The 2018 World Cup is underway! For an entire month, ‘the beautiful game’ will be the center of the sporting world. From humble beginnings to the biggest sports event in the world, here’s how it got there.
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MOSCOW — Russia’s World Cup adventure ended on Saturday night in the same way it has flowed for the past three weeks – with drama, excitement and a stirring show of patriotic spirit.
It came to a close in the cruelest of fashions, an exit on penalty kicks, and tears flowed at Sochi’s Fisht Stadium and around this country. A month ago, no one would have thought the nation could care that much.
But from an opening day signal of intent to a thrilling shootout triumph over Spain, all the way to this narrowest of defeats to Croatia, an underdog team got its own people to fall in love with it. How they will miss it now.
It is instead Croatia going through to a semifinal against England in Moscow on Wednesday. When Ivan Rakitic stroked home the decisive kick to win 4-3 on penalties following a 2-2 tie, it might have ended the Russian journey, but it has been a trip that won’t soon be forgotten here.
Russia has been an unexpected team and within it there have been unlikely heroes. Denis Cheryshev didn’t figure to play much in this tournament but got his chance early and became a national icon. His opening goal was a beauty, drilling a fierce effort home 31 minutes in.
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Croatia has been one of the most technically solid teams in the tournament and refused to lose its cool. A fine move allowed Andrej Kramaric to equalize with a header from close range eight minutes later.
With the score even through 90 minutes, Croatia struck in the first half of the extra time. Domagoj Vida got his head on a corner and his looping touch left the defense, and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, unsighted, bouncing into the net.
It looked then as if the Russia challenge, an extraordinary one, would end. The team came into the World Cup ranked a tournament lowest No. 70. How it has defied those supposed disadvantages.
So many of this World Cup’s goals have come from set pieces and so too was the one that gave the host nation fresh life. Five minutes of the second extra time period remained when Alan Dzagoev produced the ball of his life from a free-kick on the right, It was a spinning, fizzing, ripping delivery that defender Mario Fernandes nodded into the net and sparked mass delirium.
Shootouts may or may not be the fairest tiebreaker but they are gripping entertainment. Fernandes, the late goalscorer, blasted his effort wide. Fyodor Smolov messed up with Russia’s first and after Akinfeev kept out Mateo Kovacic, he could only shake his head when Luka Modric’s kick was parried but freakishly rebounded in.
Rakitic sealed it and Akinfeev, the hero against Spain, was stunned on the turf. He wasn’t the only one. All over Russia there remain two alternating types of wonder – at how absorbing the campaign was…and how it could have ended so suddenly.