MOSCOW — They’ll replay those six minutes over and over, in memories and stories, on TV and online, and using whatever magical medium is available years from now, when the rest of Sunday’s World Cup final has receded into history and Kylian Mbappé is still galloping past defenders.
They’ll replay them because the second-half goals scored by Paul Pogba and Mbappé were dazzling, and because they sealed, punctuated and maybe redeemed France’s wild 4-2 defeat of Croatia and a second World Cup championship. And they’ll replay them because in those six minutes, Les Bleus became the team so many hoped and expected them to be. They were dynamic and dangerous. They played the sort of soccer expected from a group so talented. France was fun. France was watchable.
If the rest of this World Cup winds up being regarded as little more than a prelude to that spectacular title-clinching spell, that’ll be doing France a favor. It was the deserving winner here at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, and here in Russia this summer. In a tournament where other high-profile teams faltered or imploded, and where we saw a second-tier, golden-generation finalist for the first time in decades, France was the mostly-mistake-free, no-apparent-weak-spots team whose depth, athleticism and ability to call on different men to make big plays set it apart.
Considering its 6-0-1 record, and a knockout-stage gauntlet that included Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium and Croatia, France’s suitability for that second star shouldn’t be up for much discussion. This team’s impact and overall impression on the sport is, however.
Will those fiery six minutes endure and shape the planet’s recollection of the 2018 champion? Were they enough to convince us that coach Didier Deschamps’ France was something more than a collection of high-priced grinders who sat back and took advantage of others’ errors? Will they satisfy those who saw injustice in a couple key moments of Sunday’s final: a French opener influenced by an iffy foul call and a barely-offside Pogba, and then a second goal from a controversial penalty sparked by VAR?
Every World Cup has a champion. But there have been 21 now, and some are more revered and emulated than others. France’s fate in this regard isn’t clear. There were those six glorious minutes, that impressive record and roster, and then the somewhat unsatisfying, stilted path that brought us to the moment Sunday when Pogba and Mbappé crushed Croatia’s hopes.
Deschamps, who became the third man to win the World Cup as player and manager, is the architect. And when asked following the game how he thought his team should be regarded and remembered, and what made him proudest, the man who won the World Cup with pragmatic football answered pragmatically. This tournament was a bottom-line transaction.
“What should people remember? France is the world champion, so it means we did things better than others,” Deschamps said. “I had a very, very young group [tied as the second-youngest in the tournament]. But the quality was there. My greatest source of pride with this group is that they managed to have the right state of mind for such a tournament.
“There were imperfections. And today as well, we didn’t do everything right," he continued. "But we do have those mental and psychological qualities which were decisive in this World Cup. And we were able to see that the teams that had the best technical skills [often] didn’t have enough. In the first half of this final, we didn’t have much. But we were leading, 2-1.”
He added, “The teams that had the highest level of possession, the highest level of control, were all punished by fast forwards. That’s football. I know if you defend well, you’re guaranteed to have two or three opportunities off a counterattack or a set piece. That can make the difference. I don’t know if it’s a beautiful World Cup … but this World Cup was very, very tough athletically and from an intensity point of view.”
Most wanted to France to play football that would entertain, and many thought it capable of presenting something that might influence tactics or approach, like Spain’s tiki-taka in 2010 or Germany’s mobile, versatile midfield and sweeper-keeper four years later. Deschamps was almost burdened with surplus attacking talent. But he didn’t see style as a key to success. For the former defensive midfielder, the path to the trophy was mapped by stability, both on the field and off. His team was so stacked, that there would be enough quality left over to win the World Cup even after players sacrificed for the good of the whole. This was something several French teams of the past that were just as good on paper couldn’t manage.
“In the way this team was built, what was important was the wellness we felt together,” Deschamps said. “This has not been done overnight. In order to get there … the most important choices are made when we choose the 23 players.”
Deschamps left behind 14 of the 23 men who were upset by Portugal in the Euro 2016 final.
“You need to choose the men, so you can build up a group that can go as far as possible,” he said. “We need to find balance, on the field of course, but also a human balance, because that’s so fragile.”
What would’ve happened had Deschamps turned France loose? Perhaps what we saw midway through Sunday’s second half. Croatia was trailing, so may have been a bit more open than it would have liked. But the space the indefatigable underdogs left available also was a function of the withdrawn posture France adopted throughout the World Cup. The structure, discipline and patience required to execute that strategy is significant, and in the 59th minute, it paid off.
Pogba hit the ignition on the first goal, the stalwart and dependable (how about that?) two-way midfielder firing a long pass toward the right corner for the human blur that is Mbappé. He cut a cross back for Antoine Griezmann, the striker turned facilitator, who laid the ball back for Pogba. His first shot was blocked. The second was unstoppable.
In the 65th, France put the final away. Left back Lucas Hernández, a 22-year-old who earned his 10th senior cap in the quarterfinal in over Uruguay, raced down the left wing, froze a Croatian defender with a step-over—again, this was France’s left back—and fed Mbappé in the middle. The 19-year-old couldn’t have been calmer as he placed a shot inside the left post.
It was incisive, emphatic and glorious soccer—and far too rare a sight for Les Bleus. It demonstrated why so much has been expected of Pogba, and the stratospheric potential of Mbappé. It’s the stuff stars are made of. But maybe it’s also the sort of play that led to some of the me-first football that buried France in the past. Perhaps Deschamps' grinding and countering was a way to cure France’s famous ills and, ironically, make the most of its talent. They were good enough to win the World Cup even while wearing Deschamps’ shackles.
Griezmann was named man of the match and won the tournament’s Bronze Ball as the third-best player. Deschamps was speaking of the Atlético Madrid marksman, but could’ve been talking about any of his players, when he said, “He lives for the collective.”
So, spend six years honing an identity and moving players through the system until you find the 23 who’ll buy in completely, marry that with talent production on an industrial scale, and you, too, can win the World Cup. Obviously, that’s tough to emulate. There are only a handful of countries that churn out footballers like France. And among those that do, chemistry can be elusive. Germany had it in 2014, but the wrong blending of youth and experience—and perhaps a couple of personal and political distractions—derailed Die Mannschaft’s title defense. Spain fired its coach two days before its World Cup started. Argentina brought too many coaches. And so on.
At this World Cup, Deschamps failed to further the sport. But he did teach a graduate-level course in how to win a tournament. Was it fun to watch? Was this a performance that’ll live forever? Those six minutes certainly will for most. As for an evaluation of the rest of the tournament, the only opinions that matter to France are of the men who barged into Deschamps press conference and turned it briefly into a champagne-spraying serenade.
“Those 23 players will be linked forever. Forever,” Deschamps said. “Whatever happens—they might follow different paths—they’ll be marked forever and be together forever thanks to his event.”
They’re even different people now, he said. “They’re never going to be the same.” Such is the power of being a “world champion.” And to become that, Deschamps decided to take immensely talented players, and focus on their intangibles. It may not make for beautiful or satisfying soccer, but it produced a perfect result.
“World champion,” he said. “When you’re a professional football player, there’s nothing above that.”