Blockbuster World Cup final sets high bar for 2022
Wow. After the final whistle, after the trophy presentation, after the slides on the glitter-strewn turf by the French players, after even the French fans have stopped singing, the mind is still buzzing, the heart still racing.
There's an unwritten law that World Cup finals aren't meant to be like this; they are meant to be tight, controlled, cautious affairs punctuated by a goal when everyone has gone to sleep (or in 2010, frozen stiff). This match had everything - six goals (as many as the previous four finals together), an own goal, two goals that were controversial to say the least, and a brain fade by one of the world's best keepers. There was even a pitch invasion, for god's sake, at possibly the most heavily policed football match ever.
That's how unique this final was.
It was the kind of match where you just couldn't turn your head away for a second - or if you were in the press box, where you couldn't write as you usually do. Blink and you miss a Modric turn; blink again and you miss Mbappe's run (even a half-blink and you'll miss it).
In a sense it was surreal, with an error-strewn and disorganised France up against an exhausted, drained Croatia. Both sides were unable to land the punches they intended, with France's swings missing their mark, and Croatia barely able to take their guard. Croatia had the possession and the passages of play, but France had the moments. And eventually, their big-match experience and pound-for-pound superior quality made the difference: France converted their moments, whether earned or handed to them by VAR, and Croatia were left ruing the fractions that didn't go their way
The first half summed it up. France scored twice, each goal coming against the passage of play. The first was Mario Mandzukic's header into his own net from an Antoine Griezmann free-kick - opinion was divided as to whether he was indeed tackled or not. The goal came in the 18th minute; the first 15 minutes was almost all Croatia, with France's defenders - the whole team, in fact - clearing the ball as far upfield as possible. But the first break they got, France scored.
That goal - the timing and the controversial nature, and was Pogba offside when Mandzukic headed backwards? - would have deflated other teams. Croatia, though, were even more charged up and enjoyed another spell of dominance, such that N'Golo Kante was shown the yellow that would eventually compel Didier Deschamps to bring him off. And Ivan Perisic's goal made up for the dross of the opener - his take-down of the pass, his control of the ball and the accuracy of his shot through a crowded penalty area, each was a thing of beauty.
Yet again however, Croatia were unable to press home their advantage, and yet again, France scored against the run of play. Perisic again, this time with his hand instead of his foot, in his own area. It looked harsh and perhaps the spirit of the law would have waved it away, but this referee saw it otherwise. If the decision was dubious, the outcome was not in doubt - Griezmann had converted his previous five penalties and, to the first rumbles of thunder above, he converted his sixth.
It was 2-1 at the break and the scenes during and after reflected the bizarre nature of the 45 minutes. France were ahead but their players emerged for the second half with worried looks, Griezmann's brow deeply furrowed. Croatia? They were bouncing, and their fans were double the noise value of the French.
But Deschamps had been there, done that. He had a plan up his sleeve, and it involved scoring goals. First, though, Croatia had to endure more possession without scoring, though they came very close when Hugo Lloris just got his fingertips to a wickedly swerving shot by Ante Rebic. Croatia were that fraction quicker to the ball, their passes that fraction of an inch more accurate and they were in charge. France were again disorganised; the four people who invaded the pitch were better coordinated than their passing.
However, Paul Pogba's goal on the hour effectively killed Croatia off. It was a goal in three movements, Pogba starting it with a long-ball to Mbappe, who did his Usain Bolt impression yet again to control the ball and pass it back to Pogba, who shot it home on the second attempt. Ten minutes later, Mbappe got his goal and our data guys say it registered at 30.2 yards, the furthest distance for a goal in a World Cup final since 1966.
While Lloris's brain fade gave Croatia hope, it may well have been part of some grand Deschamps plan to keep them running without any hope of scoring another goal. There was some more sublime passing, including one spell in the France half that would have lasted a couple of minutes, time seemed to stand still. Eventually, though, Croatia ran out of energy, they ran out of time and they will feel that today, of all days, they ran out of luck. They didn't run out of goodwill among the neutrals, however, or the amazing support of their fans - the more hopeless things looked, the louder they chanted - and in Modric they have the best player of the tournament. Perhaps, at this moment, in the world.
But the trophy goes to France, and deservedly so. They played this match as they played the semifinals (and perhaps much of the tournament), not blowing their opponents away but winning the moments - and winning the matches. They have the star of the future and with several others approaching their prime, they will be dangerous for a while.
This most entertaining, unpredictable of tournaments deserved a fitting finale. There aren't many spheres of life where one can set the bar for Qatar but, whether by accident or design, France and Croatia have done just that. Suddenly, 2022 seems a long way away.