And breathe. After 17 days of non-stop football, the World Cup pauses ahead of the quarter-finals in Qatar. Amid controversy and continued human rights concerns surrounding the host country off the pitch, it’s been an exhilarating ride so far on it, with shocks galore and a number of thrilling matches to light up the tournament.
The group stages may be remembered as the most unpredictable ever seen at a World Cup, with Saudi Arabia shocking Argentina, Japan stunning Germany and then Spain, and Tunisia beating the defending champions France. Several of the groups went down to the final day, and in some cases final minutes, setting up a diverse last-16 line-up.
There have been moments of inspiration from star players, including Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, as well as sublime team goals scored by the Netherlands and Brazil. England have also impressed and are the tournament’s top scorers heading into the quarter-finals, with Gareth Southgate’s side facing France on Saturday.
Morocco produced the result of the last-16 as they upset Spain on penalties, and will look to become the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup when they take on Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo has already made history by becoming the first man to score in five World Cups, while Argentina look to be on a collision course with Brazil in what is Messi’s final World Cup.
Here are some of the best moments of the World Cup so far, as nominated by The Independent’s writers.
Miguel Delaney, Chief Football Writer: Germany stand up to Fifa and Messi’s magic against Mexico
The manner that Germany’s admirable silence gesture has provoked angry responses reflects a victory greater than anything happened on the pitch, but this is ultimately about the pitch. There are many moments, the World Cup transcending its problematic stage in the way it often does, from Morocco’s rise to Richarlison’s acrobatics. In terms of its historic weight and emotion, though, there was something even more transcendental about Leo Messi’s goal against Mexico. The strike itself was divine, with its beauty made all the better because it was such a defining moment, rescuing Argentina after the shock of Saudi Arabia, and setting them on a new path - perhaps destiny. Fittingly, in the moments after such a release, Messi showed his relief in a manner even more freighted with grandeur. "Thank you, Diego." It was a moment of private prayer, amid the most raucous public atmosphere.
Richard Jolly, Senior Football Correspondent: Ghana’s thrilling victory over South Korea
Ghana versus South Korea might not have stood out on the fixture list. But, like the Cameroon-Serbia match earlier that afternoon, it was both high drama and a prime example of what the World Cup should be about, a chaotic classic played by teams from different continents who rarely meet, amid an atmosphere of mutual excitement. Ghana surged into a lead, South Korea mounted a fightback, the outstanding Mohammed Kudus scored the winner and Son Heung-Min ended up in tears, thinking his side were out. And in the end, they qualified for the last 16 and compellingly fun Ghanaians did not.
Ben Burrows, Sports Editor: Luis Suarez’s tears
Ghana had promised to retire Luis Suarez from the World Cup, to exorcise the "devil himself" from this grandest of tournaments for good. 12 years after he broke their hearts with his handball in the quarter-finals in South Africa, they got as close a view as possible this time as South Korea's late goal sent Uruguay - and their talisman of so many years - crashing out. There were tears from Suarez as the bitter reality of knowing this might very well be it at this level began to sink in. Ghana might not have got through themselves as they had so hoped, but after more than a decade of waiting for a measure of revenge this, as second prizes go, was about as good as they could ever have wished for.
Alex Pattle, Sports Reporter: Enthralling Group E climax will live long in the memory
The climax of Group E, with Spain falling to Japan and Germany simultaneously beating Costa Rica in a thriller - yet in vain. That brief spell in which both Spain and Germany were going out almost defied belief, especially given how the Spanish had begun their campaign in such convincing fashion against Costa Rica. Throw in the added drama of Japan's winner being scrutinised long into the night, and you had one of the most enthralling evenings of football in recent memory – and in World Cup history, even.
Kieran Jackson, Sports Reporter: Saudi Arabia’s brilliant victory over Argentina and Messi
Come day three of the tournament, the World Cup was yet to burst into life. But the first of the early kick-offs, Argentina vs Saudi Arabia, delivered in a fashion virtually nobody would have foreseen. Argentina, on a 36-game unbeaten streak, were one up at the break through Lionel Messi’s penalty but were made to rue a string of missed chances as the boldly brilliant high-pressing style of Saudi led to two goals in five second-half minutes. Backs against the wall, the team ranked 51st in the world fought for their lives to secure their most famous win in front of a disbelieving crowd in the Lusail Stadium and millions watching worldwide. An all-time World Cup shock – and the shocks have continued aplenty.
Jamie Braidwood, Sports Reporter: The Netherlands’ perfect team goal against USA
You won’t see a better team goal at the World Cup than the opening goal scored by the Netherlands in their 3-1 win against the USA. Louis van Gaal’s side had struggled to live up to expectations as they progressed to the last-16 but finally marked their return to the World Cup in style with a beautiful, flowing passing move that involved all 11 players and was finished by Memphis Depay. It was perfection, a stunning illustration of cohesion, movement and understanding of space. That it was scored by the Netherlands seemed to elevate its quality, too. It just felt right.
Luke Baker, Sports Editor: Morocco thriving as Africa’s last hope
Morocco have been a revelation, taking up the mantle of underdog that captures everyone’s heart. They’re probably the story of this World Cup, as they topped a tricky-looking Group F ahead of Croatia and Belgium before dramatically stunning Spain on penalties in the last 16 with a mature, stubborn performance in which they were every bit the equal of the feted Furia Roja. They’ve conceded just a solitary goal in Qatar and have gloried in the role of ‘plucky team no-one wants to face’. They’ve brought a region and a continent together, while muscling in on the European-South American hegemony of the quarter-final line-up feels important in global football terms. I would now love to see them become the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Jack Rathborn, Sports Editor: Poland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia chaos in Group C finale
The group stage finale delivered spectacularly across the board and while the drama surrounding Japan and South Korea’s progress was sensational, the battle between Poland and Mexico (and Saudi Arabia) provided brilliant madness. Fans scrambled to tally up disciplinary points with the group just 30 seconds away from being decided on yellow cards and Poland knew it: Grzegorz Krychowiak was tactically removed after his late booking. Before all of that, Luis Chavez announced himself as the game’s most deadly set-piece taker with the perfect strike and another near miss, then El Tri frantically pushed for that vital third goal, only for Salem Al-dawsari to crush their hopes deep into stoppage time with the sucker punch. End-to-end chaos and thrilling entertainment.
Best goal: Brazil needed a moment of inspiration, so step forward Richarlison. The Tottenham forward had already broken the deadlock against Serbia after scrambling in a rebound, before he gave the Selecao lift off by truly taking off. After Vinicius Jr crossed, Richarlison’s first touch set up the spectacular overhead volley, which he executed to perfection by crashing the shot into the corner. A brilliant moment. Brazil also had a goal of the tournament competition amongst themselves as they danced past South Korea and into the quarter-finals, with a stunning exhibition of what Brazil means to the World Cup.
Rashford reborn: By comparison to many teams around them, England enjoyed a quiet serene group stage as they qualified with a thumping 3-0 win over Wales. Despite the boos that followed the goalless draw with the United States, England were never in serious danger of being eliminated but they still required something special to break the deadlock in the all-British Group B clash. Rashford’s free-kick, powered in from 25 yards, was that moment and the forward’s second goal later in the match took him to three overall for the tournament. Rashford’s journey from the lowest of lows to a player reborn at the World Cup was the standout story of England’s group stage.
Irish leave their mark on Qatar: In a bizarre moment captured by French television while a fan of Les Bleus discussed the football, a rather delirious Ireland fan gatecrashed the interview, blurting out his best French, or perhaps a way of life: “Je suis un baguette!”
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