Football – zut alors!
For once, the World Cup got the final it deserved, a thrilling, crazy, controversial game that stood received wisdom on its head and produced the perfect finale to what has been one of the best tournaments in living memory.
Records were broken, stars were born, crowds were thrilled and Russia came in from the cold, at least in terms of its perception in the west as a hostile state populated by joyless citizens.
The ways and means by which the Russians were awarded the World Cup was controversial, but no-one could deny the country has been a superb host for the greatest show on Earth.
And what a blast it has been, from Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia on the opening day to this final, a perfectly fitting farewell to a fantastic football festival.
The final had everything. The most goals since 1966, the most in 90 minutes since 1958, the first teenage scorer — Kylian Mbappe — in a final since Pele did it 60 years, the first penalty awarded in a final using VAR, thrills, spills, clangers, controversy — and even pitch invaders.
Didier Deschamps became the third man to win the World Cup as player and then manager, following Brazil’s Mario Zagallo, and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany.
The France coach, forever associated with Eric Cantona’s dismissal of him as a ‘water-carrier’, has not perhaps received the credit he deserved in this tournament, but with French president Emmanuel Macron pictured leaping in celebration in the Luzhniki Stadium, more formal recognition may be on its way for Deschamps and his players.
They may not have the verve of Brazil in full flow or creativity of Croatia, but France have found a way to navigate their way to the top of the pile, and while it has not always pretty on the eye, it is pretty damned effective.
Belgium’s players accused their neighbours of being ‘anti-football’ after their semi-final, but this final, like the tournament, was football at its best even if it did not go to plan or follow logic.
It made little sense that France won this game, given Croatia’s domination in terms of possession, creativity and chances, certainly in the opening hour. But when Mbappe, the world’s best teenager and deserved winner of the young player of the tournament award, drilled the ball past Danijel Subasic in the 64th minute, there was no coming back for Croatia.
It was always likely to be a fascinating battle between France’s young guns, most notably Mbappe, and Croatia’s midfield — arguably the best in the world on the evidence of this tournament. Luka Modric won the player of the tournament award, not least for his achievements in masterminding Croatia’s defeats of Argentina and England.
Modric was at the heart of everything again here in Moscow, prompting, probing, passing and even winning headers against bigger men.
When Tottenham signed him from Dynamo Zagreb in 2008, Arsene Wenger confidently asserted that the little Croatian was too small, too weak to thrive at the highest level. How wrong he was.
If Modric is Croatia’s leader, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic are not far behind, and the latter was involved all over the pitch, scoring a brilliant equaliser and then conceding the controversial penalty from which Antoine Griezmann gave France a half-time lead.
VAR was called into action for the first time on the biggest stage of all, and it worked as it should, allowing Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana to review his decision with far greater clarity than he could have had in the split-second the ball struck Ivan Perisic’s hand. Whether he was wrong or right to rule that Perisic deliberately handled the ball is a matter of debate, but you cannot blame VAR for allowing the referee to make a more informed decision.
And maybe it was that sense of injustice that unhinged Croatia, who fell apart in the space of five minutes as first Paul Pogba and then Mbappe scored with clinical finishes from the edge of the penalty area. Pogba, looking every inch the player that Manchester United fans are expecting to see on a weekly basis, started the move that led to his goal with a raking pass arrowed out to Mbappe on the right. When the ball eventually came back to him, after making a 60-yard run, he initially shot into a defender with his right boot before curling it home with his left.
And Mbappe made it 4-1 after a driving run and pass from Lucas Hernandez, the teenager teeing up the ball before firing home.
Hugo Lloris, who had made a succession of world-class saves throughout the tournament, then made an uncharacteristic error that allowed Mario Mandzukic to score from close range, but it was too little, too late.
Lloris said on Tuesday that he dared not dream of lifting the trophy, but here he was, in the driving rain, receiving a hug from Macron, a handshake from Putin, and the most important embrace of all — with the World Cup trophy.
The glitter flew as the heavens opened, France’s fans went delirious and their players slid across the soaked pitch like children.
For France, and for millions of fans watching around the world, it was a fitting end to a fabulous tournament.