MOSCOW - When the decisive blows arrived it was the entire France squad in the victory scrum by the corner flag. Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, had run the entire length of the pitch. All the substitutes were disappearing under one another. There were even a few members of the backroom staff contemplating joining in, and who could blame them? France were on their way to their second World Cup and a party was already under way behind the goal where the tricolours were fluttering.
Not even Croatia, with all their powers of durability, could recover from the second-half goals that Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé scored in quick succession to open up a three-goal lead and ensure France will soon be wearing a shirt with two stars, rather than one, above their cockerel. Didier Deschamps has become only the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager, standing alongside two giants of the game in Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer. Mbappé is a world champion at the age of 19 and, in the end, the embarrassing lapse from Lloris to let Mario Mandzukic pull one back for Croatia will not matter greatly.
France should be thought of as deserving champions, too, bearing in mind their assured performances throughout the tournament, and any team that scores four times in a final is entitled to feel euphoric. That, however, told only part of the story and it was difficult not to sympathise with Croatia bearing in mind the narrative of the first half in particular, when Mandzukic scored an own goal and France were awarded a penalty because of a borderline VAR decision that will always polarise opinion.
Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, had promised us his team would take defeat with dignity and his players kept to it in trying circumstances. Even at 4-1 down they refused to wave the white flag of surrender, rousing themselves for one last push after Mandzukic had punished Lloris’s slackness.
Croatia had begun this final as though affronted by the suggestion France were widely assumed to be the favourites. But the luck went against them in the key moments of the first half when the game took shape, starting when Marcelo Brozovic was penalised for an alleged foul on Antoine Griezmann in the build-up to the opening goal.
So many goals have been scored from set plays in this World Cup but none has carried such significance or been shrouded in so much misfortune. Mandzukic was jumping between Pogba and Raphaël Varane, straining to clear Griezmann’s cross, when the ball skimmed off the top of his head, eight yards from his own goal. His attempt to help out in defence had gone horribly wrong. There was nothing Danijel Subasic, Croatia’s goalkeeper, could do and France were ahead before any of their own players had managed a single attempt at goal.
It was the 53rd own goal in the history of the World Cup – going all the way back to a Mexican player, Manuel Rosas, doing the same against Chile in 1930. Nobody, however, had done it before in a final and presumably Rosas did not have to suffer the indignity, as Mandzukic did here, of the public announcer letting everyone know who was to blame.
Another side might have wilted. Except, of course, we should know enough about Croatia by now not to be surprised by their reaction. Ten minutes later, N’Golo Kanté became the first player to be booked. Luka Modric floated the free-kick to the far post and Ivan Perisic was waiting on the edge of the penalty area, anticipating where the ball might eventually arrive. Domagoj Vida turned the ball back to his teammate and the expertise in Perisic’s first touch opened up the chance to take aim. He let fly with a left-foot, diagonal shot that flew past Lloris at speed.
All this was rather unexpected given there had been only four first-half goals in the previous seven finals. A splendid tournament always needs a splendid final and, in that respect, this one was certainly not lacking drama or incident. It was difficult, all the same, not to feel sympathy with the losing side given the stack of grievances that Croatia will take away with them. Even the free-kick on Griezmann before the opening goal looked generous, to say the least, and when it came to the penalty it was difficult to think Perisic had knowingly used his hand to intercept Blaise Matuidi’s flick-on from a 34th?minute corner.
It certainly was not a straightforward decision for the Argentinian referee, Néstor Pitana, and the length of time he spent analysing the replays told its own story. Eventually the decision went against Perisic because it could be argued his hand was sticking out at an unnatural angle. Even that, however, was not clear given that he was stooping. Was Matuidi’s header on target or heading towards a teammate? The answer is no, to both questions. But maybe that is irrelevant. The ball did strike Perisic’s hand, however little he knew about it, and that was enough for the decision to go against him, no matter how tough that might seem. Griezmann held his nerve to guide the penalty past Subasic and, after nearly four minutes of arguments and counter-arguments, France were back in front.
The game was still finely poised until Pogba made it 3-1 just before the hour with a left-foot shot after Mbappé and Griezmann had set him up on the edge of the penalty area. Pogba’s first effort came back to him off a Croatian defender. The second was more controlled, wrong-footing Subasic in the process, and when Mbappé strode away to fire in France’s fourth goal six minutes later it began to feel as if it could become a rout.
Instead Mandzukic took the ball off Lloris to make the final score more respectable and, with 20 minutes still to play, they kept pushing forward, trying to pull off an improbable feat of escapology. It was too late and the jubilant winners could soon be seen throwing Deschamps into the air.
France crowned world champions