x

Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

The alternative best and worst of the 2018 World Cup

We take a light-hearted look at some of the highs and lows of the tournament in Russia

Eric Cantona responds to Neymar's infamous hairdo. YouTube
Eric Cantona responds to Neymar's infamous hairdo. YouTube

It's down to two from 32, with France and Croatia preparing to face off in the 2018 World Cup Final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday. England and Belgium fans might not be in a particularly jovial mood after their semi-final defeats, but hopefully our alternative awards for the best and worst of the tournament will raise a few smiles as we look back on what was a hugely enjoyable month of football so far.

Angriest man: Janne Andersson

At best, Sweden manager Janne Andersson cut a stern figure on the sidelines as he marshalled his distinctly average squad to the last eight of the World Cup. But his maddest moment arrived when 10-man Germany scored an injury-time winner during their Group F encounter in Sochi – he more or less tried to take on the entire opposition bench, irked by what he saw as over-exuberant celebrations, his face contorted into a mask of pure fury. The last laugh in that scenario was ultimately his, thanks to Germany's subsequent group-stage exit, however, and he was comparatively polite as his side succumbed to England in the quarter-finals, going so far as to compliment his conquerors and tip them to win the whole thing. Not such a bad guy after all, then, although cracking a grin was still not high on his agenda.

Sweden manager Janne Andersson and his players were visibly dejected after the match. Pilar Olivares / Reuters
Sweden manager Janne Andersson during the match against Germany. Reuters

Worst hair – player: Neymar

You can read our full run-down of "interesting" hair cuts of World Cups past and present right this way. And we certainly can't dispute the No 1 entry: Neymar's absurd spaghetti 'do was derided by all who laid eyes on it, including one Eric Cantona, to the extent that the Brazilian had dispensed with it by the time his side bowed out to Belgium in the quarter-finals. A shame that the same couldn't be said of his penchant for rolling around at the slightest breath from an opposing player – more of which below...

Eric Cantona responds to Neymar's infamous hairdo. YouTube
Eric Cantona responds to Neymar's infamous hairdo. YouTube

Best/worst hair – pundit: Christopher Sullivan

Among a cast of immediately recognisable former footballers on the Mena region's coverage of the World Cup, one regular panellist was slightly less familiar. But aside from eliciting countless cries of "who is he?" from television viewers, one-time US international Christopher Sullivan's magnificent walnut whip of dyed keratin deserves special mention. If the punditry game doesn't work out, a career as a TV news anchorman surely awaits, so long as somebody invents time travel and can take him back to the 1970s.

Best facial hair: Stanislav Cherchesov

Russia's manager Stanislav Cherchesov began the World Cup as a hapless somewhat figure of fun, with his side being derided as the lowest-quality side to host the tournament in its entire history. Fast-forward a few weeks, and after an unexpected, heroic run to the last eight, the former international goalkeeper's status in his home nation had risen to such an extent that Russians were being encouraged to fashion their top-lip furniture in homage and fake moustaches modelled on Cherchesov's were being sold on the streets of Moscow as local fans fondly adopted his trademark facial follicles.

Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov holds up a small figurine dressed in Russia red and replete with flag and football, dubbed “Success”, a dainty ornament sculpted by an artist working at a Moscow university, which was presented to him by a member of the media. Francisco Leong / AFP
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov and his much-heralded face furniture. AFP

Best VIP image: Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

It took a mere 90 minutes of Russia 2018 for this gem to emerge from the tournament's opening game between Saudi and Russia. It began with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exchanging pleasantries. By the time that Russia had knocked in five, Fifa's president, Gianni Infantino was sat between the two world leaders doing a comedy emoji-worthy shrug that betrayed the fact he was probably looking a sharp exit from the VIP box before things became really awkward.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, center, and Russian President Vladimir Putin watch the match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
From left, Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Fifa's Gianni Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP

Hero: VAR

Stick with me on this one, football purists, but the extra layer of drama injected by the video assistant referee has, on the whole, been edge-of-the-seat entertainment worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. There have been many instances where wrongs have been righted – and a few where they haven't – but the one match that sticks in the memory for sheer VAR-packed drama was Portugal versus Iran in Group B. A penalty for a foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was confirmed, but the Portuguese galactico saw his effort saved; Iran were handed a (dubious) spot kick of their own, which they converted; Ronaldo almost got himself sent off late on for throwing his arms around; then thanks to Iran's penalty, they had the chance to push for an equaliser that would have sent them through at the expense of Portugal. Ronaldo and co ultimately progressed, but it was footballing theatre at its best.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, reacts as Iran's Morteza Pouraliganji lies injured on the floor. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, could have been sent off for his clash with Iran's Morteza Pouraliganji, seen here on the floor. Reuters

Most complicated relationship with gravity: Neymar

See all the finest World Cup memes here, but in the immortal, sage words of Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst: rollin', rollin', rollin', rollin'...

Most tenuous attempt to prove that football was 'coming home'

As England fans are all now aware, football will not be "coming home" on Sunday – unless you call France or Croatia home, naturally. That didn't stop some scallywags from attempting to prove that it was before the quarter-finals with an inventive brand of "maths":

Nicest fans – and players: Japan

It has been well-documented that Japan's travelling masses were the most pleasant supporters of the World Cup, staying behind to tidy the stadium after each of their games in Russia. The loveable humility even extended to their players, which is quite the thing in an era of pampered multimillionaire megastars who probably don't even know the way to their local supermarket to purchase a dustpan and brush:

Strangest cameo: Diego Maradona

Diego Armando Maradona has been many things to many people over his storied playing career – and slightly less celebrated stints in management, which have included typically incident-packed spells in UAE club football. He appeared to be attempting every single persona inside a manic 90 minutes when Argentina played their vital group game against Nigeria, however.

He went from smooth charmer (dancing with a Nigerian lady in the crowd) to bulging-eyed unpleasantness (making obscene gestures as Argentina booked their place in the next round) and, finally, as has sadly often been the case in his latter years, sparked concerns about his health after being attended by medics post-final whistle.

On many occasions, it seemed only a burly minder bear-hugging him around the waist was stopping the Hand of God architect from tumbling into the stand's tiers beneath his VIP vantage point. He has since offered to coach Argentina for free, after they were dumped out of the competition by France – but he will struggle to top this performance even if he does make it to the next World Cup in four years, although we look forward to finding out. Roll on 2022.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 26: Diego Armando Maradona celebrates Argentina's victory following the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 26, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
Diego Maradona celebrates Argentina's victory over Nigeria. Getty