The 2018 World Cup was one of the most exciting in a long, long time, and it was chalk-full of fantastic goals. From Russia’s 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the World Cup’s opening match to France’s thrilling 4-2 triumph over Croatia in the final, hardly a matchday went by without jaws being dropped.
In all, 169 goals were scored in the tournament — not quite the record of 171 set in 1998 in France and tied in 2014 in Brazil, but close. Which goals stood out from the pack? There’s a lot of hard choices to be made, but with both quality and the moment considered, here’s our 20 best goals of the tournament.
20. Kylian Mbappe says goodnight to Argentina
Mbappé AGAIN!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 30, 2018
The 19-year-old gets his second of the game to put France up 4-2. pic.twitter.com/1mY2fN2MBc
We’ll take a look at the goal that exposed Argentina and probably broke their spirit later on, but this is the goal that actually knocked them out of the tournament, the fourth France goal in what wound up as a 4-3 win. And wow, what an audacious moment for Kylian Mbappe. It was the 19 year old’s second goal of the day and a scintillating display of his skillset — the run, the positioning, the finish, everything. The full buildup to the goal was absolutely gorgeous as well; don’t overlook just how important Antoine Griezmann was to the creation of this goal, and for so many of France’s best moments throughout their run to the World Cup title.
19. Shaqiri runs away from Serbia
No one so squat and brawny should be this fast, but Xherdan Shaqiri sure is. His club career may not have gone according to plan, but man does he consistently come up huge in moments like this, especially when he plays for Switzerland. This run on the ball absolutely gutted Serbia’s defense, and he made absolutely no mistakes in his finish. He just signed with Liverpool to play what will likely be mostly a rotation role and come off the bench, and Jurgen Klopp and Reds fans alike will be hoping that he brings a lot of that kind of fire to Anfield.
18. Angel Di Maria has still got it
You could be forgiven for having forgotten about Angel Di Maria. His time at Paris Saint-Germain has been riddled with injuries and poor form, and even when he’s healthy and playing well he’s often lost in the shadows of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Edinson Cavani. But he’s still got that knack for the big moment and consistently comes up big when his team needs that extra burst of momentum. So it was here with Argentina trailing France early in their round of 16 match, and Di Maria found a perfect pocket of space and hit it so cleanly and perfectly that you just had to stand up and applaud it, tailing it away from Huge Lloris so effectively that the goalkeeper probably shouldn’t have even bothered to try and save it. Bra-freaking-vo, Di Maria. Take a bow.
17. Granit Xhaka nearly decapitates Branislav Ivanovic
This was an absolute bomb, and if Ivanovic hadn’t ducked out of the way he might actually be dead, Xhaka hit it so hard. Que golazo, indeed.
16. Toni Kroos is superhuman
With Germany needing a goal to break the tie against Sweden in their second group stage match and to have a realistic chance to advance to the knockout rounds — they would ultimately fail, but no one knew that would be the case at this particular moment — Kroos set up an audacious dummy free kick routine, tapping the ball up, getting it back, and uncorking a shot from just inside the box that was placed with absolute perfection. Oh yeah, and it came four and a half minutes into an announced five minutes of stoppage time, putting immense pressure on his shoulders. The list of players who could come up big in that moment can probably be counted on one hand, and Toni Kroos is one of them.
15. Luka Modric destroys Argentina
This was all she wrote for Argentina in the tournament. Sure, it was just the second match of the group stage, and Argentina ultimately bowed out in the round of 16 in an epic game against France — but this goal from Luka Modric is what broke their spirit and exposed their weaknesses for the world to see. It was a phenomenal strike, and both the goal and his dominating performance throughout the match was a great microcosm of just how Modric ultimately lead Croatia to the World Cup final and won himself the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player.
14. Ahmed Musa is ballsy and so good
Musa’s name isn’t one often talked about these days in the world of football. He’s always been the other attacker on his teams, but in this tournament, he was the guy for Nigeria, and this goal showed just how good he can be when his confidence is up. No one in their right mind takes that touch in that space and takes that finish, but Musa did it without breaking a sweat. He may never be regarded as an elite player in the sport, but on his day he can be an incredible asset for just about any team around.
13. Christian Eriksen’s half-volley screamer against Australia
Everything about this goal is just so impressive. Denmark did a great job of keeping the play alive, taking an attack that was threatening to break down and just keeping the ball moving to find any opening possible. Striker Nicolai Jorgensen did a great job of getting on the ball under pressure while recognizing that Christian Eriksen was flying up in support, then quickly putting the ball right in his path with room to work with. Eriksen didn’t miss a beat, striking it on the half-volley and nearly putting the ball through the back of the net, not just into it.
12. Coutinho scored a worldy against Switzerland
This goal is just ridiculous. To hit the ball that well through that much traffic and still place it so perfectly is hilariously difficult, but Philippe Coutinho made it look easy. Coutinho made a lot of things look easy during this tournament, so much so that it’s not unreasonable to think that he, not Neymar, drove a lot of Brazil’s successes in this World Cup. Once Barcelona figure out how to get him and Lionel Messi to work together at a high level — look out, Europe.
11. Ivan Perisic in the World Cup final
This is the first goal from the World Cup final on this list, but it will not be the last. Perisic hit this beauty of a goal to level the score at 1-1 in the first half, a massively important goal to keep his country in the match but also a wildly impressive team effort. The way Croatian players kept moving the ball around, keeping the play alive to try and find someone with a shot, was fantastic, and Perisic’s finish was inch-perfect to keep Hugo Lloris from being able to get to it.
