CHIBGUOGWU NNADIEGBULAM / AIPS: The past two weeks of World Cup football has provided a football festival, serving up intrigues to keep the football on the edge of its seat day in day out.

At the end of a dramatic group stage of 48 thrilling encounters, the lowest ranked team at Russia 2018 progressed to the Round of 16 while the highest ranked team (and defending champions) suffered terribly from two huge upsets and were shockingly knocked out of the first round for the first time since 1938.

Here is the A – Z of a group stage that has definitely left memories to last a lifetime:

Africa will not be in the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup 2018 and the last time this happened was in 1982 with Algeria and Cameroon as its representatives. Therefore it is the first time since the introduction of the last 16 stage in 1986 – and the first time since the World Cup became a 32-team tournament for France 1998 – that no team from the continent has made it out of the group stage. A Psychic pig had actually predicted that Nigeria will reach the semi-final in Russia.

Broadcasters of the World Cup across the globe are breaking records of their own with the tournament drawing so much attention. An average 55.87 million viewers – 82.4 percent share for Globo – watched the match between Brazil and Costa Rica and viewing picked to 61.78 million when Philippe Coutinho scored the second goal in their 2-0 victory. In the game between England and Tunisia, BBC1’s coverage got 13.73 million viewers, the highest average UK audience of 2018. 63.79 percent of primetime Japanese TV viewers tuned in for their team’s opening win over Colombia, making NHK’s average audience of 36.62 million higher than any for the 2014 World Cup. These are figures gotten from @fifamedia on Twitter.

Cristiano Ronaldo is now Europe’s all-time leading international goal scorer courtesy of his fourth goal of Russia 2018 which came in the fourth minute of Portugal’s 1-0 victory over Morocco. It was his 85th international goal, taking him beyond Hungarian Ferenc Puskas’s European record. He is now only behind Iran’s Ali Daei who has 109 international goals. Ronaldo also became just the fourth player to score goals in four different World Cups (2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018), joining Pele of Brazil, and Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose of Germany.

Drama has been a constant theme at this year’s World Cup with late goals turning up the heat while VAR continues to enjoy the spotlight by producing twists and turns.

Essam El-Hadary is now the oldest World Cup player ever at 45 years and 161 days. He made history in Egypt’s final group game against Saudi Arabia and although he saved a first half penalty, the Pharaohs still suffered a 2-1 defeat. El Hadary beat the record of Colombia Keeper Faryd Mondragon, who was 43 years and three days old when he appeared at Brazil 2014.

FIFA’s effort at fan engagement has been immense and must be commended. They introduced digital reporters for all the teams at the World Cup, and these reporters use the official languages of their teams to relate with the fans and get them a lot more involved via social media. For this World Cup, FIFA created a fans’ group for each team on Facebook – it is left to see if they will remain afterwards. The slogans on the buses of the teams were picked by fans and as usual fans are building their fantasy teams. Really, what is football without fans bringing on their drums, dance, costumes and colours? FIFA’s new Fan Movement initiative captures these beautiful moments from across the globe. Meanwhile FIFA’s Social Media has attracted more than 4 million new fans and their website has garnered more than 200 million visits.

Germany will not be defending their World Cup title in Russia after suffering a humiliating 2-0 defeat at the hands of South Korea at the Kazan Arena. It is one victory that will go down in history for the Taeguk Warriors as they became the first Asian team to beat the reigning World Cup holders in any official match. Meanwhile Die Mannschaft became the third champions in a row – since Italy in 2010 – to crash out in the first round. Mexico threw the first sucker punch in their opening match when a first-half goal from Hirving Lozano was all they needed to surprise Joachim Low’s disjointed side. That was the first time a German side had lost their opening World Cup game since 1982, when West Germany fell to Algeria. Joachim Low’s charges then needed a last-gasp free kick from Toni Kroos to beat Sweden in their second group game, before South Korea made matters worse by frustrating them and eventually scoring two extra time goals which sent them packing. Even more embarrassing is how a desperate Manuel Neuer was dispossessed in midfield and the ball was quickly pumped up field for Son Heung Min to score.

Harry Kane is currently the highest goal scorer at Russia 2018 with five goals. He is followed by Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and Portugal’s Ronaldo who are both on four goals. Kane and Lukaku only played two matches in the group stage while Ronaldo played three.

Iranian women brought their stadium ban protest to the world stage and they made their mark from the get go. Russia 2018 gave many of them their first taste of watching a live football match in a stadium, “but of course, it is ridiculous and wrong that I have to leave my country to see my country play, and I think more people are thinking the same thing,” Asha, a fan and resident of Tehran told ESPN FC.In Iran’s opening match against Morocco at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Russia, there were banners that stated, “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums” and “#NoBan4Women #NoBan4Women Support Iranian women to attend stadiums.” That match saw Iran win their first World Cup game in 20 years.Then came the second group game against Spain and back at home in Iran, Iranian women were allowed into the Azadi stadium in Tehran for the first time in 37 years – since October 5, 1981 – to watch the match on big screens. They did not have to disguise as men. They were also allowed into the stadium for the game against Portugal as they continue to fight for what they believe in.

Japan are the only Asian team that made it out of the group stage of Russia 2018.

Kaliningrad is one of four cities that will not host a knockout match at Russia 2018. Others include, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg and Saransk.Lowest-ranked team and hosts Russia qualified for the Round of 16 to the surprise of many.

