Sunday, 15th July 2018.
For fans of France and Croatia, this is a date that wouldn’t be forgotten for some time, as both sides prepared to do battle in the 21st FIFA World Cup Final.
It was a massive day for each nation, and to put that into context – of the previous 20 tournaments, a quarter (five) had been won by Brazil, whilst only one had been a success for either of these sides – 1998, for France, on home soil.
Whoever the victor would be making history with a first World Cup title away from home, but which team would become the fourth European country in succession to lift football’s most famous and iconic trophy?
Entertainment expectations for the tournament’s conclusion had been fuelled by the hype that had been build up throughout a brilliant summer of football, and the grand finale did not disappoint.
First-class France win second world title in fitting finale for Russia 2018
Paris partied long into the French night as France became world champions for the second time with a six-goal thriller against final debutants Croatia.
Les Bleus put the demons of 2016 to bed once and for all with their 4-2 win, which makes Russia 2018’s finale the highest-scoring 90-minute World Cup final since 1958; when Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2.
A number of similarities can be drawn between France’s success and Brazil’s from 60 years before. Like Croatia, Sweden were appearing in their first (and to date, only) World Cup final, and on both occasions, there was one teenager who played a starring role and lit up proceedings to help lead his adoring nation to victory.
Back then, it was Pelé. This time? Step forward, Kylian Mbappé.
The 19-year-old became the first teenager to score in football’s biggest game since his Brazilian predecessor, but this came in the second half and all-but sealed France’s crown after a highly entertaining game.
In terms of a World Cup final, it had everything you could have wished for and more – Goals, drama, moments of brilliance, mistakes, and controversy (fuelled further by VAR) – and will no doubt go down in history as the conclusion to one of football’s greatest ever World Cups.
Despite their ultimate failings, it was Croatia who started the brighter in their first ever major final.
But although Zlatko Dalic’s side looked the stronger in possession, France took the lead with less than twenty minutes on the clock through a free-kick – a fitting way to go ahead in final of the ‘set-piece World Cup’.
Forward Antoine Griezmann won it cheaply against Marcelo Brozovic and dusted himself down to take it. The Atletico man curled the ball in dangerously, and Wednesday’s semi-final hero Mario Mandzukic could only inadvertently flick it into his own net in a desperate attempt to clear it.
France celebrated, but that was not to be the only set-piece goal of the day, as just ten minutes later, Croatia responded through one of their own.
Their captain and talisman, Luka Modric, floated a free-kick towards the back post which was nodded back across goal. After a couple more flick ons, it eventually fell to the feet of Ivan Perisic on the edge of the box.
The man who started Wednesday’s comeback against England then took one touch with his right foot to nick it away from N’Golo Kante, and then another with his left to hammer the ball across Hugo Lloris and into the corner to fire Croatia level and spark yet more wild celebrations.
It was scrappy, but the Croats didn’t care. They had their first ever World Cup final goal, and a platform to build on.
But the restored optimism didn’t last long, as less than ten minutes later, Perisic had gone from hero to zero.
And it came from another set piece – Blaise Matuidi went to flick on an inswinging France corner but missed the ball completely and it struck the unfortunate Perisic on the left arm.
Argentine referee Nestor Pitana initially thought nothing of it, but after French uproar, was prompted by VAR officials to take a second look, and after much deliberation, the spot-kick was eventually awarded, but not without its controversy.
Griezmann stepped up to take on Danijel Subasic, which was no mean feat considering the Croatian shot-stopper had kept out four penalties previously in the tournament.
But that didn’t phase the Frenchman, who coolly sent his opposite number the wrong way, slotting the ball to Subasic’s right and into the corner to regain France the lead.
The 27-year-old celebrated with his famous and now trademark Fortnite dance, and left Croatia needing to come from behind again to ensure they wouldn’t be ‘taking the L’ at full-time.
Dalic’s Croatia are the smallest nation to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950 however, and weren’t going to go down without a fight, having come from behind in each of their previous three knockout rounds.
Defender Domagoj Vida, who scored in the quarter-final success against hosts Russia, was their only player with a glimpse in the closing stages of the opening 45 minutes, but he glanced a dangerous Ivan Rakitic corner way wide and that was that for the first half as France went in 2-1 ahead.
The Croatians were well in the game as Dalic prepared to deliver the biggest half-time team talk of his life, but he knew they had a job on their hands to produce a second half comeback.
Whatever the 51-year-old said did appear to have an initial impact in truth – just two minutes in and the Croatians already had a glimpse, as nice play from Rakitic saw him take on Paul Pogba and set up Ante Rebic, but the Frankfurt man’s first-time effort was well saved by Lloris.
But whatever Croatia could muster going forward, they always had to be wary of the blistering pace France possessed on the counter, and the warning signs were there again just moments later.
Mbappe showed scintillating speed to breeze past and hold off Vida, before Subasic had to smartly save with his legs to deny France bigger lead. The French may have continued to look dangerous, but Croatia would have to take a chance or two eventually.
With less than ten minutes of the half gone, there was a glimmer of hope for the Croats as, on a yellow card, Kante was replaced by Steven N’Zonzi. With the Chelsea man, widely regarded as one of the world’s best in his position, could Croatia expose his absence and overrun the French midfield?
In a word, no. Any potential optimism fuelled by Kante’s departure was soon distinguished, as just before the hour, France did get their breakaway third.
