Entering the tournament, a common question posed revolved around dark horses. “Who is a dark horse in this tournament?” A difficult question. What defines a dark horse? A team that isn’t expected to win it all, but has the capability? That would qualify Belgium, or Colombia, or Uruguay as a dark horse.

How about a team that could make a deep run – say to the quarters, or maybe the semis, before bowing out with honor?

Regardless of how you define it, it is worth arguing that 3/4 of the semifinalists were dark horses, and 6/8 quarterfinalists were dark horses. That’s parity.

Out with the old, in with the new

Coming into the tournament, I expected that only five teams could realistically lift the trophy this summer: Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, and Argentina.

I was wrong. Germany bowed out in the group stage. Argentina and Spain were bounced ignominiously in the Round of 16. Brazil were shocked at the quarterfinal stage. Only France lived up to their billing as pre-tournament favorites, and even they weren’t as convincing at the outset.

Meanwhile, the lesser heralded “dark horses” made all the waves. Belgium, under the management of Roberto Martinez, played inspired football all tournament long, finishing third, their best ever finish at a World Cup. Uruguay played spotless defense, and looked the part of a true contender until losing their star striker Edinson Cavani. They conceded zero goals through three group stage matches.

England restored pride to their badge, riding a youthful exuberance and a brave manager in Gareth Southgate to the semifinals, breaking their long penalty curse in the process. Sweden won a group featuring Germany and Mexico, after knocking out the Dutch and the Italians in qualifying, they showed cohesiveness and grit that was absent from their star man of old, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Russia, the hosts, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, outscored their opponents 8-1 in the first two games of the group. They pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the knockout stages by defeating Spain on penalties, and took eventual finalists Croatia to penalties in the quarters as well. They won the hearts of the nation, and quite possibly the world.

A dark horse in name only

And then there is Croatia, we haven’t heard this many comparisons of how small a place is compared to a state/city in the United States since Leicester City won the Premier League title. Croatia qualified as a dark horse heading into the tournament, a trendy pick to potentially spring an upset. Funnily enough, many predicted France and Croatia to play in the Round of 16, because there was no way Croatia could beat Argentina, right? Wrong. Croatia smashed them 3-0, winning all three of their matches in Group D.

Croatia have shown mental and physical toughness to the highest degree, winning three consecutive extra time matches vs. Denmark, Russia, and England, two of which were on penalties. Mario Mandzukic, who could barely walk in the dying moments of the match vs. Russia, ended up scoring the winning goal in the semifinal against England.

Croatia aren’t devoid of quality, their keeper plays for Monaco; their best central defender for Liverpool; their midfield has two from Real Madrid, one from Barcelona, and one from Inter; their forward line has players from Inter and Juventus.

But collectively, their team spirit and sheer will has elevated them to the final. And although they weren’t victorious, they were worthy finalists and pushed France to the very limit.

Yes, Mbappe has been outstanding. The breakout star of the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been parity– the dark horse has prevailed against the perennial favorites.

And that makes the biggest winners of the 2018 World Cup us, the viewers.

It’s been a captivating tournament. And while it’s sad to see it go, it will surely never be forgotten.