The best performers from what could have been the best World Cup in recent memory…
So, that final was wild, huh?
There seemed to be no better way to end one of the craziest World Cups in recent memory than to cap it all off with quite possibly the best World Cup Final ever played. A back and forth affair, balanced on a knife’s edge for large portions of the game. The stars showed up. Messi reinforced his status as the greatest, and Mbappé reinforced his status as the world’s next superstar. Penalties is an unfortunate way to lose any game, but the tension that was maintained the whole time was unrivaled. The match, the occasion, the spectacle, the stakes, the meaning behind it all. It delivered. It might have been one of the best sporting events of any kind I have ever witnessed.
Congratulations to Argentina, the 36 year wait is now over. Commiserations to France, who will surely be no strangers to cup finals in the coming years. But now we have one thing left to do: give you the tournament’s best 11 of performing players. Simple rules: one player per position, they must play that actual position (so I cannot cheat and pick two right backs), and the starting 11 will be joined by seven honorable mentions (one goalkeeper + six outfield players) and my picks for Player of the Tournament, Young Player of the Tournament, and Manager of the Tournament. This is SoccerKakis’ Team of the Tournament for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
GK: Dominik Livaković (Croatia)
It is very easy to fall for the recency bias and put Emi Martínez here. While I do believe the Argentine had a great tournament and his save against Kolo Muani in the Final could have gotten him here by itself, I think Livaković had a stronger tournament in totality. The Croatian shot-stopper was elite for the entire tournament, with his incredible performance against Brazil possibly the highlight of the whole tournament for goalkeepers. Without Livaković, Croatia certainly would not have gotten as far as they did.
RB: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
Hakimi entered the tournament as one of the world’s rising stars, and the young Moroccan certainly lived up to the billing. While he held the reputation for his attacking talent going into the tournament, he would particularly shine with some strong defensive performances on the right wing, finishing as the tournament leader in tackles and tackles won. His searing speed and defensive intelligence and composure shone through in every match up for Morocco. He largely did not put a foot wrong for most of the tournament. Add in his Panenka penalty against Spain and the lovely post-game celebration videos of him and his mother, and it is hard to not love this kid and his game.
CB: Joško Gvardiol (Croatia)
It is very rare for a player as young as Joško Gvardiol to shine at the level he did in Qatar. It is even more rare for a shining young talent at a World Cup to be a center back. Gvardiol was nothing short of spectacular for Croatia. He showed off the complete package of defensive skill and traits. He was quick, he was intelligent, he was strong in the tackle and nearly unbeatable in the air, he was calm as can be on the ball, and he absolutely never looked phased by the moment. It is genuinely hard to believe that he is only 20 years old. The sky is the limit for him, and the rest of the world now knows just how incredible he is already.
CB: Romain Saïss (Morocco)
Morocco’s defense was the bedrock to their tournament success, holding strong against wave after wave of opposition attack and not conceding a goal from an opposition player until Theo Hernández’s opening goal in the semifinal. The bedrock of this defense was the experienced ex-Wolves center back Romain Saïss. He marshaled the Moroccan back line supremely well, leading by example and vocally. He won dual after dual, shutting down forward after forward, until he was unfortunately injured against Portugal in the quarterfinal. He soldiered on against France in the next round, but he was unable to continue due to obvious injury. Saïss’ removal from the team led to Morocco conceding four goals in two games against France and Croatia, having not conceded from an opposition player at any stage of the tournament going into the semifinal, and I do not think anything demonstrates the importance of Saïss in that defense more than that fact.
LB: Theo Hernández (France)
If this tournament lacked anything, it was an obviously stellar tournament from a left back. There were a few imperfect nominations for this position, but I chose France left back Theo Hernández. Despite a poor performance against England in the quarterfinals and a relatively poor final against Argentina, Theo still had moments of individual brilliance throughout. He was defensively solid (most of the time) and was incredibly dangerous going forward, even chipping in with a very important goal against Morocco in the semifinal. He was the best of a not-great bunch, but it is still hard to doubt the talent and potential of Theo after this tournament.
