After each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.
Here’s what happened on Sunday, in case you missed it…
MAIN TALKING POINT
France back on top after two decades
It took 20 years – and a loss in a final featuring an infamous head butt – but France is back on top of the hill as World Cup champions. Sunday’s 4-2 win over Croatia in Moscow gave Les Bleus its second title, matching Uruguay and Argentina as two-time winners. In defeating Croatia, France also ensured the exclusivity of World Cup winners: Only eight nations have ever won the most prestigious event in all of sports since the inaugural tournament was held in 1930.
This was hardly a vintage French side, hardly a team that sent heartbeats racing – although teenager Kylian Mbappé routinely provided moments of brilliance, as he did with his long-range goal in the second half that sealed the win over Croatia. This French team won’t be mentioned in the same breath as the great Brazil side of 1970, the Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy of 1982, or even the 1998 French team, led by Zinedine Zidane. Didier Deschamp’s France was more practical than poetic, more solid than swashbuckling, and more conservative than creative.
But there can be no question that it was the best team throughout this tournament, Sunday’s result merely serving as the final and inevitable confirmation.
From Mbappé’s dynamic play, to the industrious work of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante in midfield, to the steadiness of Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti in central defence, to the ruthlessness of forward Antoine Griezmann, this France side was the complete package, as balanced as any team to have won the World Cup in recent memory.
Deschamps was harangued by his legions of critics at this World Cup who pleaded with him to release the hand break and give his attacking players the freedom and license to follow their natural instincts. At times, Les Bleus looked to be stuck in neutral, afraid to shift into a higher gear.
But the French manager ended up having the last laugh, as it was all a part of his master plan – he understood the importance of the team collective, and of players fitting into the overall system. In the end, he was rewarded for sticking to his tactical guns.
Croatia did itself proud in Russia
Full credit mist be given to France for winning Sunday’s final, and for its tournament management, especially during the knockout stages. But spare a thought for Croatia, who were just as brilliant at this World Cup, especially Luka Modric, who won the tournament MVP award, solidifying his status as one of the best midfielders in the world and a leading contender to win the Ballon d’Or.
Before Sunday’s final in Moscow, Croatia trailed in three consecutive knockout games. All three times it came from behind to win, a testament to its resiliency, character and hard work. It can be a very cruel game at times, and legitimate argument can be made that while France was the better team in this tournament, Croatia was the better side in the final on the balance of play.
The French took the lead through an own goal, and Griezmann’s penalty (in the 38th) was France’s first shot of any kind in this match. Croatia dictated the pace of play for long stretches, and enjoyed 61 per cent possession when all was said and done.
Croatia will feel hard done by, but it has nothing to be ashamed about. They went one better than the famous Croatia side featuring Davor Suker that reached the semifinals in 1998. That team inspired a generation of new Croatian players, much like this one will for future generations.
In the 65th minute, France’s Lucas Hernandez made a probing run down the left wing and then dished the ball off to Mbappé. The French teenager took full advantage of the space given to him by Croatia’s Domagoj Vida and hit a gorgeous shot from 25 yards out that left goalkeeper Danijel Subasic rooted to the ground.
In the 48th minute, Croatia’s Ante Rebic latched onto a through ball played into the box and rifled a powerful shot on net, only to see French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris make a spectacular leaping save to deflect it over his crossbar.
France hoisting the World Cup trophy, bringing to an end a month of great soccer in Russia.
SIX PACK OF STATS
• At 19 years and 207 days, Mbappé is the third-youngest player to appear in a World Cup final, after Pelé in 1958 (17 years and 249 days) and Italy’s Giuseppe Bergomi in 1982 (18 years and 201 days).
• Mbappé is also the second-youngest goal scorer in a World Cup final, after Pelé in 1958.
• Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic is the first player to ever score an own goal in a World Cup final.
• This World Cup final featured the most first-half goals since 1974 (West Germany 2, Netherlands 1).
• Deschamps is only the third person to win a World Cup both as a player (1998) and a manager (2018), joining Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany.
• Varane is only the fourth player to win the World Cup and the Champions League in the same season, after Christian Karembeu in 1998 (France and Real Madrid), Roberto Carlos in 2002 (Brazil and Real Madrid), and Sami Khedira in 2014 (Germany and Real Madrid).
Stats courtesy of Opta
1) Paul Pogba, France: Scored the goal that stood up as the winner, and provided the French with a solidifying presence in midfield.
2) Kylian Mbappé, France: The French teenager scored one of the best goals of the tournament, and used his speed to torment Croatia’s back line.
3) Ivan Perisic, Croatia: Scored the first-half equalizer to swing momentum back in his side’s favour, and was a constant attacking threat for Croatia.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
Shaker Samman of The Ringer offers this wonderful history of French soccer, including France’s last trip to the World Cup final:
The lasting image from France’s last trip to the World Cup final is not of a goal, or a save, or any other act of footballing brilliance. It’s of a man pulling the tape from his right wrist as he walks past the trophy, not once making eye contact, before slowly descending into the locker room, never to return again.
It’s been 12 years since Zinedine Zidane retired. With him went the next decade of French success. Each international tournament Les Bleus entered in that time started with high hopes, and ended with disaster — a far cry from the exceptional record they experienced with Zizou at the helm. Win or lose, the 2006 World Cup final was to be the legend’s finale. He was, by all accounts, the best athlete in the history of France, and quite possibly the greatest midfielder to ever live.
Ask any five fans to tell you what they posit is his peak international performance, and you’ll likely get as many different responses: his title-winning performance against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final; his deconstruction of Portugal in the Euro 2000 semifinal; his utter destruction of England in the 2004 edition, when he sent two stoppage-time goals past David James; his dissection of Spain in the 2006 World Cup round of 16; or four days later, when Zidane put forth one of the best individual performances the global game has ever seen.