The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is over, and soccer fans worldwide are still reveling in the incredible drama and entertainment of the month-long spectacle. In the end, France came out as worthy champions, but that was hardly the only interesting result of the tournament. Star players blossomed, and some of the biggest names went home early.

Through all the triumphs and failures from the 2018 World Cup, we wanted to highlight 12 specific things that stood out above the rest. Some of the things we are highlighting are about specific players or teams, while others are more broad, about the game of soccer as a whole. As we start the long four-year wait for another World Cup, here are 12 things we learned from the 2018 edition of soccer’s marquee event.

Population Doesn’t Matter – Development Does

The small nation of Croatia — all 4.1 million of them, squished into just under 60,000 square kilometers of land — made it all the way to the World Cup Final. For perspective, they rank 124th in the world when it comes to land area and 129th in the world when it comes to population. In short, there’s no realistic reason they should be able to compete with larger nations on a global scale. Of course, if you’re a regular fan of soccer, you know that size doesn’t really matter.

Croatia — and other tiny countries like Iceland or Costa Rica — have shown that they can hang with the global soccer powers, and it’s not because they have a larger player pool. Countries that focus more on youth development and grass roots soccer programs have proven a successful formula, and it’s something like much larger countries (like Canada and the United States) have failed to fully adopt, and are now struggling to catch up. Think about it, if a country like Iceland (population 350,000) can qualify out of Europe, then there’s no reason that Canada (which is a hundred times Iceland’s population, at 37 million) or the U.S. (a thousand times larger at 330 million people) shouldn’t be able to get out of CONCACAF and into the World Cup

Unfortunately, some countries are only just starting to adopt player development models that Croatia and Iceland (and others) have been using for decades now. They will have to play catchup.

(AP Photo/Victor Caivano)

Paul Pogba is Actually Really Good

For reasons we can’t figure out, Paul Pogba is routinely criticized for a plethora of things by soccer media around the world. He was (briefly) the world’s most expensive player when Manchester United bought him from Juventus in 2016, costing the English club a cool 105 million Euros. The French midfield maestro hasn’t been able to help United capture a Premier League crown yet, but he’s already won the EFL Cup and the Europa League for the Red Devils. Now, he’s won the biggest prize in international football. Not only that, but he was one of the driving forces behind France’s 2018 victory.

Pogba has been slagged in the media for his dancing, his colorful haircuts, and his play on the field. Anyone who watched him play in the World Cup should now be aware that those criticisms are baseless, ignorant, and perhaps even a bit offensive. Pogba isn’t a holding midfielder, and he’s not an attacking one either. He’s a perfect compliment of both, calming the game when needed, but also injecting pace and precision at just the right moments. His critics (who should have already been silenced, really) should now proceed to shut up for good.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Star Power Doesn’t Always Win

Paul Pogba may be one of the best and most famous players on the planet, but the “Big Three” of world football all went home empty handed. While all of the marketing for the 2018 World Cup focused on Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, none of those annual Ballon d’Or nominees walked away with soccer’s biggest prize.

Ronaldo did his best to drag Portugal along, as he did in at Euro 2016 when they won the whole thing. Unfortunately, they couldn’t overcome a scrappy Uruguay side in the Round of 16. Messi and Argentina barely advanced out of the Group Stage, after tying Iceland 1-1 and losing to Croatia 3-0. They were dispatched by France in the Round of 16, giving up four goals in the process. Neymar and Brazil, who were also among the pre-tournament favorites, advanced to the quarterfinals but lost 2-1 to a very organized and skilled Belgium side — and Neymar became the butt of many jokes for his constant flopping and exaggerated somersaults.

While teams like France, Croatia, England, and Belgium do have stars of their own, they are (respectively) not on the same level as Ronaldo or Messi. And yet, teams who relied more on defending as a group and having a balanced attack were the ones left standing at the end. This isn’t a World Cup from the 50s, 60s, or 70s, where a Pele or a Maradona can highhandedly win you games. If you don’t have talent all over the field and play together, you can kiss your World Cup dreams goodbye.

(AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

The Beautiful Game is… Well, Still Beautiful

We know the jokes. Soccer is low-scoring, boring, and filled with unsatisfying tie games. Fans of the game know better, of course, but the 2018 World Cup helped bust that stale narrative by providing some wildly entertaining games. There was only a single game that ended 0-0 (Denmark vs. France in the group stage), and most games ranged from “pretty good” to “pure amazing”, starting with a stunning 3-3 draw between favorites Spain and Portugal on the second day of the tournament.

