B/R's Alternative Awards for the 2018 World Cup
Welcome to life after the 2018 World Cup. Dreary, isn't it? Something missing, isn't there?
We're just 24 hours removed from France's triumph in the final in Moscow, but we've already had to hit the rewind button and look back across the tournament. In doing so we've handed out 10 awards, ranging from best player to best celebration to biggest flop.
If you, like us, are struggling without your daily dose of football, this is a safe place to recover while the worst of the storm blows over.
Best Player: Luka Modric, Croatia
You won't always agree with the Golden Ball award nomination, but FIFA's selection of Luka Modric this year feels about right given what happened in the final.
Leading up to Sunday, N'Golo Kante had felt like the best player of the tournament, but the Frenchman's horror show in the final cleared Modric's path to the top. Struggling, booked and already partially at fault for one goal, the Chelsea standout was hooked after 55 minutes in a ruthless (but fair) move by manager Didier Deschamps.
Modric's own performance was hardly a personal best, but it was good—good enough. The Real Madrid star was once again the lifeblood of his side, dictating from midfield and involved in many of their finest moves. Like in so many of the games before the final, he was the central point to everything.
Best Under-21 Player Not Named Kylian Mbappe: Nikola Milenkovic, CB, Serbia
All the Serbia pre-tournament chatter was understandably centred around Sergej Milinkovic-Savic—a big name, literally, and one linked to a host of top European clubs. Many were set to see him in action for the first time and critically assess his prowess.
But after three intense and exciting group games, another was christened as the nation's breakout star: Nikola Milenkovic.
Had it not been for Matija Nastasic's injury prior to the selection of the 23-man roster, Milenkovic, 20, may not even have played, but he seized the opportunity with both hands, putting in a dominant showing against Costa Rica and a good one against Switzerland.
The Fiorentina player's aggressiveness, distribution and tackling all shone, looking right at home on the biggest stage—despite the fact that he was only winning his fourth, fifth and sixth international caps!
Best Goal: Benjamin Pavard vs. Argentina
The 2018 World Cup was a tournament of great goals, so before we dissect Benjamin Pavard's strike, let's honour some of the other incredible efforts on show.
Belgium's scything counter-attack against Japan in the round of 16, ending with Nacer Chadli tapping home in the 94th minute, was perfect football at 100 mph. Nacho Fernandez's own solo effort, similar to Pavard's, smacked in off the post in the most pleasing of ways. Lionel Messi's wrong-footed strike against Nigeria is perhaps more notable for the slick touches to set himself up than the hit itself.
But Pavard's trumped them all. The technique employed is eye-popping: the way he slices across the ball, the way it starts outside the post but drifts back in and the impromptu nature of it—he's likely surprised the ball even falls to him and has just a split-second to decide what to do.
It was a strike so good it sparked mass revisionism with regard to Pavard's performances at the tournament. The Stuttgart man's struggles against Australia in Game 1? His general lack of attacking impact up until that point? All forgotten. When you strike a ball so sweetly against Messi's Argentina, nothing else matters.
Best Player Who Didn't Get out of the Groups: Nordin Amrabat, Morocco
The phrase "all action" almost does Nordin Amrabat's performances in Russia an injustice.
Considering he was on the flank, it's incredible how involved he was in Morocco's play. Be it from right-back or right wing, he was a huge outlet for his nation, steaming forward, creating chances, leaping over tackles and teasing in balls.
Given he ended the tournament with no goals and no assists, it's likely many will forget the Watford man's three-game salvo fairly swiftly. But from throwing off his protective cap for his concussion in disgust to cracking the bar against Spain with a thunderous effort, Amrabat's summer of fun is immortalised here.
The James Rodriguez Award (Most Likely to Be Signed by Real Madrid): Eden Hazard
Real Madrid love a big post-World Cup splash. It's part of their MO to sign a high-value player in the aftermath of the world's biggest sporting event, capitalising on excitement, shirt sales and momentum.
It's what took Fabio Cannavaro to the club in 2006, Mesut Ozil there in 2010 and James Rodriguez there in 2014. The pattern has long been established.
This year, there are three obvious candidates: Thibaut Courtois (Golden Glove winner), Eden Hazard (second in the Golden Ball running) and Kylian Mbappe (Best Young Player). Mbappe is probably out of their reach. So narrow it to the two Belgians, and there's a chance they sign both.
