We’re only just reaching the quarter-final stage and this World Cup has already given us all so much — late drama electrifying the finale of nearly every match, three intense penalty shootouts, plenty of favourites falling away in embarrassing circumstances, an incredible array of individual goals, and a man kicking a football at his own face while celebrating a winner. Pure entertainment.
And the best part? There’s over a week of this insanity still to watch. Eight more matches to go. Eight more battles to live through, kicking and heading every ball yourself from the comfort of your couch.
Yes, I’m counting the third-placed play-off, because I am absolutely addicted to this tournament and aim to absorb every second of it, even the weird part just before the end where none of the players really want to be there.
Talk will now turn increasingly to prizes, both the Jules Rimet itself and the personal gongs to be handed out. So, here we’ll have a look over a few of the candidates, well-fancied or otherwise, to be declared the competition’s best player and take home the Golden Ball.
But, no matter who triumphs in the competition, and regardless of who picks up the Golden Ball, just be thankful you were one of the infinitely fortunate human beings to have existed at the same time as the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Hard to look beyond the Parisian prince who could well be crowned a king, isn’t it?
France’s group stage outings were generally strangely lethargic affairs which, while effective enough to see them comfortably reach the knockout rounds with a match to spare, failed to live up to the hype circling around their collection of youthful attacking superstars.
But against Argentina last weekend they stepped up gear, and it was Kylian Mbappé’s magnificent pace which set them on their way. His gliding run past Javier Mascherano on the way to earning his side’s penalty made the 34-year-old midfielder look at least twice his age, while the sheer panic instilled in Marcos Rojo was enough to convince the defender that a wild lunge was the only possible way to stop Mbappé’s relentless run.
In the second-half the Paris Saint-Germain forward smelled blood in the Argentine backline and punished them with two quick, sharp finishes that proved confidence was flowing through him.
The notion that Mbappé has now ‘arrived’ at the top tier of world football is jarring, considering the fact his club had already agreed to pay almost £200m for his services last summer, but this truly was one of the all-time great World Cup performances.
If France are to progress past Uruguay and Brazil or Belgium, they’ll need their frontline to be at its best, and Mbappé has enough momentum with him to continue to steal the limelight.
Scoff all you like at the thought of a centre-half winning the Golden Ball, but Fabio Cannavaro went the whole hog back in 2006 and won the Ballon d’Or for Christ’s sake, so hear me out on this. Diego Godín to win the Golden Ball is currently 66/1 with RedsBet.
Uruguay have been arguably the tournament’s most impressive team so far; Oscar Tabarez’s men coursed through the group stage with barely a hiccup and were comfortably the better side in the round-of-16 against a vastly experienced Portugal side possessing one of the greatest players to have played the game.
The platform for their safe passage past Portugal was two-fold. Firstly, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani’s partnership up-front was at its intimidating, boisterous best, with the latter’s ruthlessness in front of goal making sure their hard work and build-up play was justly rewarded.
Secondly, with Cristiano Ronaldo acting as Portugal’s only true goal threat, the imperious Diego Godín didn’t allow the Real Madrid man a sniff of the ball.
The frustration was writ large on Ronaldo’s face from early on. The player who scored three against the Spanish simply didn’t have enough freedom on the ball, enough space in the penalty area, or enough time to think, to be able to exert a positive influence.
José Maria Giménez was excellent in defence once again, but his elder partner Godín has consistently performed at a level which suggests he is currently head-and-shoulders above his counterparts as the best defender in world football.
There is no reason why Uruguay cannot beat France, win their semi-final and then go on to win the trophy. If they manage to do so, their best player must surely be awarded the Golden Ball. And their best player so far is most certainly Diego Godín.
Look, for one reason other another, Russia just refuse to go away in this tournament, and their staying power renders them a major threat to anybody who crosses their path. A bit like Novichok, I suppose.
Although the impressive Denis Cheryshev’s goals set them on their way to group stage progression, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is the major reason the host nation has managed to reach the quarter-finals. After a performance devoid of attacking intent, the game plan seemingly being to take the match to penalties and hope for the best, the CSKA stopper’s two splendid saves in the shootout against Spain set the stage for delirious scenes the likes of which Russian sports fans have never experienced before.
They won’t be expected to make it past Croatia and reach the semi-finals, but nobody thought they’d knock out the Spanish either. The importance of home advantage can sometimes be overplayed — just ask Brazil about what happened against Germany in Belo Horizonte in 2014 — but the rapport between the crowd and team so far in Russia has been eminently palpable. As was evident before the World Cup began, Russian supporters have no great expectations of their side, and seem to have taken it upon themselves to play a very active role in trying to help as much as possible.
If Russia do manage to progress beyond the Croats, and possibly even past England or Sweden in the semis too, it’s safe to say Akinfeev will be extensively tested along the way. His penalty pedigree has already been proven, his performances have been calm, and his position as captain and leader of the squad makes him a prime candidate
Russia is a nation which has had a distinctly romantic relationship with goalkeepers ever since Lev Yashin was their flat-capped Soviet superhero, and on the off-chance they can make it to the final, FIFA might find the opportunity to bestow the competition’s individual prize upon the Russian’s last line of defence a narrative simply too irresistible. Akinfeev to win the Golden Ball is currently 66/1 with RedsBet.