Belgium’s epic comeback against Japan, featuring perhaps the Goal of the Tournament with their brilliant counter-attacking winner, is a quality example of the Beautiful Game being played to its maximum. Brazil vs. Mexico and France vs. Argentina were also wonderful to watch. There were dramatic penalty shootouts, stunning goals, and plenty of heartbreak for everyone (well, everyone who isn’t French). While hardcore soccer fans around the world hardly need the World Cup to be convinced of their sporting allegiance, the 2018 World Cup was a tremendous showing of the Beautiful Game for casual fans.

Belgium Are Legit… But For How Long?

Belgium were the dark horse pick for many people, both fan and pundits. The “Golden Generation” of Belgium almost pulled it off, too, overcoming a big scare against Japan in the Round of 16 to face Brazil — one of the favorites — in the quarterfinals. In one of the best games of the tournament, Belgium dispatched Neymar and company to advance to the semis. A hard-fought and narrow 1-0 lose to eventual champions France ended their World Cup dreams, although they did win the third place game against England.

Belgium has some of the best players in the world at numerous positions. Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku are legit world class superstars, but the national team has never quite been able to tie it all together when it counts. In four years time when the next World Cup rolls around, some of their key players will be north of 30-years-old. Their defensive core, especially, will mostly be 35 or older.

The continent-wide Euro 2020 tournament might be Belgium’s last big chance to bring home a major tournament. It would be a shame if this “Golden Generation” ended with some of the best players in the world having nothing to show for their international careers. But it wouldn’t be the first (or last) time it happens. See: England’s Golden Generation.

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Kylian Mbappe is the Future

Not since Brazilian legend Pele stormed the World Cup in 1958 has a teenage sensation attracted so much attention in the soccer world. No, not a young Wayne Rooney or a teenaged Neymar. France’s young striker Kylian Mbappe is a 19-year-old sensation, tearing up defenses and keeping opposing coaches up late worrying about how to stop him. Mbappe scored four goals at the 2018 World Cup, including two against Argentina to knock Lionel Messi out of the tournament and a brilliant long range effort to seal the championship for France against Croatia.

Mbappe is already the second most expensive player in football history, when Paris Saint-Germain paid 135 million Euros in 2017 to snatch the talented teenager from AS Monaco. He has already won the French Ligue 1 championship twice, the Coupe de France once, plus now a shiny World Cup championship to call his own. His career is just starting, but as the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo approach their mid-30s, all signs point to Mbappe being the next huge global soccer star.

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

VAR is Working

VAR, otherwise known by its longer and more official title “Video Assistant Referee,” is a brand new and still-evolving technology that brings something new to the game of soccer that hadn’t existed until recently — instant replay. Other major sports have already adopted replay in one form or another, but soccer is more traditional and slow to change.

Some leagues (like the English Premier League) have already adopted Goal Line Technology, but that’s a more black and white issue. The ball is either over the line or it’s not. The VAR system is much more complex, and FIFA just used it on their biggest stage when it made its World Cup debut in Russia. In short, the VAR’s job is to correct “clear and obvious” errors. And for the most part, it does that. Critics will point to the somewhat soft handball penalty call against Croatia in the Final as a sign that VAR should be abolished, but the numbers don’t add up to that conclusion. In general, officiating teams are getting more calls correct than ever before, and VAR is a big reason why. It’s not perfect, of course, and is still in need of some fine-tuning. But VAR is here to stay, and will likely be adopted by every major soccer league in the next few years.

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Continental Powers Are Shifting Slightly

We already know Europe (UEFA) is the top tier of international soccer, followed by South America (CONMEBOL) — although really it’s just Brazil and Argentina doing the heavy lifting for that confederation. But what about the rest of the planet? Africa (CAF), North America (CONCACAF), Asia (AFC) and Oceania (OFC) all send representatives, who typically bow out early to the established powers.