Hazard already has Chelsea fans worried. After Belgium secured third place on Saturday he told reporters: (h/t Marca): "After six wonderful years at Chelsea, it might be time to discover something different. I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision. If they let me out, you already know my favoured destination."
No one is under any illusions: That "favoured destination" is Real Madrid.
Biggest Letdown: Germany
In a tournament riddled with underwhelming performances by the big guns, Germany take the biscuit when it comes to the subject of biggest letdowns. Their 270 minutes on the pitch in Russia was nothing short of shambolic.
Manager Joachim Low ignored the warning signs from the pre-tournament friendlies against Austria and Saudi Arabia and headed into the first game against Mexico—known to be an excellent counter-attacking team—with a wide-open system that afforded no protection to the centre-backs and no defensive balance.
They were ripped apart by El Tri and then just scraped a win against Sweden in a performance almost as bad. They needed to beat South Korea in their final Group F game to go through—a simple on-paper task for a team so talented. But you know the old adage, and their 2-0 defeat was the most painful of the lot.
The reigning champions were felled in the group stage for the third World Cup in succession (Italy and Spain did the same before them). Perhaps the curse is real?
Tournament Flop: Thomas Muller, Germany
With Germany nominated as the biggest letdown, it only follows that one of their players receives the title of flop.
You can make a case for several of them. Toni Kroos was well below his usual standard, Sami Khedira was responsible for a woeful 60 minutes against Mexico, and Timo Werner was anonymous when playing centrally. You can sort of spare the centre-backs, given their lack of protection.
But the biggest flop was Thomas Muller: a man who has carved out a reputation for executing on the big stage, scoring vital goals. A man who has 10 World Cup goals and was likely eyeing a potential record. A man Germany have relied on for eight-plus years to get it done when it matters the most.
He was so far below par.
Low kept faith in him, starting him in two of the three games and hoping he'd find his groove. But he didn't, with good positions squandered, inaccurate crosses, wild shots and being stopped easily. Mexico, Sweden and South Korea (when he subbed on in the 63rd minute) all held him at arm's length with ease—something no one thought possible.
Best Goal Celebration: Aliou Cisse, Senegal
Scoring a goal at the World Cup looks fun, doesn't it? You can see the sheer joy etched across the players' faces when they manage it. It's all sporadic, and little can prepare you for the moment, with many of the celebrations falling into the same category: hugging, dog-piling, screaming.
That uniformity is what made Aliou Cisse's reaction to Senegal's goal against Poland so interesting. Calm and composed on the touchline, the manager did a triple vertical fist pump and stared deadpan into the camera for several seconds.
Chilling, haunting or just cool personified?
Strangest Moment: Manuel Neuer Goes Walkabout
The calamity of Germany's World Cup campaign was aptly summarised by a strange moment in the last minute of their 2-0 loss to South Korea.
A goal down and desperate for an equaliser, staring group-stage elimination in the face, Germany pushed everyone forward—including the goalkeeper. Manuel Neuer is known for his sweeping abilities, but rarely—if ever—have we seen him take up a position virtually on the edge of an opponent's box.
He did so against South Korea, attempting to collect a loose ball and fire it back into the box. But a bad touch allowed Ju Se-jong to dispossess him, and his long punt toward Germany's goal was tapped over the line by Son Heung-min to complete a remarkable phase of play.
The image of Neuer—exasperated, left in South Korea's half while they sprinted through and scored—was striking to say the least.
Biggest Surprise: England
If you predicted England to reach the World Cup semi-finals this year, you're either a psychic or an optimist. Though the vibes were positive from the Three Lions' camp ahead of the tournament, to suggest they'd reach the final four would have been bold.
They were heading to Russia with a right-footed winger at left wing-back, a right-back at centre-back, two No. 10s at No. 8 and a first-choice goalkeeper with three caps. Their pre-tournament form had been good, but expectations were suitably tempered.
The smart money was on England to finish second in Group G and face Colombia in the round of 16, which they did. From there, though, things really started to fall in manager Gareth Southgate's favour.
James Rodriguez's injury ruled him out of that clash, swinging the pendulum towards England. They triumphed—on penalties!—and progressed to the quarter-finals. That's where—had the tournament played out as expected—they would have met Germany. Instead, they met Sweden.
Over 120 minutes, Croatia proved to be too much. Belgium scooped up third place quite easily, but England as semi-finalists? It's a surprise that even trumps Japan's run to the knockouts and Sweden's own route to the quarter-finals.
All statistics via WhoScored.com