The impressive Pogba played a stunning diagonal through ball from his own half and released Mbappe down the right flank. Fronted by the Croatian defence, the teenager was challenged and it fell for Griezmann. He couldn’t work the shooting opportunity, but the man who could was none other than Pogba. The Manchester United midfielder, who started the move, made up all of fifty yards to catch up with play, and had the final say as his first time shot was blocked before his follow-up attempt was drilled into the corner, leaving Subasic with no chance.
Wild celebrations ensued inside the Luzhniki, and it would only get better for Les Bleus shortly after in the 65th minute.
With confidence running through the French side’s veins, left full-back Lucas Hernandez found himself well forward and showed great feet to get away from his man. A pull-back from the Atletico man found Mbappe on the edge of the box.
There was only one thing on this tournament’s shining light’s mind – as he shifted the ball onto his right foot, and hammered a low shot across Subasic and into the corner, leaving the AS Monaco goalkeeper – who had been a hero on numerous occasions throughout the competition for Croatia – with absolutely no chance.
France had their fourth, and for all intents and purposes, were world champions, but it wasn’t to come without one final hiccup, as the action wasn’t over quite yet.
Tuesday night’s semi-final winning hero, Samuel Umtiti, rolled the ball back to his goalkeeper and captain, Lloris, under minimal pressure.
The Spurs man controlled, but bizarrely as he went to clear any possible danger, inadvertently created a red alert situation as his pass was blocked by the onrushing Mandzukic and ricocheted into the net.
Croatia had been gifted an unlikely lifeline, but it was still a long way back from two goals down with little over twenty minutes remaining.
France could have been rattled by their captain’s mistake, but Didier Deschamps’ side retained their composure, as they had done throughout the entire tournament.
A couple of half chances here and there for Barcelona’s Rakitic were all the Croatians could muster as they looked to close the deficit further and set up a nervy finale, but his efforts rolled wide and flew over.
With the clock ticking over to ninety minutes, the French supporters partied in the stands of the Luzhniki, whilst their opponents were left to wonder what might have been.
The Argentinian referee Pitana put the whistle to his lips, and with one mighty blow of the whistle for the final time, France were on top of the world for the second time – and the first time outside of their own country.
In leading his nation to glory, Deschamps joins an elite club also consisting of Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo in winning football’s most prestigious of tournaments as both a player and manager.
His side didn’t have the most convincing of starts, doing just enough in truth to progress past the group stage with relative ease, but as the tournament reached its latter stages and the knockout rounds, Les Bleus really started to turn on the style.
Their 4-3 success against Argentina in the last 16 a turning point, as France announced to the world that they were the real deal.
The ghosts of Paris 2016 well and truly behind them, Les Bleus were thoroughly deserving of their second star, and with the talent in abundance possessed by the new world champions, don’t be surprised should an era of domination be upon the French, as previously seen with the likes of Spain from 2008-2012.
As for Croatia, it was just one step too far for the lowest ranked side to ever reach the World Cup final. Dalic’s troops also became the smallest nation to appear in football’s biggest game since Uruguay in 1950, so despite their ultimate defeat, it has proven to be a summer to remember for Croatia.
Their Golden Ball winner Luka Modric may not be around Qatar 2022, but should this prove to be his final World Cup, the Real Madrid midfielder will have left a lasting legacy on his nation, and could possibly go down as their best ever.
Player of the Day – Paul Pogba (France)
They say the biggest stage of all is reserved for only the best, and they also say that the best always rise to the occasion and leave a lasting mark on history.
The World Cup Final is such a setting. Down the years, football has seen dreams broken, stars born and legacies formed by legends of the game on this great occasion that only comes around once every four summers.
To this day, people still talk about 17-year-old Pele’s brace sixty years ago in the 1958 finale against Sweden, whilst other famous moments such as Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner against the Netherlands to earn Spain their maiden World Cup title will be etched into the memory of football supporters across the globe for all eternity.
And the 2018 final proved no different. But this time, there was a different kind of player who stole the headlines. One who isn’t universally loved across the beautiful game, and a man who has earned his fair share of criticism during his career to-date.
Step forward, Manchester United and France’s Paul Pogba.
In 2016, the now 25-year-old rocked the footballing world when he rejoined his boyhood club and became the most expensive player ever at over 100 million euros.
But since joining two years ago, the midfielder has struggled to live up to his hefty price tag, and has looked unconvincing at times whilst leaving supporters scratching their heads over why United shelled out all that cash to bring back a player they allowed to leave on a free transfer just four years prior.
There have been glimpses of excellence, but consistency has been a big problem for Pogba in a red shirt.
However, this summer there have been no such problems for the Frenchman, who has more than played his part in bringing the World Cup home for only the second time in his nation’s history.
Pogba has been an integral part of the France side this summer, and has been among Les Bleus best performers in each game of this World Cup – and the final proved no different.
Leading from the middle of the park, the sometimes-controversial figure ran the show yet again, and even rounded off a superb individual tournament with a stunning goal that came from a move he started himself.
A stunning through ball to Kylian Mbappe, and then sprinting almost the whole pitch to pick up the pieces from a scramble and hammering the ball past a helpless Danijel Subasic to all-but seal France’s crown.
That is the Paul Pogba Manchester United fans have been crying out for, and the Paul Pogba they now hope and expect to see more of this coming season, as the midfielder returns to the Premier League with renewed confidence, energy and ingenuity.
But for now, it’s time for Pogba to relax. This charismatic, exciting talent from a small Parisian town called Lagny-sur-Marne has written his name into history for all eternity, and will forever be a hero to his proud nation.
Allez les Bleus.