Compelling, crazy, comic, controversial… France are now the World Cup champions and the greatest international team on the planet, after a 4-2 win over Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow today.
The first own goal of a final, a controversial penalty, VAR, a teenaged goal scorer, stifling reactive tactics, the highest scoring final in 52 years… There was enough drama today to keep football analysts busy for weeks.
But, by the final whistle, Les Bleus were deserved champions—dogged and composed at the back and, at the other end, quicker than a mother-in-law to jump all over the slightest error.
At one stage, France had three shots on the opposing target; but four goals scored. Riddle me that! (France eventually ended with six shots on the Croatian goal).
For better or worse, 43 year old Argentine referee Nestor Pitana will go down as a key component of today’s drama, after his two controversial decisions led to both of France’s opening goals.
What the hell is up with Argies and dodgy World Cup final performances these days?!
Pitana is a PE teacher who once worked as a disco bouncer and a lifeguard. And, in 1997, he played a minor acting role as a prison guard in the Argentine film “La Furia”—or “The Fury”—before launching his career as a top flight referee.
Croatia players and supporters were certainly indignant in the 18th minute, after he awarded a phantom free kick to France playmaker Antoine Griezmann—from which tall Croat striker Mario Mandzukic inadvertently headed into his own net.
For all the merits of the FIFA-approved crackdown on grappling and penalty box incidents, the reality is players have been diving to the ground throughout the tournament without censor. An act that is not discouraged is, arguably, encouraged.
And the chickens came home to roost in the final.
France were ahead before they had even managed an attempt on goal; and the luckless Mandzukic had become the first player to score on his own team in a World Cup final.
It was, up to that point, the 69th set piece goal of the World Cup from the tournament’s 164 items.
Ten minutes later, Croatia were level with a cracking Ivan Perisic strike after another set piece. This time, France failed to clear from a Luka Modric corner kick and Perisic danced around N’Golo Kante before belting a left footer past opposing goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris. Game on!
Before kick off, former Germany football captain Philipp Lahm and Russia model Natalia “Supernova” Vodianova had brought out the World Cup trophy, to the Ennio Morricone’s classic ballad, “Escape on a Horse”—which was immortalised in the iconic spaghetti western movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
If Perisic’s strike was “the good” and Mandzukic’s own goal “the ugly”, would Pitana’s next controversial call be remembered as “the bad”?
France midfielder Blaise Matuidi failed to make contact with an inswinging corner kick and, unsighted until the last minute, Perisic made contact with his left hand.
After studying the VAR monitor for so long that he might as well have ordered popcorn, Pitana pointed to the spot. Penalty for France!
And, at that minute, the Argentine became the world’s second most despised official with a comb-over after US president Donald Trump. But was he wrong?
Former FIFA referee and Trinidad and Tobago Football Referees Association (TTFRA) vice-president, Osmond Downer, has criticised some “soft” penalties awarded at this tournament already. But, on this occasion, Downer said Señor Comb-over’s call was spot on.
“[Perisic] jumped with hands outstretched, which is natural,” Downer told Wired868. “If the ball is kicked on to his hand—in my opinion—it is not deliberate. But if you look at it closely, the ball was passing his hand and he brought his hand down to hit the ball.
“So that was hand to ball and not ball to hand. It was a penalty!”
VAR, as Mr Live Wire predicted, had indeed intervened in a World Cup final. But, as far as Downer was concerned, it helped deliver justice. Not that it would have felt that way for Croatian fans and many neutrals.
There is no more dangerous team in football today than France defending a lead. Off the back foot, Deschamps’ team can scythe down an opponent like West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara at his best.
And, in the 52nd minute, it looked to be game, set and match, as Pogba hit a gorgeous half-volley into space for the electric Kylian Mbappé and followed his pass to the edge of the Croatia penalty area, where he doubled France’s lead on the second attempt.
Croatia defender Dejan Lovren’s stopped Pogba’s attempt with his right but goalkeeper Danijel Subasic could not keep out his left. And France had their European rivals on the floor.
Noticeably, the colourful Pogba had not dyed his hair for the occasion. At the Russia World Cup, it is his football that has shone brightest.
Not to be usurped, France’s impertinent man-before-time, Mbappé, reclaimed the spotlight in the 65th minute with a strike from 22 yards that made him only the second teenager to score in a World Cup final since Brazil legend, Pelé, at the 1958 edition.
Mbappé, at 19, was also just the third teenager to play in a final—with Italian defender Giuseppe Bergomi completing the list, as an 18 year old starter in the 1982 World Cup final.
Not bad for a fellah who would have probably been coerced to delay his professional career to play in the Coca Cola National Intercol final if he was a Trini.
Perhaps envious of the success stories being written at the other end, France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris tried to steal a bit of the spotlight for himself in the 69th minute. Inexplicably, the custodian tried to dribble Mandzukic inside of his own six yard box, and the poacher tapped home to set another landmark—by scoring at both ends in the final.
Lloris’ brainless play had only come out of one end, though. It was the worse attempt at aping French panache since Officer Crabtree’s unforgettable “Good Moaning” greetings in “Allo Allo”.
It was not enough to stop France’s procession, though. In the process, Deschamps became only the third person to win the World Cup as a player and coach, after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
Spare a thought for Croatia captain, Modric, though. Over the course of his memorable career, the Real Madrid maestro played in 10 straight one-off finals before today; and won them all—including four European Champions League gongs.
But today, he had to settle for silver. And, like Argentina’s Lionel Messi in 2014, the FIFA award for the tournament’s Most Valuable Player would have been scant consolation.
Mbappé—the World Cup’s Best Young Player—was the only French player to collect an individual trophy, as England forward Harry Kane (Golden Boot) and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (Golden Gloves) scooped up the other prizes.
But France had the trophy that the 32 best nations in the world had all dreamt of. Allez Les Bleus!
2018 World Cup Final
(Sunday 15 July)
France 4 (Mario Mandzukic OG 18, Antoine Griezmann 39 pen, Paul Pogba 59, Kylian Mbappé 65), Croatia 2 (Ivan Perisic 28, Mario Mandzukic 69), Moscow.
2018 World Cup awards
Golden Ball — Luka Modric (Croatia)
Runners-up: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Antoine Griezmann (France);
Golden Boots — Harry Kane (England) six goals
Runners-up: Antoine Griezmann (France), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium);[In the case of players level on goals, the tiebreaker used is assists]
Golden Gloves — Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Best Young Player — Kylian Mbappé (France)
FIFA Fair Play award — Spain