A SHAMBOLIC presentation it may have been, but not even Moscow rain could dampen the feeling that the 2018 World Cup was a resounding success. It’s too early to assess the competition in terms of “best ever” claims, but after a series of very mediocre events and finals that failed to please – it is a struggle to name a decent final after 1986 – the finale was as refreshing as the evening rain in the Lukhniki.
France were the best team in the finals although they didn’t always show it. They got better as the competition progressed. Croatia were a “team for a tournament” and worked their way through to the final and put on an impressive display against France. Luck didn’t go with them but they did have the player of the series in Luka Modric. This was richly deserved. Not since Uruguay reached the final in 1950 has a country with such small numbers played at that stage.
The two finalists really epitomised the state of the modern game: of the starting 11s, seven play in La Liga, six in Serie A, five in the Premier, only two in Ligue 1, one in the Bundesliga and one in Turkey. Not a single player currently appears in Croatia’s domestic league. Interesting that the two of the nations with the most home-domiciled players were Russia and England.
World Cups demand star men to emerge and Kylian Mbappe answered that call. At 19, he’s made an impact on the very highest podium, deserving of plaudits and comparisons with past heroes. The media talked of Paul Pogba “coming of age” in this World Cup, but let’s remember he’s 25 years old. He’s in his peak years, he should have received the key to the door of greatness by now. By contrast, Mbappe has already opened the door and he’s 19.
France’s opening goal, from a debatable free-kick, came against the run of play, but it didn’t take long for the excellent Ivan Perisic to level, switching the ball from right to left foot before striking low and clean. For a moment, there were signs that Croatia might pull off a shock win, but a very questionable penalty, via an extended VAR examination, allowed Antoine Griezmann the chance to make it 2-1. He did and Croatia went in at half-time enjoying a 66-34 possession advantage but chasing the game once more.
Croatia started well in the second period and Perisic was denied by a spectacular save from Hugo Lloris. But two goals in a six minute spell, the first from Pogba, the second from Mbappe, gave France an emphatic lead. Surely, Croatia could not come back from that, but there was still plenty of time to make the favourites feel uncomfortable. Lloris slipped-up when he attempted to play the ball round the menacing Mario Mandzukic, who accepted the gift with glee by finding the net with an instinctive touch.
France appeared nervous, but it was too much to expect Croatia to mount a late challenge. To France, the trophy, to Croatia, the neutrals’ vote of gratitude. Zagreb should be beaming with pride, Paris undoubtedly drowning in Champagne.
Six goals in a final, the best since 1966, and a stimulating game that banished memories of sterile encounters in 2014, 2010 and 2006. For once, the World Cup let us with happy memories, of exciting matches, talking points around VAR (which will surely be refined to improve the game and its flow) and a very good champion team that can, arguably, get better with time. How FIFA needed that worthwhile World Cup in 2018.
But why so many free-kicks and set-piece goals? It could be that international football has become so system-driven that goals from open play are harder to carve out than ever before. Free-kicks and corners represent clear-cut chances and teams work long and hard at perfecting them. We may be at the start of a new trend, not necessarily a good or satisfying one as supporters will demand something better than waiting for a set-piece for a goalscoring opportunity. There will be other, perhaps more scientific reasons to explain this development.
The circus moves on to Qatar 2022 where there’s one certainty – nobody will receive the cup in pouring rain.