The beauty of World Cup moments, and really of soccer moments as a genre, is their scarcity.
Soccer is a game of physical and tactical struggle, often misinterpreted as monotony. A game of slow builds, often coming undone, engraved into history as slow teases. And then … BOOM. The moment arrives, its orgasmic release unique, its instant excitement unrivaled. The slow teases – the scarcity – have made it so.
Toni Kroos’ free kick, for example, was so incredible, so intoxicating, because at least nine times out of 10 it doesn’t find the back of the net. Same goes for Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcos Rojo. At least nine times out of 10, their teams’ attacking forays had fizzled out. And decades of soccer watching had told us the most likely scenario was that they would keep fizzling out, until a shrill whistle mercifully screamed no more.
That’s why the 2018 World Cup has been so special. Moments have been unusually plentiful. Put up against history, though, each has been no less exhilarating; no less memorable.
That’s why we’ve expanded what was originally supposed to be a top 10 into a top 18 moments of the 2018 World Cup. Let’s have at it …
18. Benjamin Pavard’s beauty
The best individual goal of the tournament needs a place on the list. The honor goes to French defender Benjamin Pavard, both for technique, circumstance and backstory.
France was facing elimination, stunned by an out-of-nowhere Argentine double either side of halftime. It needed magic. Pavard whipped out his magic wand, in the form of his right foot, and sliced – in a good way – a picturesque half-volley into the top corner. It was the tide-changing and highlight-reel goal of a bonkers match.
Eighteen months earlier, Pavard had been a complete unknown, a promising but unproven 20-year-old center back in the German second division. Now he’s a revelation, and a quintessential example of the star-making power of the World Cup.
17. Panama’s first World Cup goal
For some, Panama’s World Cup performance was laughable. For Panamanians, it was one small part of a two-week-long reverie that few thought they’d ever experience. Their nation’s first World Cup goal set off wild celebrations:
It’s difficult for many of us to comprehend those celebrations. But they’re a good reminder that the World Cup means so many different things to so many different people. Panama is as much part of its charm as Brazil.
16. Late Danish drama
Croatia and Denmark punctuated a mostly forgettable Round of 16 marathon with topsy-turvy drama. In the 114th minute of a 1-1 tie, Luka Modric split Denmark’s defense with a contender for pass of the tournament. Ante Rebic rounded Kasper Schmeichel, one simple side-foot finish away from sending Croatia through. Then came one of the most controversial and accidentally ingenious plays of the tournament. And then this:
But Modric would redeem himself. He converted in the subsequent shootout. Croatia came away from the emotional roller coaster with a quarterfinal berth in hand.
15. Argentina’s utter capitulation
The scene in Nizhny Novgorod was stunning, the fiasco unfettered. In 15 remarkable minutes against Croatia, Argentina’s desperation – brought about by a disappointing opener and a Willy Caballero howler – swelled into exasperation and rage.
All evening, there had been pressure. When Caballero flubbed a cute pass, storm clouds gathered. When Modric struck, the skies opened:
Anger swelled in the stands, insults and bottles alike reportedly hurled at manager Jorge Sampaoli. It seeped through to the players. And then they quit, the overcooked passion completely sucked out of them. Javier Mascherano, in one of those I can’t believe what I’m seeing moments, stood and watched as Croatia pelted in a third:
The aftermath, as far as in-tournament meltdowns go, was almost unprecedented.
14. Neymar’s tears of relief
The immense pressure of the World Cup nearly broke Neymar. But not before he and Brazil finally broke Costa Rica, after toiling for more than 90 minutes. Headed for a second straight draw, Philippe Coutinho snagged a scrappy stoppage-time winner. Neymar got off the mark to seal victory. And then he broke down, all that pressure lifted by the final whistle, days and weeks of repressed emotion finally pouring out:
There is no way for a layperson to understand that moment, to empathize with Neymar, to imagine what the weight of World Cup expectations feels like. His tears offered a small taste.
13. A new England
First there was the Jordan Pickford save. Then there was Yerry Mina’s header, powered down England’s throat. Victory snatched away. Dread – specifically, a penalty shootout – looming.
England-Colombia in the Round of 16 was in many ways awful, and yet so tense, so nerve-racking, in large part because with every passing second, England drifted closer to what in the moment felt like inevitable heartbreak. When David Ospina parried away Jordan Henderson’s third penalty, the English language searched for a word beyond inevitability. Since 1990, the Three Lions had crashed out of six major tournaments on penalties. This, assuredly, was the seventh.
And then it wasn’t.
12. That Kylian Mbappe run
Have we ever seen anything like this at a World Cup?
Mbappe did not need the World Cup as a platform for his breakout. He was already one of the 10 best players in the world. He was already the second-most expensive ever. Yet there was still something mind-blowing about that Argentina game; something uniquely captivating about the run; something momentous about him doing that on this stage.
11. Mario Fernandes’ moment
It will get lost in the shuffle of Croatia’s run and the subsequent penalty shootout. But the most underappreciated moment of the tournament was Mario Fernandes’ 115th-minute header to peg back Croatia in the quarters.
