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The 2018 World Cup Superlatives

From Maradona’s antics and Cavani’s hair flips to Shaqiri’s eagle cellie and Neymar’s flops, here are the best and worst things we saw in Russia

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every four years, soccer fans from casual to hardcore to Shea Serrano gather to watch the beautiful game’s most beautifullest tournament. As the end of the World Cup approaches, we put together this list of superlatives to memorialize the past month of own goals, flops, hair flips, and controversial goal cellies. (Stay tuned to the Ringer FC podcast for an audio version of these superlatives.) Without further ado, let’s kick things off with a classic double-bird ...

Best Meme: Diego Maradona Reaction Shots

Have you ever given the double middle finger so hard that you had to go to the hospital? Well, Diego Maradona has. Because the internet is ridiculous, Argentina’s final moment of triumph in the 2018 World Cup won’t be remembered so much for Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute goal against Nigeria but for Maradona’s reaction to it, caught live by Fox’s cameras and broadcast internationally—which meant that the man got to flip off the entire world. Hands of God indeed. And yet, several other cutaways to Maradona during the Cup were almost equally iconic, like this one of him praying with his arms crossed, this one of him sleeping, or, uh, this one of him giving an unsettlingly open-mouthed kiss to a companion. Was he riding high on WC adrenaline alone? Who am I to say. But, in the words of ESPN’s Pablo S. Torre, “I still want to ride the Magic School Bus through Diego Maradona’s bloodstream.”—Lindsay Zoladz

Best Trick Shot: Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica

Costa Rica had already been eliminated from passage to the knockout round, so in the 94th minute of their final group game against Switzerland, Bryan Ruiz had a chance to attempt the greatest H-O-R-S-E shot in World Cup history. And he nailed it.

Like Jason Richardson bouncing the ball off Carlos Boozer’s head, the point was to extract as much humiliation as possible while scoring. Ruiz probably considered blasting the ball right off Swiss keeper Yann Sommer’s face, but that would be too risky; Sommer might have put his hands up, and even if the ball hit them, it would ricochet outward instead of into the net. He had to blast the ball off the crossbar, then off the fallen Sommer’s unsuspecting head, and then in.

The goal allowed the Ticos to salvage their lone point of the World Cup—and I’ll be spending the next four years of my life petitioning FIFA to switch this from an own goal by Sommer to a goal for Ruiz, who clearly planned it the whole time. Or at least to give every other penalty taker in World Cup history an H.—Rodger Sherman

Most Audacious Roaming: Manuel Neuer, Germany

There are few things more entertaining in soccer than a goalkeeper roaming outside of their penalty box to support their team in attack. Typically, it’s the soccer equivalent of a Hail Mary, but perhaps even more improbable. But boy, is it good theater.

Germany had nothing to lose, down 1-0 to Korea in stoppage time and in need of two goals to secure a spot in the round of 16. So goalkeeper Manuel Neuer went on a sprinting journey halfway up the field. (In Neuer’s defense, the Bayern Munich stopper is an elite sweeper-keeper.) And … yeah.

The Fox video doesn’t do the play nearly enough justice. Neuer picked up the ball from a throw-in and began freaking out like, well, a keeper who is more than 60 yards from their net. This World Cup has had a bit of everything, but I’ll always remember Neuer’s odyssey upfield as the closest we got to drunk FIFA. —Miles Surrey

Worst Idea at the Worst Time: Milad Mohammadi, Iran

“About 30 seconds left, yeah? We’re down by only one … to Spain! I’m about to be a national legend. An internet icon! I know I can get this ball into the box. I know I can. This is what I’ve practiced my whole life for, this very moment …”

“Never mind.”—Donnie Kwak

Best Hair Flip: Edinson Cavani, Uruguay

Edinson Cavani was the indisputable star of Uruguay’s round of 16 victory against Portugal. He scored the only two goals of the game, and they were electrifying, elegantly executed goals. Cavani is clearly a very good forward, and his country is lucky to have him on the team. But he will be remembered in this World Cup for his gorgeous hair.

In case this is the first time you’re learning about Cavani’s hair, I’m happy to provide you with a quick primer. This is what it looks like when it’s dry:

Notice the volume. The slight bounce. The way it frames Cavani’s handsome square jaw. This is Cavani’s Everyday Hair. It’s worthy of a TRESemmé commercial. Anyone who has seen this version of his hair in real life is very lucky.

