1) A brilliant tournament deserves a brilliant final. For all the magnificence of this World Cup, a 0-0 draw and penalty shootout in the showpiece event would have left a sour taste. Neither of the last two World Cup finals had contained a goal in normal time; we prayed for something different.
As ever, the 2018 World Cup delivered. Rarely has a game of such magnitude been so open, but this sensational tournament was determined to show off its best bits: VAR controversy, set-piece goal, own goal, magnificent passes, wonderful finishes and the general sense of glorious chaos.
As soon as one team has the advantage, they concede. Every time you think you know what is happening, think again. The 2018 World Cup in 90 minutes, distilled, bottled and sold for you to sip your way through until next time. It has been a vintage tournament.
2) It may sound pithy given that they have won the trophy, but France deserved this World Cup success. Their performances against Australia and Denmark were sluggish, and their group-stage victory over Peru was not without discomfort, but Didier Deschamps’ team have grown in and into this tournament.
The reason for inserting this statement of the bleeding obvious is that France have just won a World Cup without playing at their best. They are a team that too often performs – or is made to perform – with the handbrake applied. And yet they beat Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium and Croatia. There is so much potential here.
Still, as with Zinedine Zidane at club level, Deschamps now deserves the doubts about his coaching ability to be quashed, at least temporarily. They may have won only one match by more than a single goal on their route to the final, but the first 25 minutes against Belgium and the first 20 minutes of the final were the only times in the entire tournament when you thought France might actually be in danger of elimination, even if they have never quite clicked.
At different times in this tournament France’s front three has looked better than Brazil’s, who we thought were the zenith; their midfield three has looked better than Croatia’s, who we thought might be the zenith; their defence has looked better than Uruguay’s, who we thought were surely the zenith. Finally, France’s togetherness and faith in the coach were called into question pre-tournament, but both questions have been answered.
Even if the nagging sense that France are succeeding despite Deschamps rather than because of him won’t go away, history will remember him as the third person in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager.
3) And yet this was not easy, at least not until France scored their third goal. This is a very weird French side, one which has won knockout matches 4-3 and 4-2 and yet whose coach seems determined not to make them expansive. Had Deschamps done so, this could have been 17-16.
Croatia’s energy levels during this tournament have been sensational, and they deserved to lead at half-time. In the first half they harried and hassled France and made them look ordinary in possession and flustered out of it. They conceded twice against the run of play.
In those opening exchanges we remembered the Euro 2016 final and feared for Les Bleus. France’s sole tactic was to hit the ball long to Olivier Giroud, bypassing a magnificent midfield and hoping that their target man could win headers. Hugo Lloris to Giroud was their most regular pass combination of the first half. Croatia won their headers and began to dominate.
4) So of course France then took the lead. Although if you assumed that their attack finally clicked into beautiful gear, you would be mistaken.
Firstly, it was a dive from Antoine Griezmann. At best we will say that he ‘engineered’ the contact, but at worst we will drop the euphemisms and say that he dived. Unfortunately, while VAR does intervene for all ‘game-changing’ incidents, that does not include fouls made outside the box. So if you do want to cheat to try and give your team an advantage, do it outside the penalty area.
Griezmann himself stepped up to take the free-kick, and delivered it with the type of whip that unnerves a defence. Mario Mandzukic was the unlucky player who got a touch on the ball, succeeding only in flicking it past Danijel Subasic as he tried to head it clear.
Croatia’s defending was not good. They were far too deep when the set piece was taken, almost six yards out from goal. Subasic might also feel that he should have done better, flat-footed and a little slow to react. That would become a theme.
5) But the goal should not have been given. When Griezmann made contact with the ball, Paul Pogba was standing in an offside position. He then challenged Mandzukic in the air from behind. Pogba might not have been in Mandzukic’s eyeline, but he was clearly interfering with play. And yet the VAR did not advise the referee that Pogba was offside.
“VAR is not changing football, it is cleaning football, making it more honest and transparent and helping referees to make the right decisions,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino two days ago.
“The goal scored from an offside position is finished in football, at least in football with VAR. You will never see any more a goal scored in an offside position, it’s finished because either you are or are not offside, these are clear decisions.”
The secret to good comedy is in the timing.
6) If we thought that conceding first might cause energy to sap out of Croatian legs, that overlooks their powers of recovery in this tournament. Against Denmark in the last 16, they scored three minutes after conceding the opening goal. Against Russia in the quarter-final, they scored eight minutes after conceding the opening goal. Against England in the semi-final, they overturned a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 in extra-time. Against France in the final, they initially trailed for just ten minutes.
It was no less than Croatia deserved. Having been in charge of the match at 0-0, they simply continued to play in the same vein, pressing France in possession and robbing them high up the pitch.
France played their own part in the equaliser, repeatedly failing to clear the ball before it landed at the feet of Ivan Perisic. His ability to strike the ball cleanly with either foot makes him one of the most effective wingers in European football. Do not be surprised if those Manchester United links return.
