Updated: Jul 21, 2018
They're so great, it's actually a dozen moments that had me leap out of my seat, scare the cat, wake the neighbors. Relive and experience anew twelve magical moments from Russia 2018.
Bonus Goal!: Radamel Falcao v. Poland
Admittedly, I’m biased toward Falcao, but there’s two elements that I love about this goal. First, he makes a run where he really wants the ball, and doesn’t get it; rather than be frustrated, he starts moving back into position, when a brilliant thing happens, almost in a blink of an eye. Juan Quintero, Colombia’s creative midfielder who had not played for the Canary Yellow for 2-½ years prior to the recent call up, spots the opening even before Falcao, and plays a two-touch ball so fast that I had to rewind a few times to see if it was one or two touches. The ball is slid perfectly into the newly opened channel, and Falcao pounces eponymously, El Tigre fiercely surging in for the kill. There’s a clean, utter ruthlessness to the outside-of-the foot finish that dusted Poland. There’s goosebumps, too, in the roar of the Colombian nation, and the intensity with which his teammates surround him, James especially. I think we all wanted to see something special from Colombia, and this was one of the true feel-good moments of the tourney.
10. Renato Augusto v. Belgium
Much like Coutinho’s great ball to Paulinho against Serbia, but this was even better: a delicious chip over the massive Belgian backline to pick up the perfectly timed run by Augusto, who twists mid-air to head past the massive Courtois from 10 feet out, hitting side netting with the glancer. It’s an extraordinary header; watch how many times the best players on the planet fail at it. It almost never comes off, not this far out against arguably the best keeper in the world on the hottest night of his life, off of a pretty soft delivery (Augusto has to really generate the power through his mid-air twist). Great stuff, and a reminder of how much talent is always bubbling around the Selecao.
9. Edinson Cavani v. Portugal
Can this really only be #9?!?! What a tournament of beauties! Cavani scored two terrific goals against Portugal, but the first was an act of long-distance telepathy that perhaps none but the two principals envisioned. Cavani gets the ball on the right sideline, hoofs it to his partner-in-crime Luis Suarez on the opposite flank, and takes off for the goal, at pace as he always does. There doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger, but Suarez pushes the ball right, takes a glance, and hits a searing line drive like one would play to a near post runner for a flick, or a shot, even. Cavani somehow gets onto it at the back post, peeling away from his man at the last possible moment, launching himself sideways, and using some combination of face and shoulder to rocket the ball in. The two were a joy to watch; indeed, some of the best combinations I saw in the whole tournament came from the last 25 minutes of the Uruguay-Egypt game. This was the consummate act of the best striking partnership in the Cup.
8. Ricardo Quaresma v. Iran
I’ve written extensively about Quaresma, whose appearance enlivened every match. Rarely has such a talented player never featured for a national side of so-so talent over a decade, but when finally given the chance to be on the big stage, he was perhaps the most consistently threatening player this side of Mbappe and Neymar. Here, a quick one-two combo and Quaresma probably knows he going to score before he even winds up to shoot. That’s in part because he doesn’t really wind up, but rather gets his steps straight to hit his trademark trivela. The lack of the typical big wind-up for a shot outside the box catches the Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beivanrand off guard, and even at full sprawl the bender is beyond his grasp. It’s a fantastic moment, the Romani outcast, reject of Riikjard-Mourinho-Scolari and Beskitas demigod Quaresma, and the Iranian keeper, once a sheepherder and then homeless runaway who slept outside the gates of his club while trying to catch on as a keeper. He will be remembered much longer for stoning Cristiano Ronaldo on the PK than failing to reach this. A beautiful slice of a great Cup.
7. Coutinho v. Switzerland
Personally, it would be easy for me to skip over this gem, because I feel like I’ve seen him do this so much with Liverpool that it’s too routine. It didn’t really cross my mind at the time that he wouldn’t score, because he’s Coutinho and no one in the world hits this shot better. Still, his nudge-it-right and then curl the bejeezus out of ball, starting way wide and blazing back, caroming in off the far post, was too much for the screened Yann Sommer, who was exceptionally difficult to beat all tournament. The game got pretty mucky after that and this goal probably gets a bit lost in memory, but it’s a worthy inclusion.
6. Eden Hazard v. Tunisia
A jolt of Belgian lightning on a lazy summer day! Just a beautiful moment, breathtaking in its suddenness. Belgium are knocking it around in lovely small triangles after Alderweireld wins possession with a one-touch ball to Mertens. They look like they’re warming up for the game, pinging the ball around the dazed Tunisians, when Alderweireld and Hazard lock in. The Spurs man hits a streaking Hazard on a rope, and he chests, dodges the keeper with a dainty touch, doesn’t go over, and gives us a moment of brilliance for the ages. I loved the “out of nowhere” quality of this one; Mertens is actually signalling Alderweireld to go backwards. It might only be two people in the entire stadium who see what's coming. A fuller picture of the goal's development is available here.
5. Kevin De Bruyne v. Brazil
Counter Heaven, Act II. Lukaku and Meunier are the co-creators, the former with truly great hold up play, wrecking Fernandinho and then swatting away Paulinho, and the latter with another massive surge up the flank that forces Marcelo to cheat towards the pass. De Bruyne is so often the provider but we’ve all seen the wicked shot that he has from outside the box, and this one--nailed precisely as Marcelo had given a tiny window to the far post and simultaneously screened Alisson--was absolutely cannoned into the lower left corner. Huge goal in the best match of the tournament, absolutely clinical by one of the game's most technically gifted players.