Now, here’s what Cavani’s hair looks like when it’s drenched:

This is Cavani’s Soccer Hair. Those with an untrained eye might think: “ew.” Look closer! See how it sticks against his skin, and frames his cheekbones and dark eyes? It’s the same beautiful mane, just ready for action, ready to win.

Wherever Cavani moves on the field, his hair follows. It trails in the wind as he sprints forward on a run, it whips back and forth as he maneuvers around defenders, it bounces with his feet whenever he jockeys for a header. And it splays around his head in moments of injury and celebration. If you watch close enough, Cavani’s Soccer Hair is a perfect visual portrayal of a game’s energy, at all times.

Here it is, calm and focused, just at the start of the Portugal game.

And look at it flow behind him, just moments before his first goal in the Portugal game.

Here it is, chaotic as ever, the moment he was injured.

And finally, this is what it looked like moments after his second goal. If that isn’t victory hair, I don’t know what is.

In sum, Cavani’s hair is delightful and unexpected in its movements, and a true treat to watch on the field. He might not get the Golden Boot, but he very much deserves a Golden Brush. —Alyssa Bereznak

Worst Hairstyle That Was Actually Kinda Awesome: Diego Laxalt, Uruguay

Cavani wasn’t the only Uruguayan with a standout coif in Russia. Everything about Laxalt’s Bo Derek redux screams “NO!!!!!” But when I saw those braided tendrils rocking to and fro as he scurried up the left flank during this tournament, I kept thinking: “Yes. Somehow it works on you, my boy.” Kwak

The Best World Cup Moments According to Shea Serrano

There are two things it feels like I should mention here, one of which is a global thing and one of which is a specific thing:

The first is the global one, and it’s that one Geico commercial where the soccer player scores a goal and then does that celebration where you run and then slide on the grass, except rather than just slide a few feet, he slides for, like, 30 seconds straight all around the field. It’s so fucking funny. It was funny the first time I watched it and it was funny the 25th time I watched it. The best part is when he slides past the goalie and points at him as he’s coming and going.

The second one is the person-specific one, and it happened immediately after Croatia beat Russia to make it to the semifinals. I was watching the game in the sportsbook area of a casino in Las Vegas. The room was filled with people, and the people watching would make lots of loud noises any time something substantial happened or nearly happened (as is customary while watching the World Cup, I’m told). As soon as Croatia won the game, a group of (I’m assuming) Croatians started screaming and jumping and hugging, and it was great. A few of them—all large men with barrel chests—locked arms and sang (what I’m assuming is) the Croatian national anthem, at the end of which they had one last big yell and laugh and then wandered off to be noisy in some other section of the casino. It was very cool to see, and only the second time in my life I could feel my body wishing that it was of Croatian blood and temerity. (The first time was when Toni Kukoc hit that game-winner against the Knicks in the ’94 playoffs.) —Shea Serrano

Biggest Whoopsie: Aziz Bouhaddouz, Morocco

In a group with Spain and Portugal, Iran and Morocco could not settle for a draw in their opening match against each other. But Iran seemed content to do nothing for much of the game, playing passively as the two teams teetered toward mutually assured destruction. Morocco got more and more desperate as Iran drove the car with both of them inside it toward the edge of a cliff. In the the 77th minute, Morocco brought on Bouhaddouz, a striker, in hopes of avoiding the death that would come with a tie.

But in the 95th minute, Iran suddenly decided to push forward and got a free kick in an attacking area. Bouhaddouz was called back into defense—who knows if a reserve striker like Bouhaddouz ever practiced defending free kicks in the limited weeks of international team training!—and he scored a perfect header into the wrong net, the prettiest own goal in the World Cup of the Own Goal.

