Another edition of the FIFA World Cup is about to close, with Argentina and France squaring off against each other in the final in Doha. This particular world cup has been highly political and marred with controversies like allegations of ‘sports washing’ by the Qatari administration, questions of human rights violations in building its stadiums, and the different reactions, or the ‘lack’ of it, by western footballing associations as well as the western media.
Bold stances taken by the Iranian football team in refusing to sing their national anthem as a sign of protest against the government in Iran, or the Germans standing up to FIFA for not allowing teams to wear the ‘One Love’ armband as a sign of solidarity for the LGBTQ+ movement made the headlines and won both bouquets and brickbats across social media. While it is essential to acknowledge and call out the various political issues that come with an international tournament at such a scale, it is time to look back at the past month in pure football terms.
With every World Cup comes recognition for footballers previously unknown because of their performances in the tournament. It is impossible not to recall names like James Rodriguez, who instantly shot to fame from his heroics in 2014 and soon made his way to the Spanish giants Real Madrid with a hefty price tag. With advancements in the scouting network in club football, there are very few young talents that are relatively unknown in international football before playing in the World Cup. Yet, the current tournament has become a platform for a couple of prospects to jumpstart their careers.
Defending champions and current finalists France were plagued by injuries at the start of the World Cup, with big names and guaranteed starters like Benzema, Kante, and Pogba missing out. But it paved the way for young stars like Tchouaméni, who has been a vital cog in the midfield, and his performance has cemented his place in the starting XIs for club and country. The young forward Julián Álvarez, who has been a big part of Argentina’s campaign in a squad studded with star players, including the great Lionel Messi himself, has delivered stellar performances indeed to the delight of the Manchester City supporters but also will give a tough competition to Haaland to be on Pep Guardiola’s team sheets. 21-year-old Enzo Fernández, already an essential part of Benfica’s line up has become a player to watch out for in the coming years. All three are eyeing their maiden World Cup win at such a young age.
At Portugal, Gonçalo Ramos, the boy who replaced Cristiano Ronaldo, having played only 31 minutes of international football in his lifetime before his World Cup debut, scored a hattrick in the knockout stages and is sure to attract the eyes of big teams. Coming to the backline, Joško Gvardiol stands out, having been formidable in Croatia’s defense throughout and, at the age of 20, will be giving top European clubs a run for their money in the forthcoming season.
But the most significant revelations in this World Cup have been Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi, who were the chief architects of their country’s dream run in this World Cup. Both are already being celebrated and revered by fans from their country and the more comprehensive world alike and will be seen in the footballing limelight for years to come. Morocco’s campaign in this World Cup has been no less of a marvel as they became the first African country to reach the semi-finals of a tournament that European and South American sides have always dominated. The feat was achieved with the side topping the table in the group stages in a group that comprised top sides like Belgium and Croatia, and they conceded only one goal from the opposition in their entire run. Moroccan goalkeeper Bono also pulled heroic saves and match-winning performances to help his side make history.
Other notable mentions who have emerged into the spotlight because of the World Cup include Cody Gakpo for the Netherlands, Mohammed Kudus for Ghana, Polish center-back Jakub Kiwior, Yunus Musah, and Taejon Buchanan from USA and Canada, respectively. Among young players who have already established themselves in the highest level of the sport, Kylian Mbappe, Vinicius Jr, and the English duo of Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka have had a great tournament and will be carrying the future of world football on their shoulders.
This World Cup has also been one with emotional goodbyes for some of the game's biggest legends. Fans saw a tearful Cristiano Ronaldo walk back from the pitch after Portugal’s exit in the round of 16, putting an end to his two-decade-long dream of winning the World Cup over five different editions of the tournament. Lionel Messi, the other half of the ‘Greatest of All Time’ or GOAT debate, will also be donning his nation’s colors on the biggest football stage for one last time this Sunday. Other pioneers of modern-day football, like Luka Modrić, Luis Suárez, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, and Eden Hazard, also made their final appearances for their countries, bidding farewells to countless fans across the world.
All eyes now remain fixated on Sunday’s big clash as we await to see if world champions France successfully defend their title or if Messi will finally add the crown jewel to his already highly decorated trophy cabinet. World Cup football has always been more than just a competition. A festival for football fans worldwide who now have to wait for four more years to watch their favorite footballers dazzle at the grandest stage of them all.
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