A TRANSIENT lull accompanied the end of the concert yet ‘One Life, One Dream’ still echoed for the 22 protagonists about to take the centre-stage. Here was one game. The pain of losing this one game is anything but transient. It lingers on; the regret lives on. Victory in this one game is everlasting. Only a handful of men have won this one game. It’s an enduring achievement.
It will be this current generation of French footballers who will now be forever remembered as World Cup winners. Tied on second with England for the team with the lowest average age at the tournament in Russia, you can only imagine what promise the future holds for them. With a breathtaking performance, France closed the World Cup in Russia on Sunday with their hands on the trophy for the first time since 1998.
France coach Didier Deschamps, the captain of that Les Bleus side 20 years ago, has throughout this tournament relied on his players’ ability to rip apart the opposition with their searing pace on the counterattack and they did exactly that to Croatia as well as they buried them 4-2 on the pitch of the Luzhniki Stadium here on Sunday.
It was a performance so emphatic, so convincing that it was all over for Croatia five minutes past the hour mark when Kylian Mbappe, the French sprint king, the teen sensation awarded the tournament’s Young Player Award, smashed in France’s fourth goal to put them 4-1 up.
He became the first teenager since the legendary Pele in 1958 to score in a World Cup final and his goal was the second in six minutes for France. Paul Pogba had got the first, after another searing counterattack had left Croatia undermanned and overwhelmed.
It hadn’t seemed after the first half that the margin of victory would be so pronounced, even if Mario Mandzukic’s relentless running saw him latch on a mistake by Hugo Lloris in the 69th minute to make the scoreline respectable.
It was an unintentional Mandzukic header that gave France the lead in the 18th minute, directing a free-kick by Antoine Griezmann into the back of his own net. Croatia levelled just 10 minutes later with a superb strike from Ivan Perisic. Man-of-the-match Griezmann it was who restored France’s lead with a penalty 10 minutes further on.
Griezmann, the beating heart of French creativity, upstaged Luka Modric on the field but the Croatian midfielder beat him to Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. Griezmann, though, got the bigger prize. He, like the rest of this French squad, will be forever remembered as a world champion. Modric and his Croatian team-mates would be remembered as the nearly men.
As the Russian capital basked in the sunshine all day, so did the Luzhniki. The lights came on only after the musical show of the closing ceremony had finished. By the time it ended, the heavens had opened up. Under heavy rain, France lifted the trophy and celebrated amidst the confetti and the fireworks that filled up the night sky.
The rain probably also helped wash away the Croatian tears. They had come unstuck against France again. Their best-ever performance at a World Cup before this was back in 1998 when they were knocked out by who else but France in the semi-finals.
Croatia’s start wasn’t at all of a side that had been taken at least to extra-time in each of their last three matches. They came racing off the blocks as France stood. France stood because they’ve cultivated this belief at the World Cup that they can afford to stand and still win. They can stand on a defence that has proven to be impenetrable for all bar two.
Perisic was both lively and menacing, eager to test that solidity. Very early on, one of his passes saw Mbappe, known for his blistering pace running towards goal, showed the same with his back to it as he dived in to cut off Ivan Strinic. For all of Croatia’s running and ball possession, though, it was France who took the lead.
It was probably Griezmann’s first touch that saw him being fouled by Marcelo Brozovic on the right. The mercurial Frenchman’s has dazzled throughout this tournament, and his left foot delivered a tantalising free-kick, one which eluded everyone but found the top of Mandzukic’s head and went in.
It’s been the case with France all throughout this tournament. They haven’t produced the football they are all very capable of producing. Instead, they’ve rode on these intermittent pockets of inspiration so far. Croatia’s resilience had brought them so far. They had fallen behind in each of the three knockout games but have somehow contrived to win.
Here again, that fighting spirit came to the fore. Croatia won a free-kick on the right which Modric curled in toward the far post. Sime Vrsjalko met it with his head and after causing mayhem in the box, it found its way to Perisic on the edge of it. A right foot touch made space and a left foot drive left Lloris diving in despair.
It was a goal that his endeavors deserved. His eagerness, however, proved costly very quickly. Running to defend a corner, Perisic handled it. Referee Nestor Pitana took the option of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and France had a penalty. Griezmann stepped up and as Denijel Subasic — hero of two penalty shootouts in Croatia’s run to the final — dived to his left, he rolled it to his right.
Croatia now had 45 minutes to save their dream. They came back onto the pitch focused and driven. A pitch intrusion maybe saw them lose their focus and after that, France sped away. Those six minutes between the third and the fourth goal were a show of France at their devastating best. It is in those moments at this World Cup where they’ve left their opponents trailing in their wake.
Pogba it was who put the first nail in the Croatian coffin, getting on the end of a move he himself started after Mbappe found him on the edge of the box. His first shot blocked, he latched on the rebound and sent a shot fizzing past first Modric and then a wrong-footed Subasic.
The Croatian challenge well and truly ended when Mbappe got France’s fourth as they found an extra gear. Seemingly very of the teen sensation’s blistering pace and effervescent skill, Domagoj Vida kept backing off when Mbappe got the ball about 25 yards from goal. With a move of the hip, Vida moved to the left and Mbappe buried a low shot from the space that had opened up. It flew before Subasic could react.
There was still time for an error and drama, though. Lloris had that Loris Karius moment, albeit he went wrong with his feet. He couldn’t see Mandzukic closing in and as he looked to pass the ball with the outside of his foot, it hit the Croat and went in for a consolation. A comeback was never really on the cards at that stage. The pain will linger on.
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2018