Biggest winners from a spectacular 2018 World Cup
FRANCK FIFE / AFP / Getty

What. A. Tournament.

The 2018 World Cup ended with the best team hoisting the most coveted trophy football has to offer, as France capped off a breathtaking competition by defeating a spirited Croatian side on Sunday, 4-2.

Related: 18 greatest moments of the 2018 World Cup

Here, we look back at the biggest winners from an unforgettable month of football in Russia.

France

Literally the winner of the World Cup. This one writes itself.

Related: 5 reasons why France won the World Cup

Although it wasn't as aesthetically pleasing as we all wanted, it was damn effective, and France ultimately cruised to its second World Cup crown. A rock-solid backline laid the foundation for Didier Deschamps' side, and on the odd occasion when proceedings got difficult for Les Bleus, individual talent came to the fore.

Namely, a pair of superstars who are slated to dominate world football for many years to come stepped up when it mattered most.

Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe

Few players have to deal with the ridiculous criticism that Paul Pogba is subjected to. His detractors, in rants that you could argue are often racially motivated, cite his intricate hairstyles and desire to show off his fancy footwork on the pitch as reasons why he's not a "top" midfielder.

In truth, he's one of the best footballers on the planet, and he cemented that status in Russia, quieting those who say he's not defensively strong enough to be relied upon as a dominant two-way force.

When France stuttered in the early matches, it was Pogba who made the difference in attack, and when Deschamps asked the 25-year-old to be more pragmatic and lock things down in the later stages of the competition, he did exactly that.

And then he scored in the final. Have that, haters.

His teenage teammate Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, is already atop the world at just 19 years old. We may very well look back on this tournament as the moment in which the torch started to be passed from Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to the sensational French phenom.

Curses

Superstition reigned supreme in Russia - for the most part, anyway.

Germany's limp title defence signaled the third consecutive tournament in which the reigning champion suffered a humiliating group stage exit; Die Mannschaft followed in the unfortunate footsteps of Spain (2014) and Italy (2010). Bad news for France in 2022, then.

Related: Biggest letdowns at the World Cup

There's also the matter of European-based World Cups continuing to be a barren wasteland for non-European sides. Brazil, by virtue of its triumph in 1958, remains the only non-UEFA nation to hoist football's most coveted trophy on European soil. Home field advantage is very real.

At least England exorcised some demons, winning on spot kicks for the first time in the country's tortured history of World Cup shootouts.

Harry Maguire

England didn't bring football home, but the Three Lions' encouraging - and unexpected - run to the semi-finals helped change the perception of a national team that was long viewed as being pampered and overrated. This fresh crop of endearing players created hope for a generation of football fans in England that had known only heartache, and part of that accomplishment was down to their personable attitude.

They were easy to get behind.

The unlikely poster boy, Harry Maguire, was the perfect embodiment of Gareth Southgate's side.

The Leicester City defender, whose large cranium was commemorated with an appropriately self-deprecating nickname - his teammates call him "Slab Head" - was a breakout star on the pitch, and online.

Maguire's meme became this tournament's greatest social media sensation, and his teammates' involvement in making it go viral was a prime example of why so many people hopped aboard the bandwagon.

Small countries

Rife with upsets and unkind to perennial powers, this tournament highlighted once again the closing gap between traditional heavyweights and nations referred to as footballing minnows.

Iceland became the smallest country to ever reach the World Cup; Uruguay, with a population of under four million, continued to punch above its weight; Croatia became the second-smallest nation to make the final, after the aforementioned La Celeste.

Technology and advanced statistics continue to result in improved coaching standards, while better scouting allows countries to find hidden gems they may otherwise have missed in previous years. All of it is creating a world in which the playing field is starting to level out, to a degree.

The superpowers will always exist, but their unheralded peers now feel like they stand a legitimate chance every time they step on the pitch. The 2018 World Cup proved exactly that, and the tournament was better off for it.

Europe

Simple mathematics suggest Europe will always put forth strong showings at the World Cup - UEFA is, after all, granted the most tournament places of any confederation, providing 14 of the 32 squads for this year's edition of the tournament.

But the continent's dominance was pronounced in Russia thanks to the respective struggles of South America and Africa.

The former didn't provide a semi-finalist for just the fifth time in history, while a slew of rotten luck - and some late meltdowns - saw all of the African teams sent packing in the group stage.

VAR

There were plenty of concerns about the implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system ahead of the competition, but for the most part, the technology was uncontroversial. Croatia may disagree after the handball call on Ivan Perisic in the final, but alas.

Decisions were made quickly, fans were kept abreast of what was happening on the pitch, and, most importantly, the correct calls were made, largely riding the game of refereeing errors.

It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was far from the disaster that many expected coming into the tournament.

And, if nothing else, the Video Assistant Referees sitting in the booth wearing full officiating kits was easily the most hilarious (and ridiculous) element of the World Cup.

Russia ... and Vladimir Putin

There were very real, legitimate concerns about how Russia would perform as host of the largest sporting spectacle on the planet. Both on and off the pitch.

On it, the Russians came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked side, and off it, worries about hooliganism, doping, and basic human rights issues were well-founded, given the country's history. But, to the surprise of many, there were no such problems during the month-long spectacle.

At least none that were made public.

When the whistle was blown, neutral supporters seemed to get behind the actual team, too.

With Denis Cheryshev turning into a scoring machine, and Aleksandr Golovin enjoying a breakout tournament, Russia made an unexpected run to the quarter-finals, stunning Spain in the process.

All of us

This tournament was, quite simply, incredible. Qatar has some big boots to fill in four years' time.

Bonus: Loser - Eric Cantona

Fine, we'll give in to our curmudgeonly instincts and nominate one loser.

Sure, the combustible showman is likely basking in the glory of his nation's World Cup title, but given his frosty history with Didier Deschamps, there's a good chance Eric Cantona isn't totally satisfied right now.

The often incendiary Cantona famously derided his compatriot as a "water carrier" during their playing days, dismissing the former defensive midfielder's role in captaining France to World Cup glory in 1998, and a European Championship two years later. Deschamps, Cantona argued, was simply on the pitch to give the ball to his more talented teammates because he didn't possess any skill of his own.

He did the dirty work, and nothing more. That wasn't good enough for the mercurial Cantona. It's worked out just fine for France, though.

In building the current iteration of Les Bleus in his own workmanlike image, Deschamps became just the third person in history to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager. He joins football icons Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer on the exclusive list.

Not bad for someone who, apparently, couldn't actually play football.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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Biggest winners from a spectacular 2018 World Cup
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