs Croatia Alan Dzagoev, breathing heavily, looks across
at the jostling and movement in the penalty area. Russia, the hosts, have less than ten
minutes to give themselves a chance of progressing against Croatia. In the crowd, hands are clenched
in prayer. Dzagoev starts, stutters, starts again, and crosses. Croatia flat-footed, and
Mario Fernandes rises, heads home unopposed, bottom left. Ecstatic, leaping the advertising
hoardings and screaming at the crowd, fists clenched. On the side-lines, Cherchesov prowls,
almost a smile. The hosts have a chance, again. Fernandes: born in Brazil, made in Russia. Iran VAR no goal vs Spain Iran have a free kick, minutes after Spain
have scored. Tenacious, well-organised, but they have not exactly threatened. Until now.
Ramin Rezaeian crosses, two Iranians running towards the back post, chased by a defender.
It falls to Saeid Ezatolahi who calmly slots it through the legs of a collapsing, twisting
De Gea. The number 6 sprints for the corner, as teammates leap on him, the bench clearing
to join the celebrations. But Spain are unconvinced, Pique shrugging. It goes to VAR, monitors
in a box-room in Moscow. Iran are denied, correctly. Ezatolahi, crestfallen. From ecstasy
in agony in a moment. Belgium breakaway vs Japan From 2-0 down to 2-2. Thirty seconds left.
At stake, the right to play Brazil in the quarters. Courtois rises, plucks a corner
from the air. Sprints to the edge of his box, rolls it to de Bruyne, sprinting into space.
Four Belgians in a line, Lukaku ahead, but Japan have three back. De Bruyne, as nonchalant
as you can be a full stretch with the seconds ticking down, out to Meunier. Meunier crosses,
low, towards Lukaku. Lukaku, leaning into his man, lets the ball whisper past his foot.
To Chadli, left-footed, past the dive of Kawashima. End to end, the perfect counter. Messi goal vs Argentina There’s a moment, as Ever Banega’s pass
arcs towards Messi, and the Nigerian defence turn and chase, when you just know. Messi
bursts forwards. The ball nestles on his left thigh, watched all the way, drops, a little
flick forwards with the left foot, letting it run across his body until, just before
the angle is too tight, his right foot wraps around the shot, which rises, curls away,
into the net. Messi sinks to his knees, for a moment all that weight floating away. Maradona
in the stands, clutching himself, eyes to the heavens. Pavard goal vs Argentina France Argentina. Vibrant, young France, angry,
shaken Argentina, brittle but always dangerous. They’ve clawed their way ahead, too, despite
Sampaoli, despite everything. And then, a break. Matudi finds Hernandez sprinting down
the flank, and somehow he gets a cross in. It evades everyone, bounces once, twice. And
there is Pavard, unfancied Pavard, the one you hadn’t heard of. His body contorted
to 45 degrees, a perfect connection. Five players between him and the goal. The finest,
sweetest shot of the World Cup, curling in, unsaveable. Pavard runs, slides on his knees
towards the bench. After that, the rest is easy. Cavani and Ronaldo Portugal are losing. The European Champions
need to find something against battle-hardened, never-say-die Uruguay. And then Uruguay’s
Cavani, goal-scorer, talisman, breaks down. Limping towards the touch line. His game,
and possible World Cup, over. Ronaldo, Portugal’s captain, goes to him, puts an arm around his
waist, shepherds him off. Perhaps it’s to hurry him up, to get on with the game. But
perhaps it’s a gesture of sportsmanship, the decent thing to do for a respected opponent.
Whichever, it’s an image that will last. Two fierce competitors, united in a moment