Unraveling the mess at Southampton FC: Cortese, Pochettino, Liebherr and Saints’ future

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SOUTHAMPTON — As sweat poured off his forehead and he fanned himself with his hands, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino fielded intense questions for over 45 minutes at St. Mary’s Stadium on Thursday. But we are still no closer to unraveling the monumental mess the Premier League club has now been left in.

On Saturday his Southampton side travel to play Sunderland (watch live on NBCSN, 7:45am ET and online via Live Extra) but only one token question was asked about Saints’ game against the Black Cats during the lengthy and heated press conference.

Right now, there are more pressing issues to contend with at Southampton.

After Nicola Cortese brought his four years in charge at the club to an abrupt end earlier this week, as the former Executive Chairman walked away from Saints midseason, Pochettino’s future had been flung into doubt when owner Katharina Liebherr announced she was now the non-executive chairman of the club, as the search began for a Chief Executive to take over Cortese’s place on the board. All this has happened in the midst of Southampton enjoying their best season in decades, as they sit in the top 10 of the Premier League after rising from the depths of English soccer’s third-tier just over three years ago.

(MORE: Pochettino will stay on as manager of Southampton)

Here we will try to unravel exactly what is going on at Southampton, what has been leading up to this dramatic climax and which direction the club can move towards in the future, both short and long-term. This is the story on how Southampton’s dramatic rise towards the top six of the PL is now in danger of falling apart.

WHO IS THE OWNER?

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Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese brokered the deal and controlled the running of the club. Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter’s hands.

Throughout Southampton’s two seasons back in the Premier League, Katharina Liebherr has been in charge of the club. She’s been in the background, living in Switzerland mostly, as she let Nicola Cortese run the club. Hearing from sources close to her, Ms. Liebherr intends to live in Switzerland and does not want to move to England. However, she will remain in the UK until this issue has been resolved by either selling the club, or handing the reins over to a new Chief Executive who can steer the ship back in the right direction.

In 2009 her father Markus Liebherr, who tragically passed away in 2010, saved Southampton from extinction. Days away from dropping out of the soccer world, Liebherr was tipped off to a potential investment opportunity by his friend and financial adviser, Mr. Cortese. Within 48 hours billionaire Liebherr, whose family own an industrial machinery company which is one of the largest in the world and is worth $5 billion, was in Southampton and bought the club for a cut price $22 million. The stadium, the players, the training ground, the staff, the whole lot.

Of course, the debt had been swallowed up after Southampton went into administration and had to start the season on -10 points in English soccer’s third-tier in 2009-10.

But the journey to redemption had begun.

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Southampton owner Katharina Liebherr took over her father’s estate, which included Southampton FC, when her father Markus died in 2010. Will she sell the club or keep the status quo?

Sadly Liebherr didn’t get to see too much of it, as Saints’ back-to-back promotions to the Premier League came after his death in 2010. All the time his daughter Katharina was in the background quietly leaving the everyday running of the club to Cortese as she signed checks and took care of her late father’s estate. Now Katharina, with Saints flourishing in the top half of English soccer after soaring up 58 places in the English soccer period in just three seasons, is in the spotlight. But she doesn’t deserve any animosity or abuse. Her family is bank-rolling the club and she’s merely the custodian who wants to honor her father’s memory in the best possible manner. Unexpectedly, and most reluctantly, she is now the leading figure of a Premier League side.

She has backed the manager and the players and said they have her full support. I believe she means well. But now she has to find someone to run the club with the same tenacity, ruthlessness and clinical cynicism that Cortese previously did. That takes us onto the man in question nicely.

WHY DID CORTESE LEAVE?

Pochettino unzipped his black tracksuit jacket as the heat cranked up a few notches in the press room at St. Mary’s. The new beaming white spotlights assembled just for this press conference made it seem like I was watching the start of a police interrogation. Asked why Cortese had left by a rather blunt national journalist, Pochettino replied, “I don’t know. I found out like you did. It’s very difficult.”

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Nicola Cortese walked out on Southampton, after spending over 4 years at the club. During that time Saints went from bottom of League One to the top half of the PL. Why did he leave? Nobody knows…

That answer wasn’t good enough. Pochettino was sneered at for revealing he has met the owner of the club just twice, once at the end of season party last year for five minutes and then briefly before Thursday’s press conference. That’s it. Southampton’s manager tried to state how no players would be sold in January. “But how could you guarantee that?” One journalist irately asked. The Argentine boss had a resigned look across his face. Right now, he can’t guarantee anything.

