It seemed like not a day went by during the 2018 World Cup that something utterly ridiculous did not occur. Between the shocking results, the late drama, the off-field antics of Diego Maradona and beyond, Russia's tournament thoroughly entertained on a consistent basis.
Amid all of that were some things that are easy to forget, given how fast the competition proceeds. Pages turn so quickly at an event like the World Cup, that pertinent news becomes yesterday's news quite quickly, without ever fully getting its proper due. So after all the own goals, set-piece goals, penalty-kick goals, stoppage-time goals and more, here's a look back at a best XI of the most bizarre happenings that took place during an unforgettable month in Russia.
Spain fired its coach on the eve of the tournament
Someday we'll look back and realize how incredibly absurd this was. A day before the opening match of the World Cup, and two days before Spain's first match, Julen Lopetegui was ousted as manager, essentially for not being more forthcoming about his plans to bolt the national team for Real Madrid after the World Cup ended. Given he'd recently signed a contract extension through Euro 2020, there was ample reason for the Spanish federation's emotional thought process. It felt disrespected, felt Real Madrid shouldn't be able to pull the strings from behind the curtain and had enough.
So out went Loptegeui, who had Spain playing like the 2010 champions of old, and in came sporting director Fernando Hierro, who still oversaw a group-winning effort, but was absolutely out of his depth when it came to penalties vs. Russia in the last 16. The video of Diego Costa telling him "I told you so" when Koke missed his penalty, with Hierro being wholly unprepared for the situation, was staggering.
Spain's federation made a statement in ousting Lopetegui, but it sacrificed its short-term hopes in the process.
Antoine Griezmann replicated The Decision
Days before he was supposed to lead France at the World Cup, Griezmann, a big NBA fan, elected to duplicate what is widely considered to be one of the worst PR plays in sports history by televising "La Decisión": his decision to either stay at Atletico Madrid or go to Barcelona.
His courageous decision, which was to stay at one of Spain's best clubs where he's admired instead of having to go compete for time at another, was taken on the day the World Cup began and was a drawn out, overdramatic TV special in which he decided something that would've been way better received with a simple tweet. Kind of like this one, only without the inside look at this most difficult of calls.
The World Cup ended with Griezmann doling out one of his famous Fortnite "L"s to Croatia, but he started it by taking the biggest one of all. Ultimately, it did no harm, and Griezmann had a very nice tournament, winning Bronze Ball honors en route to the lifting the trophy with France.
Mohamed Salah became a political pawn for Chechnya's leader
Mohamed Salah deserved better. The world's breakout star entered the World Cup off the heels of a 44-goal season with Liverpool and having guided his nation to its first World Cup since 1990. Then, Sergio Ramos sprained Salah's shoulder with a takedown in the Champions League final. Then, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose human rights record is, in TL;DR terms, horrifying, used the Egyptian forward for PR spin. Twice.
First, he drove Salah from his hotel, where he was permitted to miss training, to Egypt's practice (the Pharaohs' base was in Chechnya) for a photo op and walk around the stadium. Then, as Egypt was getting set to wrap up a winless campaign, Salah was pinned at a farewell banquet as an honorary citizen of Chechnya. The fallout reportedly had Salah mulling international retirement, though his representatives would go on to deny that. Salah scored a great goal in Egypt's final game, a dramatic loss to Saudi Arabia, and he could barely celebrate.
Salah was the feel-good story of the 2017-18 season and a potential Ballon d'Or candidate. This was not how his World Cup was supposed to go.
Mark Geiger was accused of asking for a Portugal jersey at halftime
American referee Mark Geiger has become a lightning rod for fans all over the world, and say what you want about controversial or poor calls he may have had in the past, but the verbal and social media abuse is largely over the top. With everyone from Maradona down to the worst of the Twitter trolls, Geiger has his share of detractors. FIFA, though, is not one of them.
The oddest incident involving Geiger came in Morocco's group match vs. Portugal, in which Morocco's Nordin Amrabat accused the official of asking for a Portugal player's jersey at halftime of the match. Clearly, that is unprofessional and grounds for having all refereeing credentials removed. But Geiger denied the claim and FIFA backed him with more than strong words. It awarded Geiger a round-of-16 match for a second straight World Cup and lead VAR duties for the third-place game.
Simultaneous VAR calls sent Spain and Portugal through
Speaking of VAR, it was one of the dominant themes of the World Cup, and it was hardly more impactful than when two simultaneous episodes decided the outcome of Group B. In one match, Portugal was whistled for a late penalty. In another Iago Aspas was ruled onside for a back-heel flick that salvaged a draw in stoppage time. The combination of the events had Spain finish first and Portugal finish in second–and Iran nearly wound up winning the group with a second stoppage-time goal after the PK.