Fernandes is not, or rather was not, Russian. Two years ago, he was not a citizen. He doesn’t speak the language. He was born in Brazil. The day after signing his first professional contract at 18, he went missing. Three days later, police found him. He was homesick. He was depressed. In the subsequent years, he’d earn Selecao call-ups. He’d also struggle to overcome his mental illness; to stay away from alcohol.
But he moved to CSKA Moscow, began to win his struggle with the help of a therapist, and matured. He was awarded citizenship by presidential decree. And for 15 minutes, he was a national hero in a nation he now feels inextricably devoted to. Stories like that are what the World Cup is all about.
10. Ronaldo’s free kick
Remember when we thought the World Cup had peaked on the second day? Of course, we were wrong. Spain 3, Portugal 3 now feels like it occurred eons ago. It’s been overshadowed by games with more implications, higher stakes. But those 90 minutes, and Ronaldo’s hat trick-capping meteor, flying through the Sochi night, were incredible.
9. Group B’s frantic finale
When clocks struck 90 on Group B’s simultaneous deciders, Portugal was winning its game and the group; Spain was losing and stumbling through in second, three points back.
Six minutes later, Iran’s Mehdi Taremi was charging across the penalty box, right to left, with a chance to dump Portugal out of the tournament altogether. There had been a goal in each game. There had been VAR controversy. It was a two-screen whirlwind.
Taremi’s shot rippled the side-netting – the outside of it – and Portugal escaped, but Group B offered up the best of four consecutive days of final-day drama.
8. Pogba’s pass
The final needed a moment. A crowning moment. It needed beauty to burst out of the tension, something magisterial to accompany France’s triumph. Paul Pogba – so unfairly maligned, so special – answered the call, first with a flabbergasting pass, then with the finish and the cathartic release of emotion that all championships need:
7. Switzerland (and Kosovo) stun Serbia
They say sport and politics don’t mix. Every four years, the World Cup scoffs at whoever they are. Switzerland and Serbia met right at the nexus of the two fields, and produced something beyond a nation’s wildest dreams. And that nation was neither Switzerland nor Serbia. It was Kosovo.
An early Serbia goal set the stage. Granit Xhaka answered with a thunderbolt. Xherdan Shaqiri won the game in the 90th minute. Both celebrated with the “Albanian eagle” gesture. They had beaten the nation that turned their parents into refugees. They’d incited Swiss parties, but also Kosovan ones. They’d infuriated Serbs. They’d helped provoked comparisons between refereeing and war crime prosecution.
This game delivered everything, and then some. Here’s more on the backstory.
6. Of all people, Marcos Rojo!
No moment better encapsulated the unpredictability of the 2018 World Cup than Marcos Rojo, a mediocre left-footed center back, randomly popping up in the penalty box from open play and pinging an 86th-minute right-footed volley past Nigeria to spare Argentina.
The celebration was tellingly rapturous. The flabbergasted look on the face of a Messi, soaking up the scene after the final whistle, and his subsequent relieved smiles were some of the indelible images of the group stage.
5. Thibaut Courtois repels Brazil
This was less about a single moment, more about momentousness. No game carried an overbearing sense of occasion more than Brazil-Belgium. What began as a tactical masterclass and blitz turned into a Brazilian onslaught, one of those classic second halves, an underdog ahead and hanging on for deal life. The equalizer was coming. Only the final whistle could prevent it.
Well, that and Thibaut Courtois’ left fingertips:
4. Mario Mandzukic beats England
Not much context necessary here …
Every previous 2018 World Cup game that had reached extra time had also reached penalties. Mandzukic changed that.
3. Kroos’ cracker
For 94 minutes, he was the scapegoat. Perhaps even the villain. Toni Kroos was the reason Germany – reigning champion Germany – was likely heading out of the World Cup. Then he was the hero:
2. South Korea’s daggers
Kroos had saved Germany. Victory over lowly, point-less South Korea was a foregone conclusion. A repeat was still very much realistic.
But over 90-plus minutes, each more earth-shaking than the next, Germany’s title defense came crashing down. By the midway point of the second halves of simultaneous games, Sweden had a multi-goal lead on Mexico. Germany, still scoreless, needed a winner. Mexico needed the opposite. And Korea … well, it had nothing to play for. Except pride. Glorious pride.
With time running out on the Germans, the unthinkable happened: South Korea scored, VAR overturning an incorrect offside call. Manuel Neuer became a desperate striker. Son Heung-min ran a second dagger into an empty net:
Scenes. Germans out. Mexicans parading around Moscow and Mexico City alike with South Koreans on their shoulders. Only the World Cup can induce this type of madness.
1. Belgian perfection
It might not be remembered as such, but Belgium’s comeback-completing 94th-minute winner against Japan was one of the greatest goals of all-time.
It was clockwork. It was spontaneously coordinated perfection, crafted in the moment, inspired by years of training, mental fortitude and impulsive brilliance. Romelu Lukaku made it without even touching the ball. Had Belgium gone on to win the World Cup, books would have been written about those 10 seconds. They still might be.