It was the latest own goal in World Cup history, and one of just two own goals scored by the losing team in a 1-0 loss. Iran won, but neither team made it to the knockout round. —Sherman

Most Likable Team That Didn’t Make the Knockout Round: Senegal

Senegal famously missed out on the knockout round on fair-play points, and as gamely as Japan took Belgium to the wire in the round of 16, it’s a shame. Team-level World Cup analysis frequently falls back on stereotypes—South American sides are alternately beautiful and cynical, low-level European (particularly Northern European) sides defend with discipline but lack a cutting edge, and African sides are “athletic.” Sometimes those stereotypes line up with reality, but not so with Senegal, who were athletic, yes, but also defensively disciplined and offensively cunning. M’baye Niang’s goal against Poland in particular: It’s easy to write off as just a Poland mistake, but Niang still had a ton of work to do to put the ball past Poland keeper Wojciech Szczesny.

In a slightly more just timeline, Senegal could’ve played Croatia’s role in this tournament and made a deep run, inspiring manager Aliou Cissé to explore new depths in frightening stares. But we don’t live in that world, and we’re all the worse off for it. —Michael Baumann

Best David, Worst Goliath: Hannes Thor Halldorsson vs. Lionel Messi

The odds of a penalty kick are too slanted toward the shooter for us to treat it like a true face-off. But they’re even more slanted when the kicker is the potential GOAT, and the goalie is a part-timer representing the smallest country ever to make the World Cup.

But that’s the situation that arose in the Group D opener when Argentina’s Lionel Messi stood 12 yards from Iceland’s Hannes Thor Halldorsson, whose true passion is directing films. He considered directing his full-time job in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, and his credits include Iceland’s music video in the 2012 Eurovision song contest and a Coke ad about this World Cup. When there are only 300,000 people in your country, and you need to have government workers, and mailmen, and actors, and construction workers, and radio hosts, and doctors, and athletes, and everybody else a country needs, some people have to pull double duty.

Eventually, Halldorsson will need to direct a movie about stopping Messi.

Thanks to the save, Iceland held on for a 1-1 draw. —Sherman

Most Overblown Reaction to Shithousery: The English Media

Colombia went into their round of 16 matchup against England without injured superstar James Rodríguez, essentially nullifying their attack. So, the Colombians resorted to some gamesmanship—hard fouling, scuffing up the penalty spot, and so forth—in an attempt to gain an edge. It almost worked, but England advanced on penalties.

It was hardly the first time an overmatched team has used such tactics in a win-or-die situation. But to hear the English media tell it, the Colombians might as well have burned St. George’s Cross at the center circle. The condemnation was comically severe: “Ragamuffins,” they called the Colombians. “Thuggish.” “Hatchet men.” “A disgrace to football.” All this for having the temerity to not lay down and let England win. We’ll see if those pundits keep that same energy the next time Burnley kick Manchester City off the park. —Kwak

Best Moment of International Unity: South Korea and Mexico

While losing 3-0 to Sweden, Mexico left themselves in a bad position on the final day of play in Group F: To advance to the knockout stages, the Mexicans needed South Korea (which had lost its first two games) to get a win or draw against Germany (which won the damn World Cup the last time around). Miraculously, the Koreans came through, and in stunning fashion too, scoring twice in stoppage time to knock out the champs.

In jubilation, Mexicans began to celebrate with Koreans—or, more precisely, celebrate the Koreans themselves, throwing them little parades around the globe:

These weren’t Korean soccer players, mind you—just any random Koreans they could find. It was a beautiful bulgogi taco of sports joy. —Sherman

Best “2014 Daley Blind” Imitation: Aleksandr Golovin, Russia

Most major tournaments feature a player, age 25 or younger, who provides a couple of spectacular moments on his team’s surprisingly deep run and moves from a midtier European club to one of the continent’s giants. Sometimes (Luis Suárez, Franck Ribéry) these moves pan out, sometimes (Renato Sanches) they don’t, and Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin is next in line for such a move after Russia’s shocking run to the quarterfinals. He’s a versatile, courageous midfield marauder and not bad on a dead ball.

Look for Golovin at Chelsea (probably) or Arsenal or Juventus (maybe) in the 2018-19 club season. —Baumann

Best Imitation of a Neymar Flop: This Rat

Brazilian superstar Neymar is one of the most notorious floppers in the game. Whether you recognize his theatrics as a byproduct of being one of the world’s most fouled players or you want him kicked out of the game for them, it’s indisputable that he is a chronic embellisher. And the 2018 World Cup was no exception.

