When the decisive blows came, the whole squad piled on each other in the fight for the victory. Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, had run the entire length of the pitch to join in the celebrations. All the substitutes were throwing themselves into this heap of arms and legs. There were even members of the backroom staff contemplating joining in, and who could blame them? France were on their way to winning the World Cup and a party was under way behind the goal where the tricolours were fluttering.
Those were the moments when everybody knew that no side – not even one with Croatia’s resilience and powers of durability – would find a way back. Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé had scored in quick succession and the next edition of the France national shirt will have two stars, rather than one, above the cockerel. Didier Deschamps has become only the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager, standing alongside two giants of the game in Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer. Mbappé is a world champion at the age of 19, the first teenager to score in a final since Pelé in 1958, and there were jubilant scenes after the final whistle as the players gave Deschamps the bumps, as the rain turned biblical and the trophy was lifted amid a backdrop of thunder and slate skies.
The mistake from Lloris that allowed Mario Mandzukic to pull one back for Croatia did not matter greatly in the end and France are deserving champions bearing in mind their assured performances throughout the tournament. Any team that score four times in a final are entitled to feel they have won in style and nobody seemed to mind too much, in the long wait for the trophy presentation, that the only person being sheltered from the rain was Vladimir Putin. Kudos to the chap in the suit who suddenly appeared with an umbrella to keep the president dry while Gianni Infantino and all the other assorted Fifa dignitaries took a soaking.
This was the highest-scoring final since 1966 and it was laced with drama and incident, not least a second-half pitch invasion apparently from members of Pussy Riot, and featuring a fair amount of controversy, too, bearing in mind France’s second goal, a penalty scored by Antoine Griezmann, came from a borderline VAR decision that will always polarise opinion.
Even before that point, it was difficult not to sympathise with Croatia given they had suffered the grievous setback of an own goal from Mandzukic. Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, had promised us that, if necessary, his team would take defeat with dignity and at least his players did not veer from that line, in trying circumstances. They will leave Russia, however, feeling that key moments of luck went against them in telling moments, right down to the smaller details. Marcelo Brozovic’s alleged foul on Griezmann for the free-kick that led to Mandzukic’s own goal was the case in point: a generous decision, to say the least.
That was the 53rd own goal in the history of the World Cup, going all the way back to a Mexican player, Manuel Rosas, doing the same against Chile in 1930. Nobody, however, had ever done it before in a final and presumably Rosas did not have to suffer the indignity, as Mandzukic did here, of the public announcer making sure everyone knew who had applied the decisive touch. Mandzukic’s attempt to help out in defence had gone horribly wrong. The ball had skimmed off his head from Griezmann’s free-kick and France were ahead before any of their own players had managed an attempt at goal.
By now, we should know enough about Croatia not to be taken aback by the strength of their response, culminating in a beautifully taken equaliser from Ivan Perisic 10 minutes later, using that precious left foot to fire a low, diagonal shot through a congested penalty area.
All this was rather unexpected bearing in mind the previous seven finals had yielded only four first-half goals. Yet it had quickly become clear that a thrilling tournament was not going to be let down by a cagey, prosaic final and the only pity, perhaps, went back to the first-half incident that led Croatia’s fans to whistle noisily when the match officials collected their medals.
It certainly was not a straightforward decision for the Argentinian referee, Néstor Pitana, and the length of time he spent analysing the replays told its own story. Eventually the handball decision was given against Perisic because it could be argued his arm was sticking out at an unnatural angle as he stooped behind Blaise Matuidi to defend a corner.
Was Matuidi’s flick-on on target or heading towards a teammate? The answer is no, to both questions. But maybe that was deemed irrelevant. The ball did strike Perisic’s hand, however little he knew about it, and that was enough for the penalty to be awarded, no matter how tough that might seem. Griezmann held his nerve to guide the penalty past Danijel Subasic, the Croatia goalkeeper, and after nearly four minutes of arguments and counter-arguments France were back in front.
The game was still finely poised until Mbappé and Griezmann combined to set up Pogba to make it 3-1 just before the hour. Pogba’s first effort came back to him off a defender. The second was a more controlled finish with his left foot to wrong-foot Subasic and when Mbappé fired in a low 25-yard effort for France’s fourth goal six minutes later it was starting to feel as if it could be a rout.
Instead, Lloris tried to dribble past Mandzukic in his own six-yard area, made a pig’s ear of it and at least that gave the score a bit more respectability from a Croatian perspective. There were 20 minutes to play and the losing players kept pushing forward, trying to pull off an improbable feat of escapology. Modric demonstrated why he would later be announced as the Golden Ball winner, as the tournament’s outstanding player, and an argument could legitimately be made that Croatia matched their opponents in everything but goals. Dalic’s team had set off as though affronted that France were viewed as favourites.
Deschamps had substituted N’Golo Kanté, France’s midfield shield, early in the second half, mindful that the Chelsea player had been booked, but there were only fleeting moments when their opponents threatened to examine whether Lloris might be vulnerable again. France had joined Uruguay and Argentina as two-times winners and the World Cup had been given a fitting finale.