For the past month, we’ve been tortured by the ear-worm phrase of “It’s Coming Home”, but football has chosen to be unfaithful to its first lover and return to the arms of the French for the first time in 20 years. France were crowned FIFA World Cup champions after defeating a resilient Croatian team 4-2. It seemed written in the stars, to be frank. Throughout the tournament, everything (and I mean everything) has worked in favour of Les Bleus and they capitalized on the gifts given to them while riding their luck at times. This victory now gives France a second star above the crest on their shirts as they’ve brought the world title home for the second time in the history.
It was a marvelous occasion, from pre-game to post(game). The tournament finale was welcomed by the illustrious closing ceremony put on by the Russian hosts, along with the performers of the official 2018 World Cup song — Nicky Jam, Era Istrefi and Will Smith. A historic juncture, which truly set the evening alight, encapsulated Russia’s beautiful culture intertwined with a worldly modern vibe. Part one of the world’s greatest event definitely did its job with outstanding merit.
But all eyes were on the feature event as two teams, that not many people expected to be contesting football’s greatest prize, were 90 minutes away from writing history. Philip Lahm, the 2014 World Cup winning captain, presented the trophy to the Luzhniki Stadium and lit up the eyes of the players watching from the tunnel behind him. The nerves and chills were evident. After the anthems and pleasantries, the showpiece began.
The French got off to a dream start, going 1-0 up after 18 minutes via the head of Croatia’s Mandzukic. The Juventus striker headed the ball into his own net trying to defend Antoine Griezmann’s free-kick. He timed his jump badly and paid the price for his error. That fortuitous moment was historic in itself, as it was the first ever own-goal in a World Cup final — as if we haven’t seen enough own-goals in this tournament already. It was the 12th of the 2018 World Cup, the most at any World Cup in history. Utterly tragic for Croatia. But having been behind in all of their knockout games in this tournament, this wasn’t unfamiliar territory for them. In each of their last three games, they took the long route to progress; enduring through (both) extra-time and penalties before getting the job done in the additional 30 minutes in the semifinal.
We’ve come to expect resilience from this Croatian team and they fought back, as they’ve consistently done in the last four weeks. The Vatreni were rewarded with an equalizer through Ivan Perisic just 10 minutes later. Perisic, who scored the equalizer in the semifinal against England, brought his country back on level terms on the biggest stage of all with a thunderous left-footed shot from 15 yards out into the right corner. Hugo Lloris had no chance of stopping that, and the “Leicester City of the World Cup” was given hope to dream again.
Having evaded the off-field referees stationed in Moscow since Russia’s victory over Spain in the Round of 16, the World Cup couldn’t escape VAR’s invasion in the final. After referee Nestor Pitana missed an unpreventable handball by Perisic when the ball was headed onto his hand in the box, the video officials suggested that he took a look at the incident. At the conclusion of a long (double) view of it, he obliged to give a penalty, which created division among fans and pundits across the world. In all fairness to Perisic, the distance between him and the ball was too short for him to move his hand away, and his hand was in a natural position after landing from a leap. It was harsh. But, with nerves of steel on the occasion created to bring butterflies, Griezmann converted the kick from the spot.
CRITICISMS OF VAR AT THE 2018 WORLD CUP
- “VAR is useful only for major teams and it’s not fair.”
– Mohamed Aboutrika, sports Analyst for beIN Sports
- “The video technique is used whenever they [VAR control room] want.”
– Youssef Naciri, Morocco National Team
- “Small country? I don’t want to go there. You can do that mathematics yourself.”
– John Obi Mikel, Nigeria National Team
- “VAR is bulls**t”
– Nordin Amrabat, Morocco National Team
Surely, the debate about whether VAR only works for big teams or not will vigorously go on for the next few months. But Croatia had to shake it off and come from behind once again. They went into the break trailing 2-1.
France returned for the second half beaming with confidence after a, presumably, inspiring team talk from their coach who won the World Cup as a player in 1998, Didier Deschamps. Their confidence did them the world of good as they were dominant over their fellow European opponents — and their dominance rewarded them a 59th minute goal. Paul Pogba made it 3-1 to the French with a curling effort with his (weaker) left foot from just outside the box. France’s and Adidas’ poster boy was now on screens all over the world on the biggest stage in the world! He was so ecstatic that he couldn’t even think of a fancy celebration to pull off; he just celebrated from his heart, speaking the language of love on this romantic occasion.
But this World Cup wouldn’t have been a French World Cup without Kylian Mbappe on the scoresheet, and he joined the scoring party in the 65th minute with another blaster from out of the box (pun intended). That made him the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958. Remarkable.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Before today, the last World Cup final goal scored from outside the area was by Marco Tardelli for Italy v Germany in 1982. In the 2018 final, we’ve seen two!
Croatia got what was, conclusively, a mere consolation late on as Hugo Lloris had a moment to forget, gifting Mandzukic a self-proclaimed goal of redemption; similar to what Karius offered to Benzema in the Champions League final two months ago. Hugo Lloris, Lloris Karius — it just had to happen, didn’t it?
After an enduring journey, the French hung on to claim victory and lift the World Cup trophy 20 years on from when Zidane and co. shell-shocked Brazil in Paris. It was like the stars aligned for France to parallel the triumph of 1998: a Zidane-like midfield maestro in Pogba, an Henry reincarnate in Mbappe, a Thuram tank equidistant in Umtiti — football’s romance has returned to the home of Jules Rimet and French football is at the top again.
THE MONACO GOALKEEPER CURSE
In the last four World Cup finals, the losing goalkeepers have all played for AS Monaco in France:
2006: Fabian Barthez (France)
2010: Martin Steklenburg (The Netherlands)
2014: Sergio Romero (Argentina)
2018: Danijel Subasic (Croatia)
Really and truly, we may never see a World Cup like this again. It was the World Cup of upsets. The favourites all went home early. Only the teams that dared to take on an adventure fraught with danger remained, and just one survived the unfriendly climate that the world’s greatest stage provided. This epitomized the strength and endurance of the French, as well as their hunger to win.
Croatia did have some gold to walk away with, though. Luka Modric was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament. As far as the other awards went, Kylian Mbappe was named Young Player of the Tournament, Thibaut Courtois won the Golden Glove, and Harry Kane (after a long wait) was officially given the Golden Boot.
Sadly, and with heavy hearts, we say goodbye to Russia and thank them for what has been an amazing tournament. Their hospitality, their organization and their magic impacted us all, and we’ll never forget what their 2018 party has brought us. We’re left to wait another four years for football’s master showpiece to return. Qatar, eyes are on you.
Image Credit: FIFA
Additional Statistics (via BBC):
- Deschamps is the third person to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager, after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
- France became the first team to score four goals in a World Cup final since Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in 1970.
- Griezmann’s spot-kick was the sixth penalty in a World Cup Final – and all but one have now been converted. One previous was also for France: Zinedine Zidane’s against Italy in 2006.
- Croatia are the first team to lose in their first appearance in a World Cup final since the Netherlands in 1974 (2-1 v Germany).
- Mbappe (19 years 207 days) is the second youngest player to score in a World Cup final, after Pele for Brazil in 1958 (17 years 249 days).
- Pogba became the first Manchester United player to score in a World Cup final, and the first Premier League player to do so since Emmanuel Petit in 1998.
- Mandzukic is only the second player in World Cup history to score a goal and an own goal in the same match, after the Netherlands’ Ernie Brandts against Italy in 1978.
- Mandzukic became the fifth player to score in both World Cup and European Cup/Champions League finals after Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Gerd Muller and Zinedine Zidane.