Pochettino was hounded by the press as they dug deep to try and understand why his close ally Cortese, who had carved out an incredibly successful career for himself with some of the largest Swiss banks, would suddenly up sticks and move away from a club he had described as “his baby” and a project he had started in 2009 from scratch and built the team up from League One basement boys to top six hopefuls in the richest and most-watched league in the world.

Many theories exist as to why Cortese walked away. The Italian had actually handed in his notice in October as he felt the time was right to move on. Some argue that his constant bickering with Katharina Liebherr over the running of her father’s estate was stopping his plans to push Southampton onto the next level. Indeed last May he almost walked out as he sought more financial clout from Liebherr to push Saints on. Cortese got those funds, in the end, but it seems like he wanted more. Another theory is that his long-standing relationship with Serie (Saints have got many players from Cortese’s links with the Italian top-fligh) has seen him been offered a similar role in Italy. In recent times AC Milan had offered Cortese the GM’s job but it was rejected, with the Italian giants currently restructuring, we may see him pop up there.

Other reasons for his departure suggest petty rows over his contract and salary was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That may seem ridiculous for a man whose wealth is obviously significant, but having spent some time around Southampton’s training ground and facilities in the past few months, you get the feeling his nature is one of stubbornness and petulance if things aren’t done his way.

(MORE: Cortese resigns as Southampton Chairman, manager Pochettino could follow)

Talking about Southampton as his baby, Cortese has plowed tens of millions into the club’s sublime training ground on the edge of the New Forest National Park. It is a sight to behold, although still not quite finished, as multiple pitches all made of different grass fibers are present so the team can prepare properly for each away venue. Swimming pools, treatment centers, classrooms, glass clad balconies, it has it all. One staff member showed me how a small 15 yard piece of road had taken two months to build as every time Cortese arrived he ordered builders to ‘widen it’ then ‘narrow it’ then ‘widen it.’

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Cortese’s ruthless business nature transcended to the sporting arena. Often that didn’t win him friends, but Saints’ success has told it’s own story.

He is a perfectionist, and if something isn’t how he wants it, he won’t have it. Word has it staff at the club weren’t treated too well, as Cortese charged them to park their cars on the premises as the club is now run with ruthless efficiency and no handouts are given to anyone. Legendary past players have been turned away at the door as they haven’t paid to get in. That’s the way Cortese rolls. It was his way, or the highway. “You have a sexy job, if you don’t want to do it, there are millions of others who I can hire.” Those were the alleged words of Cortese to some of his employers in the past.

Look, let’s not muddy the waters here. Cortese is a genius in the eyes of some, as he took a floundering club riddled with financial mismanagement and took them from the third tier all the way to the upper echelons of the Premier League and building the best youth academy in England and a marvelous training facility that will be the envy of most PL clubs along the way.

Speaking of Cortese’s departure and how it has affected his players, Pochettino sat up straight and cleared his throat as the crowded press conference room at St. Mary’s hung on his every word.

“We were all sad to hear of his departure because we all had a personal relationship with Nicola. Of course I’ve spoken to the players because I knew, even ahead of time, that the rumors were going to be massive regarding his departure. I basically said to them what I’m saying to you now. There’s something else that I would like to highlight and to add to what I’ve just said. When Nicola offered me my contract, just as he did when he offered contracts to players, there was only one thing he said to me: to be 100 percent professional, regardless of whatever situation is happening. That puts him on a higher level. He is a stand-up guy, and that’s something that I’d like to say about him.”

WHAT ABOUT THE PLAYERS?

Since the announcement of Cortese leaving Saints broke, tabloids, 24-hour TV stations and radio shows across England have driven the story into a frenzy and suddenly every single Southampton player wants to leave. That is categorically not the case. Before the press conference on Thursday I was chatting with a few journalists and office staff from the club, who were jokingly trying to work out which one of them would be playing up front or in goal against Sunderland this weekend, they were poking fun at the absurd hyperbole being churned up by the media fallout.

The tabloids had sunk their teeth into the situation at Southampton, and they weren’t going to let go until they had their pound of flesh.

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Southampton’s fine crop of young English talent will not be sold, as Katharina Liebherr’s first move was to reassure the fans their heroes would not vanish.

