This 2018 World Cup in Russia defied convention from the very start, so it was fitting that on the last day of a glorious tournament, France won the championship Sunday in a wild affair with Croatia for its second title in 20 years.
MOSCOW – Golden confetti mixed with a hard rain Sunday night, drenching the French national soccer team in unfettered joy and a refreshing shower after a 4-2 victory over Croatia in the World Cup final.
The storm also hid tears streaming from the eyes of the fallen Croatians, whose heroic run through soccer’s ultimate testing ground offered hope to every small country with big dreams.
But the sudden downpour – which caught Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French and Croatian counterparts by surprise on the medal stand – failed to wash away the memories of an extraordinary tournament, one that will enter the archives as perhaps the best in the World Cup’s 88-year history.
Fittingly, the final delivered many of the same twists and turns, riveting moments, individual superlatives and wonderful soccer that had blessed the competition over four upset-filled weeks.
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And ultimately it provided a worthy champion. Twenty summers since winning their first title on home soil, a team deploying sublime young talent and hardened experience scored three goals in a 27-minute span bridging halftime to turn a taut affair into a runaway.
Les Bleus had dodged the pitfalls that had ruined the other contenders. While Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina watched from home – along with another billion or so citizens of the planet – France remained standing.
“I have never seen or lived through such a World Cup,” said Didier Deschamps, who joined Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as the only men to win the title as a player and coach.
“There was a leveling toward the top. The small teams arrived really well-prepared. I don’t know if it was a beautiful World Cup. There were goals, good matches and crazy scenarios. But this World Cup was very, very tough. I don’t know if we did it better.”
They did Sunday.
An own goal, a penalty kick and superb strikes by Paul Pogba and 19-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe carried the day before a sellout crowd of 78,011 at Luzhniki Stadium.
Mbappe, who was named the best young player on the tournament, became the first teenager to score in the final since a Brazilian named Pele in 1958.
He provided the most excitement in a match that totaled as many goals as the previous four finals combined and the most in regulation time since Brazil’s 5-2 triumph over Sweden 60 years ago.
“We were a united group,” forward Antoine Griezmann said. “It was a strength. We did something incredible. We made history.”
Croatia, with a population of about 4.4 million, was attempting to become the smallest nation to win the championship since Uruguay in 1950.
A few minutes after the final whistle, both the French team and the audience showed their respect and appreciation for what the Croatians had accomplished.
France’s Adil Rami danced around the field waving a French flag, but when he approached the largest sections of Croatian supporters, he stopped what he was doing and applauded the fans. They reciprocated.
Huge ovations greeted the announcement that Croatian midfielder Luke Modric had won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Modric and Coach Zlatko Dalic received lengthy hugs from their president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.
Dalic applauded the Croatian fans, who wore the team’s wonderful red-and-white checkerboard designs. He bowed to them, then wrapped his right arm around defender Domagoj Vida’s shoulders.
“On our bus, there is a slogan: ‘Small Country With Big Dreams,'” he said. “That’s a good message to all. You have to believe it’s possible. Many things have to fall into place. You have to have a dream and ambitions, and then maybe it will come true – in football or life.”
His team had overcome deficits in each of the previous three matches, but a bit of bad luck, a controversial call and France’s power undermined the efforts.
The Croatians enjoyed a promising start, but France went ahead in the 18th minute. Griezmann launched a 30-yard free kick toward the edge of the six-yard box – a perilous spot to defend with so many surging bodies angling to make contact.
French heads rose, but the one to connect was Mario Mandzukic’s. It skipped off his scalp and floated past goalkeeper Danijel Subasic for an own goal.
Croatia answered 10 minutes later and, like France, started it with a free kick. Modric’s service was not a direct threat, but after three headers and Vida’s alert back pass, Ivan Perisic steered the ball from Ngolo Kante and ripped a left-footed shot from 17 yards that nicked a defender en route to the net.
Another 10 minutes passed before France’s go-ahead goal, a penalty kick by Griezmann that was awarded with an assist from video replay.
On Griezmann’s corner kick, Blaise Matuidi won a header against Perisic at the near post. The ball then struck Perisic’s left hand. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana did not witness the infraction, but after being notified by the video assistant referee, he consulted the sideline monitor and pointed to the spot.
It wasn’t intentional and Perisic had no time to react, but his arm had been extended. Griezmann converted.
“In a World Cup final, you do not give such a penalty,” Dalic said, “but it in no way diminishes France’s win.”
In the second half, Mbappe revved his engines, turning the corner with the agility and acceleration of a sports car. In the 59th minute, he infiltrated the right side of the box and crossed to Griezmann, who tapped back to Pogba. The first bid was blocked, but when the second returned to him, the Manchester United midfielder smashed in a left-footed shot from 19 yards.
Subasic fell on his back, knowing the match was slipping away.
Mbappe got into the act six minutes later, the beneficiary of Lucas Hernandez’s ball work. He ripped a 25-yard shot into the low left corner for his fourth goal of the competition.
Mandzukic got one back in the 69th minute when he pressured sloppy goalkeeper Hugo Lloris on a routine back pass. Croatia had a faint lifeline, but time melted away on its upset hopes and left France atop the soccer world – the fourth consecutive champion from Europe.
Reflecting on the tournament, Deschamps said: “It was great atmosphere in the stadiums. It was a beautiful football party. It was a beautiful celebration of football and it was a pleasure to be here in Russia.”
Especially for the team in blue.