WORLD CUP: Winners and losers of the tournament in Russia

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

By ROB HARRIS

AP Global Soccer Writer

MOSCOW (AP) Savor the thrills, unpredictability, and constant drama of this World Cup. Even FIFA accepts the soccer showpiece might never be so engrossing again.

Russia might have staged the last 32-team World Cup. Or at least the last one not shoehorned in a crammed format at the end of the calendar year.

FIFA has yet to definitively rule out adding another 16 teams in time for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but the leap to 48 teams will be happening for certain for the triple-hosted North American tournament in 2026. Welcome to 16 groups, each featuring three teams of which two advance to a round of 32.

Soccer leaders were seduced by the extra cash an expansion tournament would offer, but at the expense of the spectacle itself. Russia vindicated the 2016 internal FIFA briefing document that determined 32-team finals tend to produce the "highest absolute quality" on the field.

Here is a look at the winners and losers of the tournament which ended with France lifting the World Cup on Sunday after beating Croatia 4-2 in the final:

The lowest-ranked team at the finals, the hosts set the tone for the tournament by thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opener. It wasn't a fluke as Stanislav Cherchesov's side unexpectedly qualified from its group and even eliminated 2010 World Cup winner Spain in the round of 16. It was only a successful penalty shootout away from reaching the semifinals.

As a tournament organizer, Russia also exceeded expectations. No one doubted Vladimir Putin's ability to mobilize the resources of the state to ensure operations ran smoothly. But police often adopted a relaxed approach to fans gathering on street corners and drinking in the streets. The hooliganism and racism that has scarred Russian football was absent.

Logistically, it was a triumph, but it will take longer to discover whether the changes in Russia were just camouflage for the tournament.

Even as they celebrate their second World Cup title, the French should have a sense of dread.

Germany became the third holder from the last three World Cups to be eliminated in the group stage. Germany's demise was a combination of complacency, failing to strike the right balance blending the young and older generation, and a simmering row over the Turkish heritage of Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan.

This was a tournament to forget for the top three players at last year's FIFA awards. Player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo excelled in only one match, scoring a hat trick against Spain, before European champion Portugal was knocked out by Uruguay in the last 16. Lionel Messi managed a solitary strike to help Argentina qualify from its group. And like Portugal it fell at the start of the second round, losing to France 4-3. The world's most expensive player at least made it a round further. But Neymar was still struggling for fitness after three months out with a broken toe.

The pitfalls of making a hasty return from injury were clear for Mohamed Salah, whose shoulder injury in the Champions League final in May meant the Egypt forward was unable to replicate his free-scoring form. English football's player of the year netted only twice as Egypt was eliminated in the group stage.

Expecting perfection was always unrealistic on the debut of video assistant referees. Confusion reigned in the opening days of the tournament. When grappling went unpunished and penalties were not awarded had the referee even consulted the VAR or was he just being lenient? Too many referees dithered over decisions. Take the awarding of the penalty in the final after assessing Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic's handball. Ultimately, if the decision is right in the end, soccer might have to put up with delays. Airing some of the communications between referees and the VARs like they do in rugby will give coaches and fans more confidence in the system going forward. Particularly when it comes to what constitutes "clear and obvious" errors.

The demise of Spain in the last 16 underscored a shift in tactical effectiveness. Goodbye tiki-taka for now. Possession without using the ball effectively - attacking - is futile as Spain discovered against Russia. Instead, winning a free kick or corner proved the most effective route to scoring. Of 169 goals in Russia, 73 came from set-pieces. VAR helped, too, acting as a deterrent against wrestling and shirt-pulling to neutralize opponents as the balls were flying into the penalty area.

FIFA strengthened concussion protocols after the 2014 World Cup regarding when players return to action after head impacts. But there are protocols in place, not hard and fast rules. So Noureddine Amrabat should never have played in the group stage in Russia for Morocco five days after a concussion that left him unable to remember the incident. But Amrabat was allowed to defy the team doctor's advice.

"Can we do more? Of course," FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Friday, without expanding.

Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Updated July 16, 2018

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