In 2018, the African nations took a big step back. Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Senegal all failed to advance out of their group. Combined, they were 3-10-2, scoring just 18 goals between five teams and giving up 26. Meanwhile Peru (South America), and the teams from Asia were also particularly bad. Mexico (CONCACAF) was one of the fun stories of the early World Cup, beating defending champions Germany in the group stages and defending valiantly against Brazil before bowing out. It might be time for FIFA to switch their qualifying numbers, allowing fewer African and Asian teams in exchange for an extra team from CONCACAF or CONMEBOL. If they do, though, it all has to be reconfigured again for the 2026 World Cup that expands to 48 teams.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Qatar 2022 Might Be Okay?

There were a lot of concerns going into Russia 2018. Vladimir Putin is not exactly a beloved world leader, the country is rife with corruption and an (alleged) authoritative government with a pretty bad track record on human rights. Couple that with worries over racism, a recent Russian state sponsored doping scandal, and hooligan violence, and the 2018 World Cup could have turned out into a disaster. And that’s without even of the potential downfalls on the field, like a major referring controversy or the newly introduced VAR system causing havoc.

Instead, the whole thing went down without a hitch. The games were great, the referring was overall quite good, there were no major off-field incidents, and the anecdotal reports from soccer fans who traveled to Russia for the event have been overwhelmingly positive. The next World Cup in Qatar is facing even greater scrutiny, for many of the same reasons. There have been plenty of calls to strip the event from the small Middle Eastern county, including from us. But maybe, just maybe, FIFA has enough money and power and influence to make sure the next World Cup runs smoothly too.

(AP Photo/Michael Probst)

The Gap is Closing

Most of the pre-tournament favorites didn’t fare very well. None of Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, or Germany made the semifinals — and some of those teams went out even earlier! Other regular soccer superpowers like Italy and the Netherlands didn’t even qualify! Frankly, we don’t think those results are a fluke. The gap between soccer’s elite nations and the “rest of the pack” is rapidly closing. The new parity in world football can only be a good thing for fans, as events like the World Cup will remain dramatic and unpredictable.

In this tournament, we saw Germany lose twice in the group stages. We saw a Russia side advance to the quarterfinals by topping Spain in penalties. A tiny nation like Croatia made the Final, and the likes of Sweden, Colombia, and Japan all impressed. When the tournament opens up to 48 teams in 2026, the likelihood of a soccer minnow making big waves and going on a Cinderella run against established powers will increase even more. We can’t wait.

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

England Will Be Back

Put all the “It’s coming home!” memes aside for a second, and consider the reality. A young England squad defied expectations and made it all the way to extra time of the semifinals. Not only that, but they also banished the ghosts of previous England teams by actually won a penalty shootout against Colombia in the Round of 16. They were clinical on set pieces, absolutely destroyed Panama, and beat Sweden fairly comfortably in the quarterfinals. These are not your father’s Three Lions.

A couple of defensive miscues against Croatia cost England a place in the Final, but the future is bright for the “birthplace of football.” The majority of their starters are young, including key contributors like John Stones (24), Kieran Tripper (27), Eric Dier (24), Jesse Lingard (25), Raheem Sterling (23), Dele Ali (22), and Marcus Rashford (20). Captain and Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, who has developed into a prototypical No. 9 striker with a knack for goals, is still just 24. England will be among the favorites to win the 2022 World Cup, and much of this core will likely still be around in eight years for 2026. Plus they will have a couple of shots at a Euro championship over the next 6-to-8 years. We’d be shocked if they didn’t eventually end England’s major tournament drought.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

But So Will France

Unfortunately for the promising future of the English team, they will have to continue to compete with their French neighbors for both European and global football dominance. France is just as well positioned for the future as England, and maybe even more so. Look at the ages of some of their key players: Rapheal Varane (25), Samuel Umtit (24), Paul Pogba (25), N’Golo Kante (27), Antoine Griezman (27), and course, Kylian Mbappe is still just 19. The core of this World Cup winning squad has at least one more four-year cycle in them, and probably more.

It was no accident that France won. They handled their business in the group stage,  finish first in Group C. They scored four goals against Argentina in the Round of 16, and were barely troubled by Uruguay in the quarterfinals. They toughest game was probably the 1-0 win over Belgium in the semifinals, as they never looked troubled by the underdog Croatians in the final itself.

Without a doubt, France were impressive all month at Russia 2018 and are the team to beat in world football going forward. With a highly skilled group of young players to call upon, they will be the absolute favorites to win Euro 2020 and probably the 2022 World Cup as well.

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)