MOSCOW — France climbed the mountain for the second time in its history, beating Croatia 4-2 in a wild World Cup final that had more “football, bloody hell” moments than anyone could have expected. In the end, the French may have benefited from one (or perhaps two) significant officiating decisions, but there was no denying that the French deserved the victory.
The French goals came from a Mario Mandzukic own goal (after a free kick dubiously won on an Antoine Griezmann dive), a Griezmann penalty (after a debated, VAR-assisted hand-ball penalty call on Ivan Perisic that I felt was correct), a glorious start-the-play-and-finish-it goal by Paul Pogba and a fourth by Kylian Mbappé.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
• Six goals! A keeper howler! Controversy!
There was a bit of everything in this World Cup final. A low-scoring affair seemed likely before the game, especially given the pragmatic way France had played against Belgium and Uruguay, but this was often a wide-open game, and France took advantage of that. (Croatia’s tired legs really did show in the second half.)
Lloris has been prone to mistakes on occasion, and he’d had a solid World Cup until gifting Mandzukic Croatia’s second goal. While I would argue that Argentine referee Néstor Pitana got it right with the help of VAR on Perisic’s penalty, it was unfortunate that VAR isn’t allowed to review the dive that Griezmann took to earn the free kick that led to France’s first goal. You never want to see an officiating decision make the difference in a huge game, but enough other things subsequently happened that at least you didn’t come away from this game thinking that the referee made the difference. France did.
• Pogba and Mbappé had their defining World Cup final moments
We’ll be seeing the highlights for decades of the second-youngest team at World Cup 2018 coming of age at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium—and their two young stars producing goals on them. On France’s third goal, Pogba started the play with a remarkable pass to Mbappé making a diabolical run, and then Pogba finished the play with a gorgeous strike. He had total confidence in his left-footed shot right after having total confidence in his right-footed shot, showing great technical skill with both feet.
As for Mbappé, he got his goal as well, taking advantage of Croatia’s second-half fatigue, particularly Domagoj Vida (who was sort of attempting to defend him) and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, with a perfectly place low blast from long range. At 19, he became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score in a final. And he's just getting started.
• How will this France team be remembered?
It’s funny: When we think of France’s 1998 world champions, we often forget that the ’98 team was a heavy underdog at home against Brazil. When people look back on this France team that won 4-2 in the World Cup final, there may be some who remember them as a freewheeling attacking machine. But the fact is that was the case for only portions of two games in this World Cup: France’s final and its 4-3 win over Argentina in the round of 16.
In the final analysis, Didier Deschamps’ France team at this World Cup should be remembered as a mostly pragmatic side that was capable of some exquisite attacking moments but more often displayed a grit and solid organization that reflected their coach. France is the second-youngest team at this World Cup, and you hope that in the future Deschamps (or whoever coaches France) will give his players a bit more freedom to do what they’re capable of.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.