Maradona memes flooded the internet following Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria in Saint Petersburg as the intense encounter saw La Albiceleste progress to the Round of 16 at the expense of the Super Eagles. The 57-year-old football legend, who was at the stadium, celebrated Lionel Messi’s opening goal in a bizarre manner that saw his crossed arms resting on his chest while his head looked upwards as he rolled his eyes like he was possessed by some spirit. Then after Marcos Rojo’s winning goal for Argentina, millions of viewers watched his emotions spill even more as he gave the middle-finger salute with both hands. Speaking of the middle finger salute, singer Robbie Williams gave it to the camera during the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Nine own goals have been scored already at Russia 2018. It is a record number. The most of any single World Cup Final tournament; four more than in 2014 and seven more than in 2010. Even more interesting is how Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer scored a bizarre own goal from a Bryan Ruiz penalty in the last minute of Costa Rica’s 2-2 draw with Switzerland in Group E.

Only the Group C match between Denmark and France at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow ended in a boring barren draw. Both sides had already qualified to the Round of 16 prior to the encounter with only top spot to fight for and all they could put up was an uninspiring display. The goalless draw came after 36 games which is a new World Cup record. The previous record was 26 matches.

Penalties have so far been awarded 24 times at Russia 2018 already. Six of them have been missed including that of Lionel Messi against Iceland and Cristiano Ronaldo against Iran.

Quote of the group stage: “I knew that God was with us and would not leave us out [of the competition]. I don’t remember having ever suffered so much, because of the situation and because of what was at stake. It was a huge release for all of us,” Argentina captain Lionel Messi said after leading his side to a 2-1 nerve-wracking victory over Nigeria and progressing to the Round of 16.With his goal against Nigeria, the 31-year-old became the first player to score in the World Cup as a teenager, in his 20s and in his 30s.

Racism has not been a huge problem in Russia as many had feared prior to the World Cup. England defender Danny Rose who had initially refused to bring his family to Russia for the tournament due to Racism concerns is now considering reversing his decision. Russia and Russian fans have so far been great hosts and AIPS Media’s Samindra Kunti has described the World Cup sleeper trains as a “melting pot of cultures”. The Racism-related issues that have popped up at the World Cup have not been the fault of Russians. FIFA fined the Mexican federation $10,400 for “discriminatory and insulting chants” during the team’s 1-0 win over holders Germany. The Serbian, Argentinian and Croatian federations were also fined for various reasons that can be traced to their supporters misbehaving. Meanwhile, British businessman and reality TV star Alan Sugar published a racist tweet about the Senegalese team at the World Cup in Russia, comparing them to people selling sunglasses and handbags on beaches. Lots of criticisms followed but Sugar was trying to defend himself claiming it was a joke. He eventually deleted the post and subsequently apologised.

Senegal are the first team ever to be eliminated from a World Cup based on fair play. Their 1-0 loss to Colombia meant they were level on points, goal difference, number of goals scored and head to head with Japan who lost 1-0 to Poland as well. Both teams had their fates decided by the number of yellow cards accumulated and it turned out Japan had two lesser than Senegal’s six. However, Senegalese fans brought class to the World Cup as they were caught on camera picking up trash from their section of the stadium after a match.

Telstar 18, the Official Match Ball which was used throughout the group stage of Russia 2018, has now bowed out honourably as Telstar Mechta takes over from the Round of 16. Telstar Mechta comes with “a new vivid red design inspired by the colours of the host nation as well as rising heat of knockout stage football”. Mechta which is the Russian word for “Dream” has been “adapted to reflect the added intensity and opportunity the knockout stage brings”.

Uruguay are the only team that did not concede a single goal in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup 2018.

VAR is not perfect. It is still in the business of creating controversies and can be improved upon, but it should not be completely condemned. The VAR offers the on-field referee guidance, it gives the chance for an incident to be reviewed so that the correct decision can be taken, but it is the centre referee who retains the final decision. There has been occasions when it should have been used but was not.If it was not for the VAR, Neymar would have gotten away with an unjust penalty in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica while Iago Aspas’ late equaliser in Spain’s 2-2 draw with Morocco would have been disallowed. However, in Portugal’s 1-1 draw with Iran, there is the Paraguayan referee’s decision to not give Cristiano Ronaldo a red card for swinging an elbow at Morteza Pouraliganji after a VAR review. Meanwhile in the same game, Iran got a penalty for a handball incident similar to Marcos Rojo’s in Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria but referee Cuneyt Cakir did not award the Super Eagles a penalty, and like he gesticulated to captain of the side, John Obi Mikel, his reason was because the ball deflected from Rojo’s head to his hand.Indeed, opinions differ regarding the Video Assistant Referee, but it is looking like it has come to stay.

Waka Waka (This Time for Africa), the official theme song for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa remains the song to beat. In a poll by, the hit song by Shakira is leading the way with votes of over 50 percent. So far, this year’s official song, Live it Up by Nicky Jam feat. Will Smith & Era Istrefi is still trying to live up to people’s expectations.

Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Stephan Lichtsteiner hogged the headlines for their eagle goal celebrations following Switzerland’s 2-1 victory over Serbia. They eventually escaped bans and instead FIFA fined Xhaka and Shaqiri 10,000 Swiss francs (£7,632) and Lichtsteiner SFr5,000 (£3,816) for “unsporting behaviour”. Xhaka and Shaqiri scored as Switzerland came from a goal down to beat Serbia and they celebrated by crossing their hands to make a double eagle gesture, which symbolises the Albanian flag. Lichtsteiner made the same gesture after the winning goal.Both Xhaka and Shaqiri players are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia 10 years ago but Serbia does not still recognize them as an independent country.

Yellow cards were issued 158 times in the group stage, which is an average of 3.3 yellow cards per match and only three players got sent off. Meanwhile there were 122 goals scored, an average of 2.5 goals per match.

Zabivaka, meaning “the one who scores”, is the official mascot of Russia 2018. The wolf has been doing really great in entertaining crowds at the stadiums. In case you did not know, it is also connecting with fans on Facebook.