7) During the knockout stages of this tournament, VAR controversies – or controversies involving referees’ interpretation of VAR replays – have largely been kept to a minimum. That all changed in the final, just as FIFA must have hoped everything would go smoothly.
Firstly, France were always going to be awarded a penalty as soon as Nestor Pistana went to watch the replay. We have seen time and again in this World Cup that a referee not awarding a penalty for handball is followed by mass appeals from the attacking team, the word in the ear from the officials watching the replays and then the jog of referee to screen. Having been told he should look at an incident because an error may have occurred, a referee is clearly swayed by that advice.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know what handball is anymore. I always assumed it had to be deliberate, with caveats for arms in unnatural positions and the amount of time the player has to react. There is an argument that Perisic’s hand was in a slightly unnatural position, although not wildly, but he was also very close to the player whose header changed the ball’s direction; it was certainly not deliberate.
But the rules on handballs have changed. Watching football in slow-motion distorts the coverage. It makes incidents that are far from clear-cut in real-time look more obvious. A year ago, that penalty would never have been given for handball. Without the wording of the rules being changed, it is now more likely to be given.
8) That raises two obvious questions:
a) Is it fair on the players for decisions that are so important to the final result to change so radically after the introduction of an initiative? They are having to learn to change their behaviour, but having to learn on the hop without any guidance other than real-time precedent.
b) Does watching slow-motion replays of handball incidents create such a distorted reality that it actually moves away from the very notion of finding the ‘right’ decision? If we have agreed that handball decisions are now changing, what is ‘right’ after all?
Finally, one more question is raised. In their bumph when introducing VAR, FIFA mentioned the term ‘clear and obvious error’. That term has had its usage scaled back since, as if FIFA are keen to move away from it, but that is how VAR was sold to managers, players and spectators. The idea was that huge mistakes would be eradicated.
If referee Pistana has to watch seven or eight slow-motion replays, walk away from the screen and then walk back to the screen to watch another two replays before reversing his original call, how on earth can it be ‘clear and obvious’?
9) Pogba has enjoyed a fabulous tournament, albeit in a different style to his Manchester United performances. At club level, Pogba is expected to be the all-action central midfielder, surging from deep, making tackles, starting moves, creating chances and scoring goals. For France, Pogba is asked to do the simple things well and is only sporadically expected to be the spark.
That reduction in responsibility – and that isn’t intended as a criticism – has made Pogba. He has looked as if he is enjoying his football thanks to the support of Kante and Blaise Matuidi around him, and his team have reaped the rewards.
But Pogba remains a man for the big occasion. His pass to send Kylian Mbappe through was as good as anything Kevin de Bruyne produced in this World Cup, but Pogba did not sit and watch his handiwork. When the ball eventually broke to him his first shot was slightly snatched, but the second was curled wonderfully into the corner. Game over.
10) And of course Mbappe had to have his moment, because he is the golden boy and his brilliance demanded that he must score.
The finish was swept home, but more important still was that it made Mbappe the youngest player to score in a World Cup final since Pele, and only the second ever teenager. That is some good company to keep.
11) But we really do have to ask questions of Croatia’s goalkeeper Subasic, who has developed a knack in the final stages of this tournament for not diving for shots. Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, Pogba’s shot and Mbappe’s finish all saw him rooted to the spot.
There are two obvious explanations for this:
1) Subasic was still suffering from the hamstring problems that hampered him against Russia. In which case, he should not have been selected.
2) He has a huge problem with planting his weight onto one of his feet, essentially making every shot like a penalty where he gambles which way to go. That is not sustainable.
12) We must also mention the other goalkeeper. Lloris was a long odds-on shot to win the Golden Glove award, but we again saw both sides of him in the final.
The shot-saving is excellent and the decision to come off his line quickly twice saved France from moments of danger, but Lloris also committed the worst goalkeeping error in World Cup final history. Dallying on the ball and being tackled by Mandzukic might not have changed the course of the result, but it did leave another question mark about his propensity to make stupid mistakes.
13) The warning for every other country is that, unlike in 1998-2000 and 2006, France may not have peaked despite winning the most coveted trophy in the sport. This could be the start of a dynasty to rival Spain’s between 2008 and 2012.
Deschamps’ squad for this World Cup was the third-youngest, bettered only by England and Nigeria. Fifteen of the 23 players are aged 25 or under, while Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Kurt Zouma, Lucas Digne, Layvin Kurzawa and Anthony Martial meet that mark and didn’t even make it to Russia.