In total, Neymar reportedly spent 14 minutes on the ground over the course of five games this tournament, and some of his more egregious flops—like his dramatic jump-and-roll in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Serbia in the group stage—have inspired imitators. Mexican soccer team Club Tijuana, for example, held a “Neymar Challenge” where fans came onto the pitch and raced toward the net by rolling. KFC South Africa mocked him in a commercial that showed a soccer player rolling off the pitch, out of the stadium, through city streets, and finally into a KFC. But by far the most impressive version of this mockery came from a rat, who was simply trying to escape from a cat. Rolling for laughs is cool, but rolling for survival is just plain impressive. —Megan Schuster

Biggest Letdown: David de Gea

The manbunned Spaniard is supposedly one of the best keepers in the world: For Manchester United, he’s been exceptional; he won last season’s Premier League Golden Glove and has been named the keeper of the PFA Premier League team of the year five of the past six years. With Spain tactically and emotionally out of sorts after the World Cup–eve firing of manager Julen Lopetegui, de Gea should have been Spain’s rock, a confidence-inspiring stopper with everything else going haywire.

Instead, he dragged them down, performing about as poorly as a goalkeeper could. He faced seven shots on goal and made one save. Some of those shots were impossible to stop, but he let Morocco put a ball between his legs and couldn’t parry a Cristiano Ronaldo shot directly at him, allowing Ronaldo to celebrate like he’d just done something impressive for kicking a ball.

In the decisive penalty shootout against Russia in the round of 16, de Gea guessed right on two of the four penalty attempts. But despite being in the right place at the right time, he couldn’t save any of them, while Russia’s Igor Akinfeev made multiple spectacular stops. It’s as if de Gea remembered all the aspects of goalkeeping besides the one about keeping the ball in front of you—which is kind of an important one. —Sherman

Best National Anthem: Tunisia

A good World Cup national anthem should be a rallying call, a battle hymn, music-as-intimidation. The most famous is probably France’s “La Marseillaise,” but “Humat al-Hima,” Tunisia’s national anthem, makes it sound like “Duppy Freestyle.”

It’s the “Beast Mode 2” of national anthems: all cold-blooded fury and momentum. It’s the sonic version of Maradona flipping the double-bird. It’s the lyrical equivalent of Henry Cavill’s reloading arms. Listen to these bars:

The blood surges in our veins
We die for the sake of our land
Let the heavens roar with thunder
Let thunderbolts rain with fire
No place for traitors in Tunisia
Only for those who defend her!

Hell yeah. Here’s my favorite line/bicep metaphor:

As a nation we inherited
Arms like granite towers

Alas, Tunisia is not very good at soccer. They were brushed out of contention during the group stage, but for a few moments before their matches they could close their eyes and envision themselves as ruthless titans of the World Cup, crushing foes under their granite arms, blood surging, the heavens above them roaring with thunder. —Cory McConnell

Best Celebration: Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland

In Switzerland’s 2-1 comeback win over Serbia, both goal scorers—Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka—made an eagle gesture with their hands, representing the eagle on the Albanian flag. In the 1990s, Yugoslavia waged campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians, killing tens of thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Among those were Shaqiri’s and Xhaka’s families: Shaqiri was born in Yugoslavia, while Xhaka was born in Switzerland to ethnic Albanian parents who’d recently fled Yugoslavia. Xhaka’s father spent three years as a political prisoner in the 1980s, and his older brother, Taulant, plays internationally for Albania. When Kosovo joined FIFA in 2016, Shaqiri considered switching allegiances. Because this is 2018, and because FIFA is FIFA and apparently defines “apolitical” as “gotta hear both sides about literal genocide,” both Xhaka and Shaqiri were fined and threatened with suspension for making a political gesture on the field. But for more empathetic observers, the Switzerland-Serbia game was a moving, nearly tearjerking emotional high.

So what sets Shaqiri’s celebration apart from Xhaka’s? Well the Stoke winger, whose nickname is “Power Cube,” got partially—and nearly completely—nekkid.

We saw Shaqiri’s righteous anger and his defiance of an unsympathetic world power structure—by removing his shirt after making a political statement, Shaqiri broke pretty much FIFA’s only two rules about goal celebrations. But we also saw his Apollo’s belt, which was just as spectacular. —Baumann