France football team players celebrate with the trophy after beating Croatia in the final to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow on July 15 (Pic: FIFA/Twitter and IANS).
It was a frantic, breakneck 90-plus minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium on a hot Moscow day. Russia, still not fully over her long hangover, and at diplomatic odds with the western world, was out to prove a point. With the way the past month of FIFA World Cup football has been conducted, and the epic 4-2 result in favour of France that signalled its conclusion, it could not have been any better.
Before we move on to more detailed analyses of the events of Sunday night, the weeks gone by, the legacy of this World Cup and what the future holds, let’s take tonight to soak in what was the most exciting World Cup final in recent history.
It started at a hectic pace. The Croatian midfield, eager to establish early ascendancy, pressed and pressed and pressed some more. In doing so, though, they played into the hands of Didier Deschamps. There appeared to be a few more chequered tablecloths in sight than blue shirts. But it was a decidedly neutral crowd. And the crowd wanted to see some goals. If you were looking for the atmosphere of a real football game Paris or Zagreb would have been the place for you. Here its was going to be about the football.
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30 minutes into the game Croatia had all of the ball, yet the scores were level at 1-1. France, against the run of play, took the lead from a set piece that was an almost exact replica of the one Raphael Varane scored against Uruguay. Except it was Mario Mandzukic that barely deflected the ball into his own net. 10 minutes later it was all square. Ivan Perisic had looked the most potent Croat in the final third. He showed great composure and timing on a left footed finish.
It was the hardest 30 minutes if football France have had to play all tournament. Fittingly, it was in the final. Croatia had shown the most impressive legs in this tournament. They clocked the most minutes and averaged the most kilometres, Rakitic and Modric in particular.
And, in the first half, it looked like they still had a bit of extra pace in the bag, as both N’Golo Kante and Lucas Hernandez found out. But the critical element of this open game was always going to be the times when France won the ball deep in their own half and broke with pace. The threat of young Kylian Mbappe -- later named the tournament’s best young player -- and Antoine Griezmann was too much for any defence to handle with comfort. Both players had succeeded in sowing a seed of doubt in the minds of defenders facing them. Domagoj Vida and co were braver than most, but still susceptible. It was this danger that resulted in France winning the corner that led to them taking the lead and never looking back.
Pogba finally decided to turn up today and make the game his own. For so long we have spoken of his potential and how Kante makes him a better player.
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Today, when Kante himself wasn’t having the best of games, Pogba decided to return the favour. Quietly, confidently and calmly, he bossed the middle of the park. Perhaps no current midfielder in the world can completely shut down the Modric-Rakitic duo. But France understood the danger and showed that they were willing to play in a manner that nullified this. Goal aside, he played the role of leader in the middle of the park; Covering his defence when needed and providing an alternative outlet on the offensive. Griezmann bagged the man of the match award, but for me it was Pogba all the way.
And who better than the young, socially minded superstar in the making to put an end to what has been a tournament underlined by the pressing of one generation and the dawn of another. A fantastic Mbappe snap shot put France 4-1 before Danijel Subasic had to make a challenging save. It was ruthless stuff. Mbappe was born a few months after France last held the FIFA World Cup. Now, he is the young player of the tournament at one. Oh yeah, and a FIFA World Cup winner.
I was at the deathmatch at the Maracana four years ago. And the disaster of St Denis in 2016. Finally we have witnessed a final that has really deserved to be called that.
A friend of mine who goes to the bookmakers just texted me to say if I had put a month's wages on a France v Croatia final, with France to win, I could've have retired at the final whistle. With the exciting prospect of a winter world cup in Qatar up next, maybe it wouldn't have been a bad idea. As things stand, though, I’ll settle for a cold beer and a warm bed.