Despite all the fabricated rumors about teenage sensation Luke Shaw moving, plus England internationals Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana and others leaving Southampton, none of them have left and none of them will leave.

Here’s a statement released by owner Katharina Liebherr on Friday saying just that.

“The Club has no plans to sell any of the squad during the January transfer window. The manager and the team have my full support.”

Fans of Southampton can breath easy. For now. The top English clubs are circling to snap up their talented players, as the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are on the hunt for a quick-fire sale from Katharina Liebherr. It seems like that’s not likely to happen, but that doubt will keep looming until the situation has been totally clarified.

POCHETTINO’S COMMITMENT TO THE CLUB?

The big question to clear up from Southampton’s Argentine boss during the press conference, was the fact that back in May when similar rumors about Cortese leaving had surfaced, Pochettino stated he would follow Cortese and walk out of the club.

But he hasn’t. Not yet.

“They are completely different situations. Eight months ago, when this thing was happening [before] and we were speaking about this, we were finishing my first season at Southampton Football Club. I did say that, if he left, there would be no sense for me to actually stay. The situation right now is completely different. We’re in the middle of our process and our project here at Southampton Football Club, so it’s a completely different situation. Nicola knows of my decision to stay. I’ve spoken to him about it, and it shows that I’m fully committed to these players, to the staff, to all of the people working at this Club and to this society. It would make no sense to leave in the middle of our path.”

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Pochettino was left with a difficult decision to make, as his closest ally and confidant, Nicola Cortese, walked out on him.

Turn the clock forward seven months and halfway through his first full season in charge, Pochettino made a massive U-turn and without really knowing it, will now be idolized by the home supporters. Pochettino rarely speaks about the fans or waves to them during games or acknowledges them when they sing. But he doesn’t have to. They respect him for the job he’s done and will now continue to do. On Saturday at Sunderland Pochettino will get a heroes welcome from the Saints fan when he appears from the tunnel pregame. His name will be sung with gusto and pride. He has stuck by Southampton in their time of need. The fans will never forget that.

Pochettino could’ve easily walked away. The man who shared his vision for the football club and wanted him on board has left and now the Argentine boss must start all over again with a new Chief Executive, or potentially a new owner if Katharina Liebherr decides to sell up. Staying was not the easy option. There will be tough times ahead for Saints, as Pochettino’s young squad brimming with teenagers are expected to brush away the off-field troubles without emotion, and carry on their relentless pursuit of the top clubs in England. Pochettino has become a symbol of hope for the fans. Now Cortese has left he is the leading light preaching the “Southampton Way” which the club believes is essential to success.

“That vision attracted me. He [Cortese] had such great vision that he brought me here!,” Pochettino laughed in brief light-hearted moment in the heated debate about the future of both himself and the club. “All I need to focus on is to keep doing the work I’ve been doing so far and to continue that until the end of the season – that’s my commitment to the Club and that’s what I need to do as manager. I am 100 percent committed to those players, I am 100 percent committed to the project and to the two years of my contract. I have a contract and a responsibility with Southampton Football Club.”

THE FUTURE OF SAINTS?

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Until the end of the season Pochettino will remain in charge of the team. But what then?

Southampton’s press officer had to jump in on numerous occasions during Pochettino’s presser. Journalists wanted more answers, wanted to probe the tired looking manager more.

You had to feel sorry for the Argentine facing the media circus with arguably so many questions of his own floating around in his mind. His family had moved from Barcelona to England, they were settled, had just bought a house and on Saturday against Sunderland he will celebrate one year in charge of the club. Then… WHAM. This hits him. But throughout the Argentine coach stayed relatively calm but was forthright in what he said, he addressed questions respectfully and should be commended for his honesty. That came to the fore when Pochettino was asked about how he was handling the situation.

“It was difficult to sleep when this happened yesterday, I am not going to lie. Because this is a great responsibility to be a manager of this club. When you sign a contract, you are not just signing a piece of paper, it’s abut your commitment and your responsibility to the staff , to the players, to the club as a whole. It’s a great responsibility. A great responsibility that I am fully, 100 percent decided on staying here until the end of the season and taking this club as high as I can.”

Right now Pochettino is the man leading Southampton into the unknown. Life without Cortese won’t be as bad as everyone believes it will be. Hopefully owner Katharina Liebherr can find the right person to replace him and one change, albeit a very big one, is the only one that needs to be made and a seamless transition from the Cortese era to the a new one can keep Southampton on course in their quest to impact European soccer. That is the dream Pochettino and Cortese shared, and whoever comes in must have that same dream, or the entire fabric of the club could falter and see the Saints sent into a downward spiral.

