Thrilling World Cup gets fitting finale as France end Croatia's dream run
MOSCOW -- There were no miracles on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium. No subversion of the ancient order. Instead, the deeper, more talented side ultimately swatted away the upstarts who had come into this game with 24 hours less rest and 90 minutes more on the pitch.
After a thrilling month of football, the tournament got the finale it deserved, with France crowned world champions for a second time, 20 years after the "Blanc, Beurre, Noir" triumph of Saint Denis.
We saw the most goals in a 90-minute final since 1958, when a teenager named Pele scored as Brazil beat Sweden. On Sunday, the great man was emulated by 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe.
Despite their 4-2 defeat, Croatia -- the second-smallest country to reach a World Cup final -- proved again to be a marvel of their own.
You can debate whether France played their best football at this World Cup (probably not), but you cannot argue that they are not fitting world champions. If France are not the deepest, most talented team in the world, then they are in the top two or three.
France did it the way they had done it at every step: cautiously, economically, always giving the impression that there were extra levels to which they could go if needed, but never actually choosing to go there. That revving sound you hear? It is France boss Didier Deschamps, stuck in third gear even as the speedometer passes 60 miles per hour.
"Is France a beautiful champion?" Deschamps said afterward. "I don't know, but I know that we are world champions and will be for the next four years."
Along the way, they got a few breaks. The free kick that led to the opening goal -- Mario Mandzukic's header into his own net -- likely should not have been given, but there is no VAR for free kicks, and referee Nestor Pitana, despite his cartoonishly big biceps, is human. Video review did strike later, leading to the penalty from which Antoine Griezmann made it 2-1; it was the sort of decision that, even after replay, could have gone either way.
"What we had in terms of luck earlier in the tournament, we lacked in the final," Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said. "I don't think you can give a penalty like that in a World Cup final, but this in no way diminishes France's victory."
Deschamps has molded a group of flashy, brash, young stallions -- among them Mbappe, Griezmann and Paul Pogba -- into a blue-collar unit built for suffering much like the player he was. On this day, Croatia, despite running on the remnants of fumes -- physical and mental but definitely not cardiological -- after the exertions that got them to the final, made them suffer.
It was evident from the start. Croatia pressed high, as if fatigue were just an illusion, and suddenly it looked as if Deschamps' Linus blanket in midfield -- Pogba plus N'Golo Kante plus Blaise Matuidi -- wasn't just a mental crutch but also a necessity.
Mandzukic's own goal did nothing to deter his team's spirit or reassure the French. It was a gift from the gods of chance and happenstance, but all it did was convince Deschamps to double back and find pathways to the counter while telling Dalic's warriors that now they had even less to lose.
Domagoj Vida squandered a free header. Kante, caught out of position, resorted to tripping Ivan Perisic and was booked. Deschamps, buried deep in his dugout, looked ashen. Then it went from bad to worse.
At the half-hour mark, Modric's free kick to the far post found Sime Vrsaljko, whose header sent the ball back across. Twice Croatia won one-on-one headers in the area -- Mandzukic against Pogba and Dejan Lovren over Matuidi -- to keep the ball alive, enabling Vida to poke it back to Perisic just inside the box.
He took a touch and then unleashed a vicious strike -- channelling his anger and that of Mandzukic and probably four million fellow Croats -- that left Hugo Lloris frozen. France, beaten twice in the air in their own box on the same play? Samuel Umtiti frowned and looked to the rumbling heavens above.
The penalty righted the French galleon, but Croatia will feel bitter about the decision, and rightly so. While the ball did strike the hand of Perisic, it was classic "seen-them-given" stuff. Whether VAR should have intervened is something that will be debated. In the end, Pitana took responsibility, which is how it should be. If it was the wrong call, it is on him ... if it was wrong
After a one-handed save from Lloris off Ante Rebic after the break, Deschamps tightened up further, sending on Steven Nzonzi's 77 inches of height in place of the cautioned Kante. It offered another giraffe for set pieces, more volume in midfield and a professional foul to give, if needed. Nobody plays percentages like the France manager.
Not that it got that. Pogba, who perhaps more than any other star has embraced the "Didier Way," right down to his generic, nothing-to-look-at haircut, picked out the streaking Mbappe with the kind of raking, laser-guided pass he reserved for special occasions in Russia.
The ball came back via Griezmann to Pogba, whose initial right-footed shot was blocked. But when the rebound fell to him, almost in the same motion, he uncorked with his left -- two-footed effortlessness from the star-turned-grunt. There was more nonchalance a few minutes later when Mbappe made it four.
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There was enough time left for fate to toy with Croatian spirits as Lloris dilly-dallied with Umtiti's back pass and saw his clearance charged down by Mandzukic with the ball trickling into the French net. Four-two. A fairer result.
Croatia's fans -- the louder of the two sets for most of the game -- serenaded their heroes with an ovation at minute 90. It was the least they deserved. They will remember this run in the alleys of Spalato, the boulevards of Zagreb and the beaches of Hvar.
Somewhere out there, even as you read this, there's a kid who will be inspired to be the next Modric, who was voted Player of the Tournament, just as 20 years ago a 12-year-old Modric was inspired to be the next Zvonimir Boban (and then some).
And, maybe, they are inspiring other nations of Croatia's size. Like the slogan Dalic had painted on the team bus: "A small country with big dreams."
"If you work hard and have good players, you can produce a result," he said. "But it has to start with a dream and with ambition. That's why it's a great message, in football and in life."
By the final whistle, Deschamps' suffering had long given way to relief, and he joined Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo as the only men to have become world champions as players and as managers. He did it his way which, incidentally, is not dissimilar to that of Aime Jacquet two decades ago. This reaction from his players, who invaded the postmatch news conference, tells you all you need to know about how they felt about his approach.
The fact that age is on their side suggests that there is more to come from France. Just as you hope there is more to come from what we saw in this World Cup, which turned out to be a 32-day global festival long on upsets, drama and storylines and short on all that we were warned about before: defensiveness, racism, hooliganism.
The international game is alive and well, and what's more, we got a fitting world champion. Further, there was an inspirational runner-up, who have likely paved the way for "small" nations to dream like the traditional elite. Qatar, you've got yourself a heck of an act to follow.