It also gave us one of the most candid player moments of the tournament, when Amrabat (what a sneaky outside-the-box World Cup he had!) offered his unvarnished thoughts on VAR.
And can we just repeat how ridiculous it was that Aspas wound up winning the group on a back-heel flick?
Let's say that again: IAGO ASPAS WON THE GROUP ON A BACK-HEEL FLICK! In stoppage time! Amazing.
Mexico needed South Korea's help to go through
Mexico had it all going its way after two games in the World Cup. A landmark win over Germany was touted as El Tri's greatest victory ever. A follow-up win over South Korea showed Mexico's versatility and put the nation on course for the knockout stage. But Toni Kroos's stunning 95th-minute goal vs. Sweden cracked the door open so that Mexico could win its first two games and still go out in the simultaneous finales. And amid a total capitulation to Sweden in the third game, that's exactly what appeared would happen. All it would've taken was a Germany win over South Korea, and El Tri would've been out. Piece of cake. Right?
South Korea, as it did to the United States in 2002, provided the ultimate, unlikely assist, beating Germany, eliminating the defending champions and sending Mexico through. The outpouring of love from Mexican fans and brands for those of South Korea made for an unusual, yet heartwarming pairing.
Senegal went out on fair play points
Imagine having your World Cup come down to yellow cards accumulated.
That's what happened to Senegal, which played some of the most entertaining soccer in its three games in Russia. The only reason it didn't have a fourth game was because it tied Japan in every possible standard way, forcing FIFA to go to its never-before-used fair-play point system. Since Senegal had accrued more yellow cards than Japan, the Lions of Teranga were sent home. Japan, knowing this fact full well in its group finale vs. Poland, essentially just played keep away with the ball, while its opponents, already eliminated at the time, acquiesced.
Senegal, in only its second World Cup, deserved a better fate than that.
Belgium, England played twice, both under unusual circumstances
It's rare teams will play twice at a World Cup, period. But the manner in which Belgium and England played their two matches was downright ludicrous. First, there was the group finale that neither was really all that into winning. Both had already cemented their last-16 berths, and with second place arguably having an easier road in the knockout stage, there was ample reason to try and lose. Both also entered the match tied in every regard, much like Senegal and Japan, meaning for the second time on the same day fair-play points may have been called into action. Adnan Januzaj changed that with his wicked strike. Belgium won 1-0, took first in the group and Januzaj never played again in Russia.
Despite the "easier road" argument, both progressed to the semifinals and ultimately lost, again setting up a matchup with unusual circumstances. Third-place games are hard to get up for, especially given the emotionally draining nature of losing in a semifinal, but both teams played mostly full-strength lineups and Belgium eased to the medal and a nation-best finish at the World Cup.
The Neymar Challenge
Neymar had the potential to go down in Brazilian lore this summer. Instead he just ... went down. Neymar's embellishment has been emulated in soccer camps and academies around the globe, became meme candy and completely detracted from what was, otherwise, a pretty decent World Cup for the PSG star.
Brazil had its run cut abruptly short, though, and despite having the look of a contender, it has just a quarterfinal exit to show for its efforts.
The next four years are going to ultimately determine Neymar's legacy, and if he can lead the Seleção to the title in Qatar in 2022, to add to his Olympic gold medal and what projects to be the nation's all-time scoring record, the diving and rolling will become but a footnote. Until then, he has a reputation to shed.
England won a penalty shootout
The impossible finally happened for England. Football didn't come home, but it figured out how to survive spot kicks in a hex-lifting triumph against Colombia. Gareth Southgate, one of the many symbols of England's past penalty failure, instilled the skill and belief in his side, which obliged and persevered to end one of the longest-running gags in international soccer. That's not to say it won't return if/when England falls in PKs again, but the aura is gone.
Cristiano Ronaldo transferred two hours before a semifinal
The gravity of a World Cup semifinal was usurped by Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid. In any other summer, that would be the story and dominate the news cycle for days. And now that the World Cup has ended and Ronaldo has been unveiled in Turin, it likely will continue to take the spotlight. But to go down and be announced two hours before Belgium and France played what appeared to be a de facto final in Saint Petersburg?! Imagine what must have been going on in the minds of Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe, two of the stars of that game who have been reported to be at the top of Real Madrid's wish list to replace Ronaldo. (If you heard Hazard's comments after the third-place match, perhaps it's not too tough to imagine!)
If the last month taught us anything, it's that Real Madrid really was the ultimate World Cup puppeteer.