Currently sitting on 30 points and in ninth place with 17 games to go, it’s safe to say Southampton will still be a Premier League club next season. But the new Chief Executive Liebherr appoints will play a key role in determining which road Saints will take at the crossroads engineered by Cortese’s departure.

(MORE: The dramatic rise of Southampton and their supporters)

If Liebherr sales, everything will change. Right now the club is worth approximately $220 million. Not bad for a club her father bought for a miniscule $22 million just over four years ago. But if she stays and puts a new Chief Executive with similar visions to Cortese and somebody Pochettino can work with, Southampton’s path to the top will only be briefly halted then realigned. Instead of coming to a shuddering halt and going under like many had feared when the news of Cortese’s departure first arrived.

Amongst it all Pochettino’s willingness to state he will reassess things at the end of the season is slightly worrying for Saints fans, but at least he has stuck around to see this storm out. To round of the press conference I asked Pochettino if he had a message to Southampton’s fans.

First he asked, “do you mean in six months or ten years?” I wanted to reply ‘ten years’, but instead I was eager to know what he was thinking of between now and the end of the season. The future seems a long way away.

“Until the end of the season if the owners want me to be the manager, then I will be the manager at this club,” Pochettino said with his jaw locked, a look of disbelief glazed over his eyes. “On a personal basis I would not be in agreement to sell any player that I do not want to sell.”

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Fans of the South Coast club are desperate to see them succeed. But most dream of stability after Cortese’s departure.

Through it all Pochettino’s stubbornness shone through. Like Cortese he will not do anything that he doesn’t want to. If Pochettino remains in charge, the man who dragged Southampton up from the depths of despair to fame and fortune in the big-time will never be forgotten. His mentality is mirrored by Pochettino. They’re two peas in a pod, and if Southampton’s manager remains, Cortese can rest assured that he’s left the footballing side of the club in safe hands, not turmoil. Now Katharina Liebherr must do the right thing and be sensible with the appointment of a Chief Executive that mirrors those values.

Southampton still have the chance to do something special, they’ve already scared most of the Premier League’s elite with their dazzling displays this season. Now it’s time to do it all over again.

VIDEO: What do Liverpool, Spurs need this summer?

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There are just 25 days until the 2018/19 Premier League season kicks off.

With that in mind, it is time to focus on what the big boys need to do in order to challenge for the title.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

We’ve already focused on the top two from last season and what each of Manchester City and Manchester United need to do to get better, but what about the third and fourth place teams from 2017/18?

Both Mauricio Pochettino‘s Tottenham and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool had a fine campaign but silverware still evades them.

Below we look at how Liverpool have, and can continue, to strengthen their squad, while we also take a look at the key things Pochettino must do to keep Spurs on track for another top four finish.


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Key takeaways from 2018 World Cup

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The 2018 World Cup will go down as one of the most entertaining in history, as a month-long soccer celebration in Russia didn’t disappoint.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

From stars shinning, big teams falling early, the hosts surprising and stunning moments galore, we were treated to a wondrous spectacle from June 14 to July 15.

When it comes to it being the best World Cup, all-time, many will point to France 1998 and Mexico 1986 as being the best-ever World Cups, but Russia 2018 is right up there in terms of pure drama and memorable moments.

Let’s focus on the key takeaways from a special World Cup.


SUMMER OF FUN

With concerns aplenty about Russia hosting the World Cup, all of that was put to one side for the majority of the tournament as all eyes were on the pitch. With more late goals (90th minute or later) at this World Cup than the last three combined, we were treated to incredible drama. Plus, 164 goals at an average of 2.64 goals per game was pretty decent too as that was just under the 2.67 goals per game haul in 1998 and 2014.

Overall this was a summer of extreme fun spread across the vast European region of Russia as fans were welcomed by locals, stars delivered on the pitch and countries across the world rejoiced or cried depending on how their teams fared. I’m not sure this World Cup could have gone any better for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and their organizers.

As it always does, this tournament captured the imagination of fans across the world.