10. Denis Cheryshev’s outrageous finish
Denis Cheryshev broke out in a big way during this World Cup, and the tournament’s opening match was a real statement for him. Forced into a more prominent playmaking role by Alan Dzagoev’s very early injury in the match, Cheryshev stepped up and excelled, a performance capped off by a captivatingly audacious goal. His ball control was absolute perfection in that moment, and his extra half-touch to turn the ball onto his much-preferred left foot for a side-footed finish instead of taking the arguably easier right-footed shot was equal parts astounding and hilariously joyful. It was a great moment at the end of a wild match, and it really helped establish Cheryshev and Russia as a real threat all tournament long.
9. Benjamin Pavard has one of the hits of the tournament
There is hitting a ball pure, and then there is hitting a ball pure. France right back Benjamin Pavard his this ball pure against Argentina.
Everyone was certain that Belgium and Japan’s round of 16 match was going to extra time, if not to penalties. Japan had gone up 2-0, Belgium scratched back to 2-2, and as the final moments of regulation approached, both teams looked gassed.
Turned out, Belgium were just waiting.
From Thibaut Courtois’ initial delivery to the moment Nacer Chadli hammered the ball into the back of the net, everything about this Belgium attack was pure, frenetic determination. From De Bruyne’s drive up the pitch with the ball, to Romelu Lukaku’s perfect run to open the space, to Thomas Meunier making perhaps the play of his life to assist the goal, everything here was down to Belgium’s drive to prove a point, to prove that they belong among the best of the best. That goal was a big, big moment for every Belgium player on the pitch, and stands out as one of the best, and most important goals of the World Cup.
7. Cristiano Ronaldo’s game-tying free kick
Cristiano Ronaldo has a long and storied career, full of high-quality goals, both from open play and from free kicks. While some of his open-play goals are certainly better than this one, there’s not many free kicks that Ronaldo has hit that sweetly and placed that well. That it was a crucially-timed equalizer to give Portugal a huge point and take two away from Spain in the group stage only make the moment all the bigger, and the goal all the more impressive to watch over and over again.
6. Neymar and Willian shred Mexico’s defense
This is an absolute humiliation of a Mexico defense that had been quite solid during the World Cup group stage, but in this match looked like the roughshod unit that looked frighteningly poor in their warmup friendlies. Neymar and Willian just obliterated the entire group in a matter of seconds with a series of smart, smart decisions that left El Tri having no clue where
5. Paul Pogba uncorks a jaw-dropping pass that creates his own goal
I would take you through my whole thought process on this ridiculous pass from Pogba and the goal it created, but Nate Scott already waxed poetic with the exact same line of thought.
4. Kevin De Bruyne breaks Brazil’s back
This was something of a paradigm-shifting goal in the World Cup. Belgium had been impressive, but with Brazil being Brazil and one of the favorites remaining in the tournament at the time, no one was quite sure if “impressive” would be enough to knock Brazil out. Enter Kevin De Bruyne, who capitalized on Romelu Lukaku’s incredible run with as pure a strike as you’ll see to put Belgium up 2-0 and to effectively knock out Brazil right then and there. That was the moment Belgium really opened people’s eyes as not just a team with potential, but as a team that represented a very real threat in the tournament.
3. Dries Mertens’ stunning volley
#MundialTelemundo En voz de @CopanAlvarez ¡Así fue el gol de #BEL! @dries_mertens14 nos regala este hermoso gol que abre el marcador, imposible de despejar para el portero de #PAN @JaimePenedo26 pic.twitter.com/3iz7jkf3FL— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) June 18, 2018
This didn’t wind up being a massively important goal like many of these other top goals in the list are, but this volley is ridiculous. It’s a shot few strikers would even try, much less hit with such cool and calm perfection like Mertens did. Anyone who watches Napoli much knows that this kind of goal is well within his wheelhouse, but now the whole world knows just how amazing he can be when his confidence is high.
2. Kylian Mbappe stuns in the final
Kylian Mbappé gets in on the action!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 15, 2018
The 19-year-old becomes the first teenager to score in a FIFA World Cup final since Pelé. pic.twitter.com/4fqjCSWJL0
Kylian Mbappe was already a fantastic player coming into the World Cup. He was arguably the best young attacker on the planet, and deservedly came into the World Cup as the focal point of France’s attack. Then at just 19 years old he stepped up and proved to be one of the best players in the entire tournament, possibly even launching himself as one of the next major superstars in the game.
But enough about Mbappe — how about this goal? The fourth and final goal from France in the final, and the one that finally broke Croatia’s back. The poise and presence that Mbappe had in the moment goes far beyong his 19 years, and he lasered in a perfect finish to join Pele as now the only two teenagers to ever score in a World Cup final. That’s some heady company to be in, but based on his history, Mbappe will handle it just fine.
1. Lionel Messi makes everyone scream
My god. Everything about this goal is just so perfect. The manic run from Messi to get to where he needed to go, after using just a little bit of a floating drift to lull the defender to sleep. The pass from Ever Banega, showing enough chemistry with Messi to know exactly where his teammate would be and placing his pass perfectly from more than 40 yards away. The nigh-impossible control from Messi in stride while going at full speed to get the ball exactly where he wanted it. The perfectly-placed finish, despite being on his his weak foot and at a weird angle.
It was a goal that woke Argentina up at a crucial moment in the tournament, and while they ultimately didn’t get much farther, without this goal, they may not have even had the wherewithal to get out of the group stage at all. And oh yeah, it was an incredible goal even without the importance of it.
Honorable Mention: Cavani and Suarez playing a 100-yard-long bit of give-and-go to create a goal from nothing.
We forgot this one at first, but let’s remember Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez playing a little give-and-go across the entire width of the field to create their first goal against Portugal.