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Strike up La Marseillaise and Parade Down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, France are World Champions Again!

July 16, 2018

What a game. What a World Cup! I’ll let my diary entry speak for itself, then share some parting thoughts on what transpired over the last two fortnights.

7/15

The Final

France 4:2 Croatia – France’s Flair vs. Croatia’s Flare was a fitting finale to this World Cup. Both teams overcame tentative starts to produce a spectacle, trading menacing attacks and moments of brilliance in a highly entertaining match. Antoine Griezmann dove to draw the free kick that resulted in France taking the lead from Mario Mandzukic’s autogol in the 18th, and the refs were taken by it. I’ve seen worse dives not called, but I understand the complaints from Croatian fans and neutral observers about the unfortunate circumstances that led to that own-goal. On the other hand, I am fine with the hand ball call on Ivan Perisic in the 34th, it was deliberate to me even as it was well disguised. Ask yourself this question: Where would that corner kicked ball have landed had Perisic not moved his hand into the path of the ball? I mean, the ball was two feet away from Perisic while his hand was not in the path of the ball, and within a split second he handles it. The only issue I had with those proceedings were that it took almost five (5) minutes from that corner kick to the penalty that Griezmann easily put away to put France ahead for good. Croatia’s goal that had tied the game in the 28th was a screamer, and might have been the best taken goal of the day as Inter Milan’s Perisic had become as important to Croatia as any of his more famous teammates. Overall, Croatia had the better of the play in the 1st Half and the worse of the luck going into their locker room down a goal. A wild 2nd Half ensued. In the 52nd, the game took a pause as World Cup security forces failed to keep members of Russian political performance artists Pussy Riot from rushing the field. France’s “subliminal” N’Golo Kante came off the field in the 55th for the first time in this tournament, his yellow card in the 27th minute for clipping Perisic’s heels to me a bit harsh and arbitrary, nevertheless hampering the French defenses in midfield to that point, but Steven Nzonzi deputized well. Paul Pogba in the 59th earned his moment, breaking the game open with a thunderstrike that caught Croatian goalie Danijel Subasic unsighted and wrong-footed. Six minutes later, Kylian Mbappé became the first teenager to score in a World Cup Final since Pelé at Sweden 1958, rifling a shot from 25 yards out to put Les Bleus up 4-1 and sewing up his inevitable Best Young Player Award.  Hugo Lloris, heretofore the best “sweeper keeper” at this World Cup, relinquished that title with one clumsy touch, Super Mario applying the pressure and the scoring touch for his own team this time in the 69th to keep things interesting, but the Croatian Sensations’ reality of falling short of glory was inescapable. Raketic’s pratfall in the 83rd reacting to having to restart a free kick was emblematic of Croatia’s frustration with the referee, the game and their fate. Croatia was Team Heart And Soul in Russia, but I’d be dishonest if I said they didn’t look a half-step slow in the 2nd Half, the toll of all that extra time played that would never be offered as an excuse by Zlatko Dalic’s charges, but nonetheless remains true. Having more of the possession does not necessarily mean you had the better of the play the whole match; Croatia were clearly outclassed when it mattered. As a friend said to me afterwards, Second Place in the World isn’t too bad for a country smaller than Greater Metro Phoenix, Arizona. Luka Modric was the deserving Golden Ball winner, cementing a legacy as one of the finest midfielders of his generation, while bigger clubs need to sign players such as Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Domagoj Vida (Besiktas). How Pogba didn’t score in the 93rd is beyond me, but that just would have been window dressing. The final whistle blew, and Moscow’s skies opened up shortly thereafter, making for quite the rain-soaked celebration. Les Bleus are World Cup Champions for the second time in their burgeoning soccer history, and deservedly so as the unequivocally best team in Russia, winning the trophy precisely because they became as much, if not more than, the sum of their talented and resolute parts.

French Manager Didier Deschamps joins Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as the only three men to captain their sides to World Cup Titles as a player and as a manager. Some observers would characterize Deschamps’ tactics in France’s unbeaten run through this tournament as more pragmatic than dynamic, but I find that a bit unfair, and difficult to say a team was “pragmatic” when they were the second-highest scoring team of the tournament (behind Belgium) and scored four (4) goals in the World Cup Final, while nearly half of the World Cup games (31 of 64) involved teams that couldn’t score one goal.

Efficient and cagey might be better descriptions, as France were talented, committed and disciplined enough to beat you with their game or at your own game. This was the France I expected to see all tournament long, the team I picked to win it all beforehand, a choice I no longer regret (proof that you can’t put too much stock in the first game of a tournament), made possible in large part because Pogba and Mbappé rose to the occasion as  everyone expected. And, with the second-youngest roster at this World Cup – 15 of the 23 players on the World Cup roster were under the age of 26, and surely Kante and Griezmann (both 27) have another World Cup in them, not to mention a phalanx of young stars who missed this tournament due to injury, or were just left home – they may have only just begun, conjuring the next footballing dynasty before our very eyes. Allez Allez!

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From → Soccer, Sports

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