BIG BOYS OUT EARLY

Germany became the third-straight reigning champions to crash out of the World Cup at the group stage and that was one of the biggest storylines of the tournament. How on earth did Joachim Low’s star-studded side fail epically? Warnings signs were there as Manuel Neuer was rusty and the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller were out of sorts, but still, Die Mannschaft’s title defense was woeful.

Argentina’s organization was woeful throughout as Jorge Sampaoli basically surrendered control of the team to the players as they scraped by Nigeria in their final group stage game, then lost 4-3 in a thriller against eventual winners France in the Round of 16. Lionel Messi may never grace the World Cup stage again and Argentina were an unbalanced, top-heavy shambles in this tournament. So sad.

Omnishambles can be used to describe Spain’s World Cup. On the eve of the tournament they fired head coach Julen Lopetegui after he agreed to take over as Real Madrid manager without informing the Spanish Football Association and although they made it to the last 16 under caretaker boss Fernando Hierro, something wasn’t quite right as they crashed out to hosts Russia on penalty kicks in the last 16.

Portugal departing in the last 16 wasn’t too much of a shock but did deprive us of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in the latter stages of the tournament, while Poland didn’t show up at all as they crashed out of the group stage with Robert Lewandowski a shadow of his usual self.


FRANCE WORTHY, PRAGMATIC WINNERS

Swashbuckling, they weren’t. Champions, they are.

France didn’t exactly set the tournament alight but Didier Deschamps set up his team to be tough to beat and they battled their way through the stacked side of the bracket (beating Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final) to win it all.

Les Bleus conceded once in the group stage and apart from a wobbly display against erratic Argentina in the last 16, they shutout Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final. For all of their young attacking talents, France’s title was built on a solid defensive foundation as they bounced back from the agony of defeat on home soil in the European Championships two years ago.

Kylian Mbappe was the young star of the tournament at the age of 19 and became just the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup final with the only other being Pele in 1958. While the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris and Paul Pogba delivered when it mattered as the second youngest team in the tournament prevailed.

There was plenty to like about this stubborn French side as young defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti were sublime at center back and Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez excelled after being thrown in at the deep end.

Deschamps also became just the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager as he captained France’s first World Cup success in 1998 and 20 years later he masterminded a second success by cutting his cloth accordingly and making smart tactical decisions throughout.


TOP GOALS

So many to choose from but Lionel Messi’s goal v Nigeria, Benjamin Pavard’s beauty against Argentina, Nacho’s lazer for Spain v Portugal, Denis Cheryshev’s cracker against Croatia, Philippe Coutinho‘s stunner v Switzerland and Angel di Maria’s long-range effort against France stand out.

There was also Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic free kick against Spain, Dries Mertens’ volley, Kevin De Bruyne‘s smash against Brazil, Jesse Lingard‘s curler versus Panama, Ricardo Quaresma’s outside-of-the-foot beauty and Toni Kroos’ amazing late free kick against Sweden.

That’s 12 goals of this highest quality right here. Here’s a look at a few of our favorites.


SET PIECE, VAR STARDOM

The unsung stars of this World Cup? Set pieces and VAR.

The former saw more goals from set pieces at a World Cup since 1966, and the latter caused a few issues but was largely brilliant in getting the decisions correct in a speedy manner.

Nothing is perfect but VAR proved it is here to stay and set piece dominance may well be the theme of the next few years as smaller clubs and nations continue to improve and close the gap to the elite.


EUROPEAN DOMINATION

Six of the final eight teams were from Europe and all of the final four were from the same continent as the European teams stood tall on what could be considered as home soil. What does this say for the future? With England, Belgium and France all having young squads, they could also be in the latter stages of the 2022 World Cup if they continue to develop their talented youth teams.

With their talented youngsters nurtured in stable academy environments in England, Belgium and France and quickly moved into the big leagues, their central models are all working as we are starting to see St. George’s Park being reminiscent of Clairefontaine and Belgium’s model of integrating their club teams at youth level.

Having a clear plan has clearly worked to develop Belgium’s golden generation which came third, while France and England preferred to give youth a chance and it worked.

South America has some incredibly talented individuals in Neymar of Brazil, James Rodriguez of Colombia, Luis Suarez of Uruguay and of course Messi of Argentina, but the organization of the European nations in terms of youth development has improved drastically and we may now see European domination in the next few World Cups. A seismic shift in the power of world soccer occurred the summer as the huge wealth of the European game has been invested into better resources to develop young players. It is working superbly.


