Nobody expected Russia to take Croatia to penalties. Nobody expected Russia to overcome the Spanish juggernaut. Hell, nobody expected Russia to get out of the Group Stages. Branded the worst Russian footballing unit ever assembled together, Stanislav Chercheshov's band of fighters rallied under their astute manager and the unstinted support of a deliriously surprised home crowd to a glorious quarterfinal run that showcased the very best of Russian values - dogged defiance in the face of insurmountable odds.
Here, we try to pick out the three most pivotal protagonists of this fairytale.
Note - This is part of a series that evaluates the three best performers of all the sides to have progressed to the knockout stages of the World Cup; an achievement that is not often given the credit it deserves. While the intent is to have an objective selection and ranking process, it's quite natural that at times subjectivity creeps in. If you disagree - vehemently, or otherwise - with the names on this list, please feel free to jot down a top 3 of your own in the comments section below
#3 Sergei Ignashevich
Sergei Ignashevich was born in 1979. He really shouldn't be able to play professional football in 2018 -- certainly not elite level professional football. In a sport where fitness and stamina and speed have become more important than ever, where physical conditioning often trumps pure footballing skill, he really shouldn't have been able to keep up.
Just, no one told him that.
Barring an unlucky own-goal he conceded against Sergio Ramos and Spain, Ignashevich had a superb, superb, World Cup - marshaling his defence astutely against far superior (on paper) opposition, using his vast experience to spread an eerie calm across the backline, and leading by example - no one's defended better than him in the entire tournament.
Ignashevich's individual performance mirrored that of Russia's - defiant, courageous, skillful, and utterly masterful.
#2 Igor Akinfeev
Except for that opening game against a rather dazed looking Saudi Arabia, Igor Akinfeev was a busy man throughout the tournament... and he lived up to the challenge every time. Against Spain, he was massive in the first 120 minutes - and simply out of this world in the penalty shoot-out... and the same was the case during Croatia's penalty-shootout.
His save off Matteo Kovacic was arguably the best penalty save of the tournament, and he was desperately unlucky to see Luka Modric's shot careen off his palm, onto the post, and spin back into his goal.
For a man who rarely gets the credit he deserves (having to keep in front of a porous CSKA defence against Champions League sides does you no good in the get-in-the-good-books-of-the-world-media department), this was a World Cup of quiet, irrepressible redemption.
#1 Denis Cheryshev
Before this World Cup, most casual football fans would have known Denis Cheryshev as the man responsible for the most embarrassing moment in Real Madrid's recent history. Fielded in a 2015 Copa Del Rey match against Cadiz despite him being ineligible to play, his contribution to world football could have been reduced to that interesting - but hardly significant - footnote were it not for Alan Dzagoev pulling up injured within half-an-hour of the World Cup starting.
Coming on, he scored two absolute corkers to lead Russia's demolition of Saudi Arabia - he continued with a stunner against Egypt, before topping it all of with an absolutely astonishing belter against Croatia -- one that I went totally loco describing
Regardless of what he does for Villarreal or any other potential future club, after this Cup, Cheryshev will forever be immortalised as the man who made his home country dance with joy.