PHOTO: New York Times
The first France goal came off a Croatian’s head. The second was scored with the aid of the Argentine referee, and became the first video-assistant-reviewed goal in World Cup history.
But the next two — hard low shots by the young French stars Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé — confirmed what everyone knew even before France polished off its 4-2 victory on Sunday: France was the best team in the field this summer in Russia, and for that reason — a potent mix of greatness, grit and good fortune — they are world champions again.
The title is France’s first since it won on home soil in 1998, and it ended a thrilling run by Croatia. The Croats survived three consecutive extra-time games and two penalty shootouts to reach their first final, and they even had the better of the game on Sunday .
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 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, snapped selfies and waving flags, to pick up its golden reward.
The French struck first Sunday, 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 Ivan 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 corner, Pitana got word through his headset from the video-assistant referee that he might want to have a look at the replay.
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 against before returning to the field to signal a penalty kick for handball.
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 through a screen 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.
The Croatians fell to the turf and began to cry. They soon rose, to the cheers and the salutes of the heavily pro-Croatia crowd, but it was not their day.
It was a day for Deschamps. And Pogba. And Mbappé. It was a day for France to celebrate a new generation of heroes, and to hope it will not be 20 more years before they can do it again.
• New York Times