It is France. The new FIFA World Cup Champions. Alle les Blues. After 31 days of madness and 64 matches of drama, football’s greatest trophy returns to the land of Jules Rimet. Finally, Croatia’s immovable object met a force that was just too much, even for their otherworldly grit and determination. The Croatian heroes fell just one step shy of ultimate glory but they can hold their heads high. It was a World Cup final that the world will talk about for decades. An own goal, a controversial penalty goal, a comedy goal and three absolute gems. Everything that this edition of the World Cup has been in short. Let’s look at 5 things we learned from this final.
Hardly any footballer in the world faces even half the amount of criticism that Paul Pogba does. He is hated for his haircut, his hair color, his celebrations, his social media videos, hell even hated for walking on the surface of the planet. The worst part is that he is hated not by just the rival fans but also a small chunk of United supporters too. Pogba was waiting patiently for his moment and it fittingly arrived at this World Cup. He had a very decent season with Manchester United, a quarter of which was cut off by injury. Despite giving the man of the match performances against the big sides like City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs, critics just refused to let him live. Some even questioned his selection in the French squad for Russia 2018. But Pogba kept quiet and worked hard. And all that started to show up right from the very beginning when France faced the Socceroos. France looked lack lustrous in the group stages but Pogba was holding them together and played a key role in all 3 goals that France could muster up in 3 group games. Then in the Round of 16, a certain 19-year-old stole away all the headlines and deservedly so, but the match was decided by the midfield battle, won comfortably by Pogba and Kante. The semi-final against a spirited Belgian side showed another aspect of his game, the defensive side and street smartness. He bullied Dembele to such an extent that Martinez had to haul him off after 50 odd minutes. Then he kept Fellaini in check and helped his team advance to their first final in 12 years. In the final, when the whole world was hoping to see a battle between N’golo Kante and Luka Modric, Paul Pogba stole the show as the other two faded away. No adjectives could do justice to his performance tonight. His range of passing was immense as usual, but the way he controlled the midfield along with Matuidi and N’zonzi showed why United paid 89 million quid for him. His left footer screamer was the first goal scored from outside the box in a world cup final since 1982. It settled the final then and there.
France had probably the most outrageously talented squad of the tournament. Still, they were not considered clear-cut favorites by many. The main reason for this was their past performance in Euros 2016 and their so-called defensive minded manager Didier Deschamps. Even the boring football during the group stages convinced pundits that they will be knocked out of the cup soon. But then came Argentina in the round of 16 and Kylian Mbappe showed what the fuss was all about. His performance that afternoon will be etched in football fans’ memories for generations. He tore apart Messi’s dream for a world cup winners medal as France went toe to toe with the South Americans and knocked them out. But the French faced a different kind of test against a very solid Uruguay side. They did a job on Godin’s men and proved they can win even when they are not at their scintillating best. The semi-final with Belgium was a very tricky fixture. Deschamps had to bring in all of his tactical prowess to play a solid yet pragmatic brand of football and his men repaid the faith by nicking away a gritty 1-0 win to book a place in the finals. This final followed a script that no one could imagine of. 4 goals scored by France, most in any WC final since 1958 when Pele’s Brazil ran riot against the hosts Sweden. Mbappe, the teenager dispatched a belter from 25 yards to become the second teenager to score in a World Cup final. Yeah, you guessed it right. Second only after a certain lad named Pele who was 17 in ’58. A star, a genuine superstar was born in this world cup and if he keeps his feet on the ground and his dreams up in the sky, he can be a true heir to Ronaldo and Messi. For a team of France’s quality, with players like Varane, Umtiti, Kante, Pogba, Griezmann, Giroud and Mbappe, anything less than the gold would have been considered a failure. But Deschamps completed his double. He lifted it himself in 1998, now his men lifted the all-important trophy for him.
Ever since Croatia surprised everyone with their stellar performance in their debut WC in 1998, they were always considered dark horses for the big trophy. But never before this edition, they rose above the shadows of the class of 98. This generation of Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Mandzukic was a golden generation alright, but had to face stiff competition in the form of Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria in Group F. They beat Nigeria comfortably in the first game, but what they did in the second game sent shivers across the footballing world. Thrashing Messi’s Argentina 3-0 guaranteed their places in the knock out rounds. After two grueling 120 minute matches followed by the agony of the penalty shoot-outs in both of them, they reached the semis, only to find England waiting for them. They fell behind again, for the third straight time in 3 knockout games, but then displayed their brave Balkan courage and determination. They outplayed England in the second half and in extra time and set foot in the finals, a feat no one in their history had achieved before. Today, they recovered quickly from an early own goal by Mandzukic, but the fiery French attack in the second half was too much for them. Mandzukic did pull one back from a Lloris howler, but it wasn’t enough as France won 4-2. These Croatian bravehearts, under the leadership of Zlatko Dalic, will be given heroes’ welcome back in Zagreb and their names etched in golden letters in Croatian football history.
It was always predicted that this edition of the FIFA world cup would be remembered for VAR. The Virtual Assistant Referee wasn’t as bad as many predicted it to be and had a success rate of 99.37 %. The first penalty to be given in this edition was awarded to France against Australia. And ironically, even the last one went France’s way as Perisic was deemed to handle the ball from Griezmann’s corner. That decision was a tough one for the ref and many would argue it wasn’t an intentional handball from the Croat. People will talk about this particular incident in the final for many years, but VAR has shown us that it’s here to stay. If the decisions can be more consistent and involve slightly less time to be made, it can turn out to be a fan favorite too.
There was a notion spread out by the media that Russia isn’t a great place for fans around the world to visit during the world cup. It was cited as a nation of racists, neo-Nazis and hooligans who would set out to hurt foreign fans. Then there was an example of Ultras. These were branded as highly violent Russian fans regularly seen around stadiums in large groups looking for fights with other fans and security personnel. And as if it wasn’t enough, they tried selling the instability of Russia under Vladimir Putin to the general public that might cause the World cup to fail. But all these lies were found out and Russia hosted probably the best World Cup in recent memory. There were absolutely no incidents of violence of any kind and all the headlines came from the biggest country in the world was how gentle and caring the locals were and how the Russian football team, ranked lowest at the World Cup defied all odds to reach the Quarterfinals. Common sense prevailed as thousands from across the world, from as far as Peru and Panama in the west to Japan and Australia in the east, flooded Russia and enjoyed the biggest sporting event in humanhistory. Putin succeeded in portraying a clean and respectful image of Russia to the whole world.