MEXICO FLY CONCACAF FLAG

Contrasting that European domination was CONCACAF disappointment. Only Mexico made it out of the group stage from the three teams CONCACAF sent to Russia and both Panama and Costa Rica failed to win any of their games at the tournament. Mexico almost blew their chance too as they were thrashed 3-0 by Sweden in their final group game and had South Korea beating Germany to thank for advancing to the last 16.

El Tri lost 2-0 to Brazil in that feisty encounter as Juan Carlos Osorio blamed Neymar flopping and referees but, in all honestly, Mexico weren’t good enough to dine at the top table of this tournament.

Sure, they beat Germany in their group opener to set themselves up to make the knockout rounds, but we saw that something wasn’t right with Germany. A seventh-straight exit at the last 16 for Mexico underlined that CONCACAF has a lot of catching up to do and the fact that the U.S. national team didn’t even qualify for this tournament hit home just how poor the USMNT were during qualifying.


SPARE A THOUGHT FOR…

There are always teams who deserved to make it out of the group but it doesn’t happen due to small margins and just plain bad luck. Enter: Iran, Peru, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Serbia. All six of those nations put in gutsy displays but it wasn’t to be as Senegal went out due to having more fair play points than Japan (two more yellow cards, to be exact), while Morocco and Iran almost upset powerhouses Spain and Portugal in their wild final group games which included VAR galore and there was late drama throughout Group B. Morocco, in particular, were one of the best teams to watch in the tournament as Herve Renard’s team scored a last-gasp own goal to lose to Iran, then somehow drew with Spain in their final group game despite giving them a heck of a scare.

Serbia were another team who started the tournament well but succumbed to their attacking instincts late on against Switzerland, while Nigeria dazzled when defeating Iceland but came unstuck late on against Argentina to lose out on making the last 16. Peru also came up short against France and Denmark despite positive displays as they beat Australia comfortably in their group stage finale to end on a high.

This was a tournament were some of the more exciting teams vanished early on as giants turned to pragmatism to find a way out of the group stage.

Oh, and spare a thought for Michy Batshuayi, who will be remembered only for this moment from the World Cup. Sorry, Michy, but what did you think would happen!?


AWARD WINNERS

Luka Modric dazzled in midfield to lead Croatia’s charge to the final, the first time they have reached that stage in history, and deservedly won the Golden Ball.

Perhaps Kylian Mbappe deserved third, but he won the Young Player of the Tournament, so Griezmann getting third seemed about right, while Eden Hazard was superb alongside Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne as Belgium’s stars showed up.

Below is a look at the full list of awards.


Golden Ball (player of the tournament)
1st – Luka Modric, Croatia
2nd – Eden Hazard, Belgium
3rd – Antoine Griezmann, France

Silver Ball (young player of the tournament) – Kylian Mbappe, France
Golden Boot (top goalscorer)Harry Kane, England
Golden Glove (top goalkeeper)Thibaut Courtois, Belgium


RONALDO, MESSI, NEYMAR STRUGGLE

All three of these players had major highs and lows in this tournament, with Ronaldo scoring twice, Neymar twice and Messi once.

The latter missed a penalty kick in Argentina’s opener against Iceland and his struggles summed up La Albieceleste crashing out at the last 16 stage. Messi’s stunning control and finish against Nigeria in their crucial group finale will live long in the memory, but that was about it from a World Cup where it looked like the pressure of a nation was too much for him to handle.

Ronaldo scored four goals, including a hat trick in Portugal’s wild 3-3 draw with Spain to open up group play and the former Real Madrid star (who has since signed for Juventus) scored the winner against Morocco too. Yet he couldn’t do it all on his own as Portugal’s other star attackers failed to show up.

Neymar, ah, yes. Brazil’s talisman may have broken the record for most rolls after being fouled in a World Cup tournament as his theatrical dives overshadowed all of his good work. After working his way back to full-fitness following three months out, Neymar scored a late goal against Costa Rica to set Brazil on their way but he also annoyed many with his antics. Against Mexico he was treated brutally but many neutrals seem fed up with him.


BREAKOUT STARS

Every single World Cup will scour the rosters for who will be the breakout stars of this World Cup and a couple really stood out: Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano had a great tournament with two goals and was a constant pest as the PSV Eindhoven winger will surely get a move to one of Europe’s elite teams.

