By Mary Cunningham
France’s first two goals — one off a Croatian’s head and the second with the aid of the Argentine referee, and became the first video-assistant-reviewed goal in World Cup history — looked a bit suspicious
But there was nothing artificial about the World Cup championship that France won yesterday, 4-2.
France was the best team in the field this summer in Russia, and it ended a thrilling run by Croatia, which survived three consecutive extra-time games and two penalty shootouts to reach their first final.
But France fought Croatia off when it had to and punished it when it could. And when the final whistle blew, its players raced off the bench in glee, gathered in jumping hugs and shared embraces with their coach, Didier Deschamps, a midfielder on the 1998 team who became the third man to win the World Cup as a player and head coach.
This France team will not be remembered as the most elegant champions, or the most creative. But what it achieved — through diligent planning, hard work, relentless discipline and the occasional brilliance of Mbappé and others — was remarkable nonetheless. France was not so much great as fundamentally good: a team of outstanding talents willing to surrender possession and strike on the counter; a team capable of scoring superb goals but also willing to accept whatever it was given.
Even on Sunday, it surrendered possession willingly to Croatia’s talented midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic in the first half — and still came out ahead. Presented with chances in the second half thanks to Mbappé’s unmatched speed and skill, it turned one break into Pogba’s goal and a second into Mbappé’s. Not even bad luck of its own, like a blunder that handed Croatia its second goal, came with any real price. France merely regrouped and saw the game out, and then waited, snapping selfies and waving flags, to pick up its golden reward.
The French scored first, or rather Croatia did — with striker Mario Mandzukic heading a free kick over his goalkeeper in the 18th minute. Stunned, Croatia tied the match 10 minutes later through Perisic, but soon was behind again in a moment both historic and controversial.
The incident came in the 35th minute, when a ball served into the box tipped off a French player and onto the hand of Perisic, who did not seem to see it arriving. The Argentine referee, Nelson Pitana, initially signaled a corner kick. But as France’s players appealed for a penalty, Pitana awarded a corner.
The V.A.R. system, approved controversially earlier this year for use in its first World Cup, had performed above expectations in the tournament. Pitana went to the sideline between the benches and, with the V.A.R. in his ear, scrolled through the play before returning to the field to signal a penalty kick for a handball.
Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“With respect to V.A.R.,” Croatia Manager Zlatko Dalic said, “when it goes in your favor, it’d good. When it doesn’t go in your favor, it’s bad.”
The France striker Antonie Griezmann stepped up and calmly rolled the ball in, and just like that history was made and the French were back in front.
Pogba, controlling his own rebound to score in the 59th minute, and Mbappé, firing around a defender and past Croatia’s screened goalkeeper in the 65th, soon made the goal a footnote. A blunder by France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who tapped a clearance off a pressuring Mandzukic and into his own net four minutes later, gave the Croatians a lifeline. But France, as it has in most of its games at this World Cup, sent on a few substitutes and simply strangled the life out of the game to complete its triumph.
When it ended, the French players flew off their bench and gathered in two tight huddles near midfield. The French coaches swarmed Deschamps into what became a hug involving about a dozen men.