And then we have the next brigade. Houssem Aouar, Maxime Lopez, Jean-Kévin Augustin, Issa Diop and Lucas Tousart are just five players touted as potential breakout stars. Aouar has been linked with a move to Liverpool and is established at Lyon at the age of 20. Maxime Lopez is a regular at Marseille at the same age. Augustin is 21 but has already moved from Paris Saint-Germain to RB Leipzig to get regular football. Issa Diop briefly became West Ham’s record signing last month; he is also 21. Tousart is already earning comparisons to N’Golo Kante.
It might be easy to mock the woeful competitiveness of Ligue Un’s title race, but the pathways for young players cannot be doubted. These players will get their chance to flourish. France are set fair.
14) For Croatia, there is no shame in defeat. Their march to the final should be recognised as the standout story of this World Cup, above even France’s victory.
If we must judge England’s tournament in the context of where they came from, let’s do the same with Croatia. In 2014, they were eliminated in the group stage of the World Cup, losing to Brazil and Mexico and beating a disorganised Cameroon side. They were then eliminated at the last-16 stage of Euro 2016 by Portugal, albeit after beating Spain.
Then in October 2017, when Zlatko Dalic was announced as the new manager of the national team, Croatia were in grave danger of missing out on a place at Russia this summer. A 2-0 win against Ukraine guaranteed them second spot in their qualifying group, and the draw was kind enough to hand them a tie against Greece.
Even then the drama was not over. Eight days before the World Cup began, Zdravko Mamic, the disgraced former Dinamo Zagreb chief executive, was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. Captain Luka Modric had already been charged with perjury relating to evidence given in Mamic’s case, while Dejan Lovren should expect the same charge to be filed against him.
Visiting Croatia in May and speaking to supporters, there was an apathy regarding the upcoming tournament. Many felt that Modric and Lovren, who should be heroes, had let down the common man by being on the side of corruption.
These are not the typical ingredients for a run to the World Cup final. Like England, Croatia may have enjoyed a favourable path to the latter stages of the tournament, but it was gained via a 3-0 win against Argentina that meant Croatia avoided France in the last 16. They earned their good fortune.
15) You could also argue that Dalic was given a wonderful opportunity. Croatia should never have been scrapping for second place in a qualifying group with Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo, and once their World Cup place was confirmed the manager had very little to do in terms of motivation.
Dalic’s squad contained a clutch of high-class players who knew that this would most likely be their final World Cup, and certainly their last as a group. Subasic is 33, Ivan Strinic 30, both starting central defenders are 29, Ivan Rakitic 30, Perisic 29, Modric 32 and Mandzukic the same age. Drinking in the last-chance saloon gives you extra motivation not to drop your glass on the floor.
Croatia were also clearly motivated by the notion of being the unfairly overlooked underdog, with Modric’s comments to the media following the England game revealing as much. For all those insisting to Modric that he was missing the point of the Three Lions chant, that matters not. The point was that Croatia’s players believed it to be arrogant, and so used it as added motivation. The chant did not change the way they played – England should have been two or three goals clear at half-time – but it epitomises the siege mentality prevalent in the Croatian camp.
Dalic’s greatest achievement was pushing the politics and controversy away from centre stage and harnessing that mood of ‘us against the world’. You don’t progress past three knockout ties after extra-time and overcome the inevitable physical and mental fatigue that creates without large handfuls of grit and determination. In Modric, Croatia have an artist. Inside the heart of every player is a fighter.
16) This has been a wonderful World Cup, if an unusual one. At a time in sport when the biggest get bigger and the rest struggle to keep up, it has been refreshing to see some change at the top, even if it is to be a flashing glimpse of difference and even if France ended up winning.
Of the eight countries to have won the World Cup, only one made the semi-finals. Belgium and Croatia recorded their highest ever World Cup finishes, while England equalled their best ever on foreign soil.
The pessimistic explanation for this change is that two pillars of the game – and the two most recent winners of the World Cup – took their eyes badly off the ball. Spain became embroiled in saga following the decision to sack Julen Lopetegui and then were unable to depart from their slow passing moves despite evidence that it was not working. Germany played with a dangerously high line and their defenders played too poorly to cope. Add in some wretched finishing from much-vaunted attackers, and the champions were humbled. Both will come back stronger.
There has also been a heartening shift away from football’s growing individualism, with the collective triumphing. Two of the three best players at the tournament – based on personal opinion – were the ultimate team players: Modric and Kante. If this was to be Neymar’s crowning glory, his tournament promised much but delivered far less. This World Cup will not define his reputation, but it certainly dented it.
The pre-final favourite to win the Golden Ball, Mbappe, only really excelled consistently in the last-16 tie against Argentina. He has the face and style to fit such individual recognition, but it was Kante and Modric who made their teams tick.
It was also a tournament that seems – from England at least – to have been played out on a stage of great bonhomie. The World Cup will always exist in WorldCupsville, and the problems of the Russian people will continue long after the Coca-Cola adverts and fan parks have been removed, but almost every supporter you speak to has had a wonderful time. For that alone, Russia and FIFA deserve credit. Shame about 2022, eh.