The unfashionable English trio of Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford saw their stocks rise significantly, while Japan’s Takashi Inui was a star as it seems like Real Betis have found themselves a star playmaker at the ripe age of 30.

French youngsters Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez came of age at full back for France, while Emil Forsberg impressed for Sweden and Yerry Mina delivered goals and desire to Colombia’s defense. Kasper Schmeichel starred in goal for Denmark and Aleksandr Golovin was a hero for Russia in their run to the quarterfinals.

Overall, it was a World Cup of lovely surprises and even after a month we wish it was still going on.


Courtois to join Hazard in Chelsea exit?

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Chelsea may have a new manager in charge after Antonio Conte was finally fired, but the uncertainty at Stamford Bridge doesn’t end there.

[ MORE: France win World Cup

Less than 24 hours after Eden Hazard hinted at a move to Real Madrid and that his time at Chelsea could be up, his countryman and close friend, Thibaut Courtois, is saying something similar.

Courtois, 26, won the Golden Glove award at the 2018 World Cup as the best goalkeeper in the tournament as he helped Belgium to third-place with some stunning saves, especially against Japan and Brazil in the knockout rounds.

Yet Courtois, who has often been linked with a move to Real Madrid, had the following to say when talking about his future via the London Evening Standard.

“Wherever I go, Hazard must come along. We will not let each other go. We’ll see. Now first vacation. And agree with my entourage in between.” Courtois said. “Now I’m going to talk to my manager to see what the possibilities are. All options are open to me. Also stay at Chelsea, yes. People always complain that players do not comply with their contracts, but maybe I will. I do not think they will keep someone with my qualities on the bench, even if I do not sign. But maybe that’s possible because I like being in London.”

What does Courtois mean by that “even if I do not sign” comment?

He has just one year left on his current deal at Chelsea and talks haven’t progressed in quite some time, with the Belgian goalkeeper seemingly not happy with the contract offer on the table. 2

Via the Daily Mirror, Courtois said “what was on the table obviously is different than what I can have” when it comes to Chelsea’s contract offer.

Is he worth over $330,000 per week? Quite possibly. Alongside David De Gea and Manuel Neuer, neither of whom shone at the World Cup, Courtois is among the top three goalkeepers on the planet. He may now be the top after his star performances for Belgium this summer and he knows that has strengthened his hand in negotiations with Chelsea.

Courtois loved his two years on loan at Atletico Madrid as a Chelsea youngster and both of his children live in the Spanish capital, so returning to Madrid would obviously make sense for him on a personal level.

Intriguing times at Chelsea as the Belgian boys could both be swapping London for Madrid.

Croatia fears World Cup chance may never come again

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MOSCOW (AP) The rain hid Croatia’s tears.

After Luka Modric collected his Golden Ball award in a downpour, he shared an emotional embrace with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both wearing the country’s red-and-white checkered uniform.

Croatia knows Sunday’s 4-2 loss to France in the World Cup final was a chance that may not come again anytime soon.

“We were so close and we played the best soccer. We deserved more,” said Modric, who at 32 may have played in his last World Cup match.

Croatia’s first golden generation lost to France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and its second went one better. Besides Modric, goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be 38 at the next World Cup in Qatar, midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be 34 and forward Mario Mandzukic will be 36.

“I wish we are now 24, everyone and Luka especially,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “There is a time when something needs to end.”

Among a crowd of men in dark suits on the World Cup podium, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Grabar-Kitarovic’s team shirt showed her passion for Croatia, a country of barely 4 million people.

While some of the players shed tears on the field, fans at home celebrated in the thousands despite the loss.

“Overall, we’ve been better,” Lovren said, critical of the way France played. “They did it the other way. They didn’t play football. They waited for their chances and they scored. They had their own tactic and you need to respect that. They played the tournament like that every game.”

Croatia went down with the same grit that had taken it through three extra-time matches, all won after conceding the opening goal. When Ivan Perisic scored in the 28th minute after Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal had given France the lead, Croatia looked ready to do it again.

Then came a penalty, called after a video review, which Antoine Griezmann converted.

Trailing 2-1, Croatia conceded two more goals but kept fighting. Mandzukic then took advantage of a goalkeeping error to make it 4-2, becoming the first player to score for both teams in a World Cup final.

“When you want to be the best then you need to win, simple as that,” said Lovren, who lost the Champions League final with Liverpool in May. “It’s not easy to accept that. It’s something that I will carry for my life.”

James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

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