4. Benjamin Pavard v. Argentina...or Nacho v. Portugal? I can't decide! They're so good, I just moved them up a notch.
Pavard’s goal was from further, and it was huge (it erased the only deficit France had in the tourney), but he catches it partially with his shin. Now truth be told, that happens a lot more than most people imagine; I’d argue the best volley I’ve ever seen came off Robin Van Persie’s shin against Charlton Athletic. Go ahead, watch it: it’s jaw-dropping.). But when I look again, well, I guess he could have walloped it with his gluteus--that’s just a peach of a strike, and bully to Hernandez for getting down the line as well as he did, too. (There’s actually another wingback-to-wingback goal by the Senegal duo of Sabaly to Wague that was a sweet one, though not nearly at this level). Did Nacho catch this with part of his shin, too? Maybe. But Nacho’s strike is true, absolutely blazing with pace, and there’s not much sweeter than an inside-out spin cannoning off the goalpost. That was an electrifying moment in a game filled with them. So they’re both in there.
3. Neymar v. Mexico
Neymar has probably taken over from Ronaldo or Ramos as the most hated player in the world, and he’s brought it on himself the ridiculous theatrics; the ones from this game will probably outlive everything else from the match. But put that aside for a moment, because this goal is one for the ages, and he simply bewitches the Mexicans. As he cuts in, he draws three defenders right to him, five become fully attentive to stopping him, and all seven in the screen see no one but him at 0:04 in the video. For all the extraneous tricks that he deploys, Neymar joga bonito backheel to Willian is terribly efficient...and then he simply vanishes. As he cuts definitively, all seven Mexican defenders lose sight of him, seemingly transfixed by a curse that has accompanied the backheel. Willian still has a lot to do, and as part of his astoundingly good half in an otherwise forgettable tournament, he blows past the right back, only to deliver the ball back to a sliding Neymar who has literally ghosted through an El Tri who couldn't see anyone else two seconds earlier. It’s the ultimate “now you see me, now you don’t” moment, when leading man put on Frodo’s ring, so to speak, and then pulled it off as he slid, bundling ball and self across the Mexican fortress line, or Mordor if you will. Love him or hate him, this is pure brilliance.
2. Nacer Chadli v. Japan
The greatest counter goal in the biggest of moments, the clock nearly gone and Belgium hanging by a thread after Courtois dove to parry Honda's harrowing free kick. We love everything about this. First, note Lukaku doesn’t come back to defend the corner, which is a bit odd given that time's almost up, and that De Bruyne starts the play about 3 yards from his own goal line. From there, it’s Courtois’s presence to see that a simple roll to De Bruyne right down the middle releases him; to De Bruyne’s searing up-the-gut sprint with the ball; to the deft lay off to the steaming bionic flank man, Thomas Meunier; to Lukaku, whose run from right to left initially cleared that space, and then he’s back again for the near post ball; to Lukaku’s preternaturally calm dummy--a nearly indecent, outrageous act of footballing cool--to Chadli, arriving after his lung-busting 90-yard sprint that suggested Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, with his head tilted slightly towards the heavens, just in time to slip the ball under the diving keeper and avoid a scything slide coming in from behind. It gives me chills to write about it. Football fans around the world will shake their heads into their beer mugs as they reminisce about this one. It really happened.
1. Messi v. Nigeria
I initially wrote "it's not even close for me," but after watching that Belgian counterattack, that would be a lie. How do you balance the greatest touch in the tournament with its greatest non-touch (Lukaku's dummy)? I might just talk myself out of it. A gorgeous clipped pass by Banega, Messi at his full blazing pace, and then three touches for the ages. The only debate is whether the first or the second touch is the best (though for me, it’s the first: a thigh trap? That soft? At that pace and distance?) The second before the ball hits the ground, and the third clinical, at a sharp angle, back across into the side netting. Oh, with Nigerian defender bearing down on him like one of those Star Wars Dark Empire planes that’s locked in, just inches away from deflecting the shot? Tyler Lauleta gets pretty extensive with some photos that you might want to check out. For me, nothing good could have happened in the Cup and it would have still been worth a month of games to see that goal.
Yes, I’ve omitted some beauties: Lukaku’s clever run and side-net finish against Tunisia; Mbappe against Argentina on the counter, and superb Messi-to-Aguero and Angel Di Maria goals in the same game (man, was that some game!); Perisic’s clever quick-escape touch and drilled finish against France in the final; Modric’s screamer against Argentina; the Rojo Rescue against Nigeria, a stunningly good volley from perhaps the last man you’d imagine: Inui’s brilliant laser against Belgium; the Cherysev suite of goals, especially against Croatia; Lingard’s curler against Panama; the Shaquiri epic run against Serbia; Cuadrado’s superlative finish from the luscious bent ball from James; and Chucky’s finish against Germany, featuring the touch-and-cut brilliance from Chicharito that broke Hummels, Germany, and an era.
Yes, I’ve also omitted all the set pieces, including the trio (!) of excellent Mina headers, thumpers from Stones and Maguire, Varane’s picture-perfect header from Griezmann’s ball against Uruguay, a thing of beauty, and of course the two unparalleled last-second heroics from Toni Kroos and Cristiano Ronaldo. Those were unbelievable strikes, to be sure, but I can’t compare set-piece goals with ones from regular play--they’re their own category, really.
Hope you enjoyed! I've got a All-Tournament Team post coming up, along with a few sundry thoughts. Thanks for coming along on the ride.