CM: Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco)
I think the best way to describe Sofyan Amrabat’s tournament was something I saw on Twitter a few days ago, where a user showed “Sofyan Amrabat’s heat map this tournament” and the accompanying picture was simply a map of the whole nation of Qatar. That does not feel inaccurate. Amrabat was a force in midfield for Morocco, covering every blade of grass and suffocating midfields almost by himself. While his defensive prowess stole headlines, he was also not a slouch on the ball and was much more of a complete package than many gave him credit for. If Morocco was the underdog star of the tournament, Amrabat (and his midfield partner Azzedine Ounahi) were at the center of the spotlight for the Atlas Lions.
CM: Luka Modrić (Croatia)
An ageless wonder. A man who seemingly only gets better with age. Even at 37 years old, Croatia legend Luka Modrić still finds a way to take over games. He does everything, almost all of it unbelievably well, and he is still at the center of everything for Croatia. He will go down in the history books for leading Croatia, a nation of less than four million people, to consecutive World Cup semifinal appearances. While this tournament will not end with a Ballon d’Or, Modrić still leaves Qatar with the continued adulation of football fans everywhere and recognition that he is one of the greatest midfielders to ever play football, one of the beautiful game’s most talented artists.
CM: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann’s entry and evolution into this unnatural center midfielder role was one of the stories of the World Cup. France’s run to the Final was directly as a result of Griezmann’s phenomenal performances as a midfielder. As has been the case since 2016, France have gone as Griezmann has gone, and the Frenchman’s tournament, almost quietly, was among his best moments in a France shirt. Until the Final, I do believe Griezmann was the only player who could truly rival Messi’s bid for Player of the Tournament, and while a poor showing in the Final and defeat for France ended that conversation, this is still a very strong, legacy-defining tournament for Griezmann.
FW: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
FW: Julián Álvarez (Argentina)
It really is unfair that Man City have both him and Erling Håland to choose from as strikers. Julián Álvarez showed in this tournament why he is considered one of the best young talents in the world, being dropped into the Argentina lineup and not only not looking out of place on the biggest stage, but being a game-changing player for La Albiceleste on their way to being world champions. The energy he brought in his off-ball movements and pressing helped change the dynamic of the Argentina team, and his intelligence in attack and ruthlessness in front of goal allowed him to score several very meaningful goals and make a late run at the tournament’s top scorer. The future is bright for this kid.
FW: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé’s tournament will be remembered as the moment where he solidified himself as the next man up in terms of the world’s best player. Mbappé might not have been stellar in every moment this tournament, but he still left Qatar having been responsible for all but I believe two of France’s goals. When it mattered, he turned on the quality, and this was exemplified most of all by his dazzling equalizer in the Final, his second of three goals in that game. Mbappé will become the best player in the world, if he is not already, and this tournament removed any doubts or trepidations. While the Final did not end the way that he hoped, this will surely not be the last final the young boy from Bondy plays in.
Honorable Mentions: Yassine Bounou (Morocco), Josip Juranović (Croatia), Casemiro (Brazil), Azzedine Ounahi (Morocco), Jude Bellingham (England), Enzo Fernández (Argentina), Olivier Giroud (France)
Manager of the Tournament: Walid Regragui (Morocco)
There is probably no individual person who improved his world standing in this tournament in such an extreme way as Walid Regragui. The fearless leader of the Atlas Lions, Regragui had his team playing at an incredibly high level at both ends of the pitch, characterized by an organization, tenacity, and relentlessness that made his team so difficult to beat. He seems so suited to his current role that it is hard to believe he has only been Morocco’s manager since the end of August, appointed after the dismissal of polarizing head coach Vahid Halilhodžić. It is even harder to believe that his appointment was largely criticized, despite Regragui having led Moroccan club Wydad AC to an African Champions League title mere months prior. The doubters are likely silent now, and Regragui’s success with Morocco makes us all excited to see what the Atlas Lions do next.
Young Player of the Tournament: Joško Gvardiol (Croatia)
As I said before, it is very rare for a player as young as Gvardiol to be as dominant as he was on the world’s biggest stage. Not only did the young Croat not look phased by the moment, he seemed to thrive in it. He has the world at his feet, and it would not be a surprise to anyone at this point to see him be the best in his position in the world very soon.
Player of the Tournament: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
The greatest footballer of all time.
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