After 63 games across four weeks, the World Cup comes to a close monday morning. Before being enveloped by the inevitable ennui that follows such a football feast, it's time to hand out a first XI of awards.
Biggest brain explosion
We may have been missing a Zidane or a Suarez but, thankfully, the Spanish FA nabbed this prize before a ball was kicked. Sacking coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of tournament - after his post-World Cup job with Real Madrid was revealed - seemed a bold strategy at the time. And the results of the decision appeared mixed: on one hand, Spain were bundled out in the last 16; on the other, the Spanish FA secured the all-important moral high ground.
The Spanish authorities also played a hand here, although it was the taxman on this occasion. Mere hours after agreeing a settlement in his tax evasion case, an oddly-motivated Cristiano Ronaldo proceeded to score a stunning 89th-minute free kick to complete a hat-trick and earn Portugal a 3-3 draw against the country that had just handed the Juventus-bound striker a suspended jail sentence. Let that be a lesson to Italy's tax office.
Spain deserve a shout, although they at least played entertaining games against Portugal and Morocco. Germany also pressed their case, but they gave us Toni Kroos' curler against Sweden and the incredible sight of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer being dispossessed in the opposition half against South Korea. The correct answer, as always, is Australia. Three games, two VAR penalties, one point. Streuth.
Bringing an end to the Spanish-themed segment of the show, we head to their exit against Russia. While Spain's death-by-a-thousand-passes approach was impressive, the real hero of that match was Russian defender Vladimir Granat. Subbed on at halftime, Granat watched closely as Spain racked up a scarcely-believable 1107 passes in 120 minutes. In fact, all he did was watch - Granat played 75 minutes, attempted four passes and completed zero.
Wildest conspiracy theory
So how did Russia manage to chase shadows and frustrate Spain throughout that clash? How did a team touted pre-tournament as the worst hosts in history come within a shootout of reaching the semifinals? And how did they record such phenomenal running stats? Well, I'm not saying it could be due to Russia's renowned state-sponsored doping programme. But I'm not not saying that.
Predictably, a 22-year-old French defender who plays for Stuttgart produced the most jaw-dropping moment of magic in the tournament. Benjamin Pavard's slicing volley in the last-16 win over Argentina now stars nightly in my dreams.
Worst goalkeeping howler
On the other end of the skill scale, we welcome Willy Caballero. Most keeper clangers engender pity - some poor schmo throwing one into the back of his net. Caballero's, on the other hand, was high comedy, chipping the ball perfectly for Croatia's Ante Rebic to unleash a wicked volley right past the custodian's face.
Best own goal
Hard to tell if Caballero was the most embarrassed goalkeeper, though. After all, it's not often a penalty cannons off the bar, strikes the back of the prone keeper's head and ends up in the back of the net. But that was the glory afforded to Swiss No1 Yann Sommer and, making matters worse, the 93rd-minute own goal cost his team victory against Costa Rica.
Loudest political statement
As always at events like this, pre-tournament concerns about Russia were washed away by the sport itself. Which doesn't mean, of course, the hosts' issues with racism and homophobia are no more. Nor does it mean we should forget things like Russia's annexation of Crimea, or its support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Croatia defender Domagoj Vida certainly hasn't. Having previously played at Dynamo Kiev, Vida celebrated knocking out Russia by appearing in a video, shouting, "Glory to Ukraine!" Vida apologised, presumably because he'd like to leave Russia when the tournament ends, but the message was received.
"It's not coming home" is something we heard an awful lot after England's 50-plus years of hurt were extended by Croatia in the semifinals. But when delivered with a mischievous smile by Croatian defender Vedran Corluka, after being asked to stop for English press in the media mixed zone moments after the match, those four words were pure poetry.
Most under-covered storyline
It's a little weird that, for luck, France twirl the moustache of defender Adil Rami. But not that out of the ordinary - we all remember Laurent Blanc kissing Fabien Barthez's shiny dome in 1998. But it's *extremely* weird that Rami, an unremarkable journeyman who has played zero minutes in Russia, is dating Pamela Anderson, an American 19 years his senior. It must be the moustache.
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