Here it is, the SB Nation Best XI of the 2018 World Cup. And we’re playing a very exciting 3-4-2-1 formation, because we are hip to where the kids are at.
GK — Thibaut Courtois, Belgium
Tricky one, this: arguments can be made for Hugo Lloris, for Guillermo Ochoa, for Jordan Pickford, for Jo Hyeon-woo … hell, for pretty much anybody except Manuel Neuer and David de Gea. But we’ve gone for Courtois, and not just because he’s been great. In his greatness, he has summed up the spirit of the competition.
For this World Cup has been about winning, yes, and about celebrating football and bringing people together and shifting loads of Adidas merch. All that. But it was also, apparently, about making Neymar sad. And nobody made Neymar sadder than Courtois, with his outflung elastic arm, tipping the ball, the narrative, and the big happy ending, over the bar and behind into nothingness.
D — Harry Maguire, England
Speaking of embodying the spirit of the competition, here’s Harry Maguire, the emblematic player of this surprisingly adorable England team. Maguire, with his big beautiful head, that he put on the set pieces that got England so far. Maguire, with his stout defending, occasionally leavened by clanking runs upfield. Maguire, with his meme, and with his own reaction to memeification. Hey! I’m internet famous … I’ll make a joke about the bins.
“Can you ask the neighbours to put the bins out on Monday? We’re not going home just yet” pic.twitter.com/s1g3P3jj34— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) July 8, 2018
D — Yerry Mina, Colombia
Speaking of big heads scoring big goals, come on down Yerry Mina. The Colombian defender may be on the fringes at Barcelona, but he scored three goals over four games. More importantly, he made two nations very happy over the course of this tournament. First his own Colombia, who he kept in the tournament not once but twice by getting his face onto the ball, and the ball into the net. And then England, who took advantage of Mina’s late equaliser to finally exorcise their penalty demons.
This kind of transnational cooperation is what the tournament is all about, which is why we’ve chosen Mina over Raphaël Varane, who has done nothing this summer but make opponents feel miserable and inadequate. The big meanie.
D — Diego Godín, Uruguay
Speaking of making opponents feel miserable and inadequate, it’s moderately heartbreaking to think that this might be Godín’s last World Cup. The iron heart of this awfully brilliant, brilliantly awful Uruguayan team, Godín was his knotty and reliable self all summer. Just a shame he couldn’t quite poke into an empty net against France.
M — Kieran Trippier, England
Speaking of things that are a shame — bit of a stretch, this one — it’s a pity that Kieran Trippier finally turned into David Beckham. It was a lovely free-kick, to round off an extremely impressive tournament, and you just know that the Premier League’s commentators will be rolling out “Trippier territory” next season. But it was David Beckham’s curse to crash out of international tournaments as soon as the first decent midfield heaved into view, and so the same came to pass for Trippier.
M — Luka Modrić, Croatia
Speaking of decent midfielders — much better — here’s one of the architects of England’s exit. In truth, it’s probably a coinflip between Modrić and his colleague Ivan Rakitić, but we’ve gone for the Madridista on the basis of one outside-of-the-foot pass deep into injury time against England.
It was so perfectly beautiful, from a player who should have been so entirely knackered, that it sent a murmur of reluctant appreciation through at least one extremely deflated pub garden in London. More of the same against France, please. The passes. Not the deflated pubs.
M — N’golo Kanté, France
Speaking of France — boo! boo! — here’s the main reason why they are so difficult to play against. You just don’t get any time in midfield, because Kanté’s there. And he’s there, too. And, wait, there as well? Huh. That doesn’t seem fair.
There are more glamorous jobs on the football pitch than being the fire blanket, but there are few as necessary. And there is nobody better than at doing the necessary, over and over, without getting knackered or losing focus. He’s a midfield in himself, which must be nice for Paul Pogba. There isn’t a team in the competition he wouldn’t improve. And if Kanté were German, Jogi Löw would be about to lift his second World Cup trophy.
M — Denis Cheryshev, Russia
Speaking of tireless running … what? Fine, fine. But however cynical you might be about Russia’s exceptional over-performance, and however justified you might be in that cynicism, there were some lovely moments in their run to the quarter-finals, and Cheryshev was involved in most of them.
He opened the tournament with a gorgeous goal against Saudi Arabia, and he signed off with an even better one against Croatia. And he has received the reward he deserves: loads and loads of lovely transfer rumours.
AM — Philippe Coutinho, Brazil
Speaking of decent connections from distance, there’s nobody who loves them like Philippe Coutinho. When Neymar was being kicked into submission by cynical defenders, aided and abetted by generous referees and his own wolf-crying tendencies, it was left to Coutinho to pick up the pieces.
Which he did, with a thunderbolt against Switzerland, a timely prod against Costa Rica, and a lot of busy running. Funny team, Brazil. Wouldn’t have been at all surprising if they’d won the whole thing, yet so many of their players had underwhelming tournaments. At least Coutinho was fun.
AM — Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium
And speaking, still, of glorious strikes, has anybody ever hit a football with more precision than De Bruyne for his goal against Brazil? Some balls fly into the net. This one battered its way furiously through the evening sky, scattering air molecules and the laws of physics as it went. It flashed past one of the best goalkeepers in the world as though he were a helpless child. It was so good, so filthy, so utterly obscene that the word “ping” almost feels inadequate.
Almost. But not quite. Ping.
F — Kylian Mbappé, France
Speaking of making strong opponents look small and ridiculous, we end with the breakout star of the tournament, who has turned up to Russia 2018 as if it were Euro 2004 and he were Wayne Rooney. Except, hopefully, without the foot-snapping.
There is always something special about watching a young player realize that they have absolutely got this. That the game is theirs. That they can do whatever they want, whatever they can imagine. And that the grown adults all around them — their elders, their betters — are frankly terrified by what they might come up with. That’s Mbappé, right now, in this moment. You can see it in his smile. You can see it in the shining eyes of his teammates, and the furrowed brows of his opponents.
Best of luck, Croatia!
Manager — Roberto Martinez, Belgium
Speaking of somebody finally showing the entire world their idiosyncratic brilliance … well, obviously. Just don’t be surprised if Cheryshev ends up at striker and Coutinho takes over at left wing-back. Here’s Bobby Martínez. Look at him go.