In a fitting end to a thrilling World Cup France defeated Croatia 4-2 Sunday night in Moscow in the highest scoring final since Brazil topped West Germany 3-2 all the way back in 1986.
But don’t let the two-goal victory fool you, as good as France was on Sunday, Croatia did not make it easy. Nothing was easy against Croatia at Russia ‘18. After cruising through group play with three wins from three matches and a 7-1 goal difference, Croatia battled through the K.O. rounds in extraordinary fashion advancing twice on penalty kicks before defeating England in Extra Time to set up Sunday’s showdown with the young French team.
No, it wouldn’t be easy for France, one of the pre-tournament favorites, but Les Bleus did get a couple of big calls in the first half that would shape this final. The first came when Antoine Griezmann hit the deck just outside the French penalty area to earn a highly disputed free kick. Griezmann then rubbed salt in the Croatian wound when he delivered a dangerous free kick that skipped off the head of Mario Mandzukic and past a stranded Danijel Subasic to put Croatia in a 1-0 hole in the 18th minute.
It was a tough break for the underdogs, who had been taking the game to the fancied French but true to form Croatia refused to sulk and were back on level terms within 10 minutes.
Ivan Perisic, the hero of Croatia’s 2-1 semi-final victory over England with a goal and an assist, was on target again when he fired a deflection aided blast past Hugo Lloris to equalize.
But Croatian resilience would be tested once again just 10 minutes later with France awarded a penalty via VAR for a handball on Perisic. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana did not call the infraction initially but was swayed by the replay.
Although Perisic clearly handled the ball reaction was divided with many loudly disputing the penalty decision. That VAR was involved only heightened the controversy but even without the technological aspect, the incident highlights the difficulty all officials face when calling a handball for a penalty.
Perisic’s hand was away from his body and moved toward the ball. Still, there is the question of intent.
In any event, Griezmann cooly beat Subasic to send France to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.
Again Croatia responded well to adversity coming out on the restart determined to restore parity and dominating the opening exchanges before Paul Pogba struck for France against the run of play in the 59th minute.
Croatia was still reeling from Pogba’s strike when Kylian Mbappe made it 4-1 to France in the 65th minute. The goal by the precocious 19-year-old was the first by a teenager in a World Cup Final since the legendary Pele scored two versus Sweden in 1958, and a fitting capper to a brilliant World Cup by the rising star.
Hugo Lloris opened the door a crack when he inexplicably dawdled on the ball and allowed Mandzukic to halve the deficit but this hill was too big for even Croatia to climb.
For all the controversy, France were worthy winners. Manager Didier Deschamps captained France to its only other World Cup title in 1998 and he molded this young team into a disciplined unit without quenching the offensive threat of players like Mbappe, Griezmann, and Pogba.
As Germany, Spain, and a few others can attest, nothing is guaranteed in soccer but with an average age of 25 years and nine months France is the second youngest team to have won a World Cup, (via ESPN FC) just one month older than Brazil 1970, so for now at least, the future of the world’s game looks bleu.