Set pieces, shocks, VAR and politics: A World Cup 2018 review

In the end, World Cup 2018 belonged to France. But the path to Sunday's final was far from predictable. Fallen giants, rising stars, VAR controversies and 70 set piece goals all played a part. DW takes a look back.

Russia vs. Saudi Arabia didn't look the most appetizing of World Cup starters. But the hosts, the lowest ranked side in the competition before it began, were brilliant. A sublime brace from substitute Denis Cheryshev and a stunning late free kick from Aleksandr Golovin threw down a challenge for the other 31 nations that was widely accepted. DW takes a look at the moments, trends and tribulations that made World Cup 2018 such an exceptional tournament.

The shocks

Before Russia 2018 began, three of the past four world champions had been knocked out at the group stage when defending their crown. But Germany wouldn't be complacent enough to add to that statistic, would they? Yes, they very much would. Joachim Löw's side were made to look old by Mexico, squeezed past Sweden and were embarrassingly anaemic against South Korea.

While Joachim Löw's men were the only major casualties of the group stage, Argentina limped through after drawing with Iceland and getting hammered by Croatia while Spain and France also failed to convince. By July 2, Argentina and Spain were gone. France putting Messi and co. out of their misery wasn't much of a turn up but Russia matched heavily favored Spain for 120 minutes of the last 16 match before deservedly prevailing on penalties. Suddenly the draw was opening up.

All of which meant Sweden, Croatia, Russia and England went further than most expected. But perhaps the biggest shock of all was England finally winning their first World Cup penalty shootout, against Colombia in the last 16.

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Best individual performance: Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Spain

Cristiano Ronaldo provided an early example of the spectacular at the World Cup when he dragged Portugal to a 3-3 draw with Spain. The superstar, who would sign for Juventus soon after the tournament, scored a terrific hat trick to earn his side the draw, capping it with an eye-popping free kick in second half stoppage time.

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Most entertaining team: Belgium

With a squad stuffed with elite players, Belgium played the most attractive brand of attacking football at the World Cup. Eden Hazard (left) and Kevin De Bruyne (center) dazzled spectators with their skill. Hazard's 40 successful dribbles was the most at the World Cup and De Bruyne had the second most key passes with 23 (England's Kieran Trippier had 24).

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Grittiest player: Mario Mandzukic

The Croatian striker does not hide the fact that he wears his heart on his sleeve. He showed up all over the field for Croatia, winning balls in midfield and banging in goals in the box. His grit is best exemplified by Croatia's 2-1 win over England, where he scored the winning goal in the second half of extra time and had to leave moments later after appearing to suffer from cramp.

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Weirdest moment: Milad Mohammadi

Iran's Milad Mohammadi tried to bring Sunday league football to the World Cup when he tried a front flip throw-in against Spain. The attempt failed miserably, and the Iranian defender had to regroup and settle for a more traditional throw-in. His side still lost.

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Biggest internet phenomenon: Neymar's 'injury'

Neymar's embellished an ankle injury to the nth degree after Mexico's Miguel Layun stepped on him. The moment was rather embarrassing for a sport frequently accused of having "soft" sportsmen. But it was a gift for the internet as users re-purposed Neymar's "roll" into memes, GIFs and other media.

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Biggest overachievers: Russia

The hosts were the lowest ranked team entering the World Cup, but ended up being the tournament's biggest surprise. They finished second in their group after scoring eight goals, which tied England for second most in the group stages. They also triumphed over 2010 champions Spain before losing to eventual runners-up Croatia on penalties in the quarterfinals.

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Biggest underachievers: Germany

Germany are not the first defending champion to exit in the group stage — four of the last five have done so. That said, hopes were high that the Germans would buck that trend after winning the Confederations Cup the year before without many of their 2014 stars. That hope disappeared quickly after Germany lost to Mexico and South Korea — teams they had never lost to before at a major tournament.

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Unluckiest team: Senegal

Senegal were the unfortunate losers of a competitive Group H, which included Colombia, Japan and Poland. After the three group games concluded, Senegal were tied with Japan on points, goal difference and goals scored. But Japan had picked up two fewer yellow cards than the Senegalese, which made the coastal African country the first to be sent home because of their place on the fair play table.

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Neutral's favorite: Croatia

Croatia's population of just over 4 million people were passionately supporting their side throughout the tournament, and they were not alone. Their gutsy efforts captured the hearts of many watching the World Cup, and they received many ovations when they lost to France in the final. Their second-placed finish was their best ever performance at a World Cup.

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Largest rise in transfer value: Benjamin Pavard

The assumption going into the tournament was that Benjamin Pavard would be a bench player for France. But Didier Deschamps gave the 22-year-old defender his chance, starting him six times. Pavard rewarded his coach's trust, even scoring a goal in the last 16. Purchased by Stuttgart for €5 million in 2016, Pavard now reportedly has several top clubs, including Bayern Munich, interested in him .

The set pieces

There was one in the first game, two in the final and 67 in between. Set piece goals came to define Russia 2018 and accounted for a 43 percent of all goals scored, the highest such figure since 1966. Headers from free kicks opened the scoring in the first semifinal and the final while a direct free kick gave England a lead they couldn't hold in the other last four clash. Antoine Griezmann's penalty in the final meant 22 spot kicks were converted (outside of shootouts), the most of any World Cup, with VAR seemingly critical to the increase in awards.

The technology

Since FIFA made the decision to use video assistant referees for the first time in Russia 2018, it's always felt inevitable that VAR would play a part in the World Cup final, and so it came to pass. Referee Nestor Pitana initially saw nothing wrong with Mario Mandzukic's front post clearance from a corner but, after reviewing replays pitch-side, decided it was a spot kick after all since the ball made contact with Ivan Perisic's hand, and Griezmann restored France's lead. This was far from an example of the clear cut errors the system is supposed to eliminate, although there were a few of those. The overwhelming feeling is that the system has a long way to go in a game where many decisions are subjective.

The stunners

Benjamin Pavard celebrates his sensational strike against Argentina

While a few free kicks, particularly from Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos, are unsurprisingly among the contenders, there are no shortage of open play efforts in contention for the goal of the tournament. Benjamin Pavard and Spanish defender Nacho both scored near-identical strikes, cutting across the ball with the outside of their boot. Coutinho produced a trademark sublime curler while Lionel Messi and Dries Mertens also took the breath away. And let's not forget Ricardo Quaresma curling a goal with the outside of his foot. FIFA run a people's vote for the winner of that one, it should be a close run thing.

The fans

As with seemingly every major sporting event, scare stories in the run up to Russia 2018 proved to be just that. The general consensus was of fans enjoying themselves, with visitors from South America particularly excelling. Atmospheres were good, there were few reports of violence and supporters of Senegal and Japan won global acclaim for clearing rubbish from the stands after their matches.

The politics

Emmanuel Macron,Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin at the World Cup final

The overall success of the tournament will undoubtedly be a feather in Vladimir Putin's cap. The Russia president said the World Cup had “helped break many stereotypes about Russia" and called his homeland "a friendly country.”

FIFA boss Gianni Infantino was even more unstinting in his praise: "It is an incredible, amazing World Cup. From the very beginning of the tournament, we have experienced incredible emotions from being here.”

Both men were present at the final, though only Putin had a man with an umbrella ready for when the heavens opened during the trophy ceremony. But it was French President Emmanuel Macron who stole the political show. His exuberant celebrations translated into that most vital political currency, positive social media coverage.

But as Macron, Putin and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic lingered in their greetings to the more popular players, only too aware the eyes of the world were on them, it was not difficult to wish that, in that moment at least, sport could've just been sport, and not a political tool.