Energetic, disciplined and clinical, France won the World Cup on Sunday with a 4-2 victory over Croatia that, even in such a moment of achievement, still left the feeling there may be much more to come from Didier Deschamps’ outstanding young team.
With key talent Kylian Mbappe just 19 years old and the second youngest squad in the tournament, this triumph could be the start of a memorable era for French football.
Deschamps was lambasted for being over-functional, even boring, two years ago when France lost to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final in Paris but his critics will be silent now.
While he has remained a coach who focuses on creating a solid organisational structure, this time he had the additional threat of Mbappe’s pace and skill to go with the cleverness of Antoine Griezmann and the physical presence and positional awareness of Olivier Giroud.
This is not the France of 1984, the European champions with the creative genius of Michel Platini and Jean Tigana and it is a less expressive team than the 1998 World Cup winners dominated by the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane.
It is, however, a thoroughly modern team, with technically accomplished young players, a distinct identity and no obvious weak points.
“We did not play a huge game but we showed mental quality. And we scored four goals anyway. They deserved to win,” Deschamps said and it was hard to argue.
Their triumph is indeed fully deserved – there simply was no better all-round team than France in this tournament.
Having topped their group, they revealed their counter-attacking flair and the thrill of Mbappe in beating Argentina 4-3 but games which truly showed their character were the expertly-managed quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Uruguay and an excellent Belgian team.
France were not at their best in the final, with Croatia enjoying the better of the possession for long stretches and their defence struggled at times against the directness and speed of winger Ivan Perisic.
It was an own goal and a harshly-awarded penalty, after video review, that put Deschamps’ side in front but once Paul Pogba had driven in the third and Mbappe added a superbly-taken fourth, the title was in their grasp.
Impressively, they won the final without a major contribution from Ngolo Kante, their defensive anchor and the best protector of a back-line in the game, who has formed such an excellent partnership with Pogba in the centre of the field.
Kante was booked in the 27th minute and wasn’t his normal self afterwards but the strength in depth available to Deschamps was evident when he was able to bring on the always reliable Steven Nzonzi in the 55th minute.
With Nzonzi dominating central midfield France were stronger and their last two goals coming after that switch.
As he has done throughout this tournament, Pogba played with great tactical discipline in a largely defensive role but still managed to pop up with the crucial goal to make it 3-1 in the final.
But the player who captures the imagination in this team is without doubt Mbappe, whose terrifying pace sometimes masks his excellent touch and skill.
With experience, his decision-making will improve and he should be an even bigger threat in the 202 European Championship.
The relative youth of the France side is no guarantee of improvement and they will need to show they same kind of hunger and desire that Croatia have shown throughout the tournament.
But it is hard not to feel that Deschamps’ side have another gear available to them and are capable of something really special if they need to.
Argentina and Croatia both pushed France hard and both ended up conceding four goals.
That truly is the stuff of champions.
FIVE MEMORABLE MOMENTS
* No room for Lionel Messi in this list, but Cristiano Ronaldo bags a spot with some individual brilliance that will live long in the memory.
Having led Spain twice, but trailing 3-2 in the dying minutes of their opening group game, Portugal won a free kick from 25 yards out.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man … Ronaldo hitched his shorts up to Y-front proportions and nailed it, smashing and curling the effort past David De Gea to complete his hat-trick.
* Perhaps predictably, the world’s most expensive footballer, Neymar, would be expected to claim one of the more memorable moments of this World Cup. Maybe not like this, though. While the Brazilian did come in for some tough tackling during the tournament, his over-the-top histrionics, swan-like dives, howls, and gravity-defying spins and rolls along the ground left pundits and commentators chuckling, and launched a thousand social media memes.
* There was an element of farce to South Korean Son Heung-min’s goal against champions Germany, but the sheer weight of its impact ensures his strike wins a place in this list.
The Germans had not been eliminated in the opening round for 80 years, but in the dying seconds of a dramatic night in Kazan, that is precisely what happened.
Germany had pushed everybody, including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, forward in search of an equaliser allowing Son to sprint onto a long clearance and roll the ball into an empty German net, consigning them to bottom spot in their group.
Adding to the piquancy of the moment, the South Koreans celebrated crazily, in the mistaken belief their victory would see them reach the Last 16, when in fact Sweden and Mexico advanced from that group.
* Everybody knew that England could not win penalty shootouts at World Cups – they had last lost all three previous World Cup deciders (1990, 1998 and 2006) not to mention losing three out of four in European Championships.
So when Colombia equalised in injury time, and the sides were still deadlocked after extra-time, the smart money was on the South Americans to reach the quarterfinals. It had looked like ‘same ole, same ole’ when Jordan Henderson’s spot kick was saved by David Ospina, but Mateus Uribe hit the bar and Jordan Pickford saved from Carlos Bacca, leaving Eric Dier to squeeze the decisive penalty home and send England through.
* Russia. Not one moment, but two. Ranked an embarrassing 70th in the world at the start of the tournament, and coming into it on the back of a nine-month winless run, tension hung over the World Cup opening match like a shroud. Never mind that the opponents were lowly Saudi Arabia, this match had the potential for host humiliation. Instead, the Russian side smashed through their visitors, storming to a 5-0 victory paving the way for an unlikely qualification from their group. Had qualification seemed unlikely, what came next was extraordinary, as the Russians beat mighty Spain in a penalty shootout which created a new hero out of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev who saved two spot kicks.
FIVE BEST WORLD CUP GOALS
* Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal 3-3 Spain, Group B, Sochi Ronaldo had already struck twice in this early thriller between two European titans but typically he made sure he had the final say with a sensational free kick which fizzed over the wall and dipped down into the net, completing a hat-trick for the five-times world player of the year.
* Ahmed Musa, Nigeria 2-0 Iceland, Group D, Volgograd The striker conjured an outrageous piece of skill to control a cross into the area, sending it spinning into the air and leathering it into the net on the half volley to give his side a surprise lead, which he later doubled with another impressive strike.
* Benjamin Pavard, France 4-3 Argentina, Round of 16, Kazan France were trailing 2-1 to Argentina and heading out until the relatively unknown Pavard caught sight of Lucas Hernandez’s wayward cross, leant back and struck the ball first time with the outside of his right boot, giving it irresistible top spin which took it bey
ond the reach of Argentina’s outstretched goalkeeper Franco Armani, putting his side back on track.
* Kevin de Bruyne, Brazil 1-2 Belgium, quarter-final, Kazan
Belgium’s crucial second goal in their triumph over the five-times winners was sparked by a storming run through midfield by Romelu Lukaku and finished off with a deadly arrowed shot by De Bruyne into the far bottom corner, leaving Brazil on the rocks just as halftime approached.
* Denis Cheryshev, Russia 2-2 Croatia AET (Croatia win on penalties), quarter-final, Sochi
Cheryshev had made a name for himself by fuelling Russia’s explosive run in the tournament and he delivered again with the most impressive of all his strikes to break the deadlock in their biggest game, skipping past one defender outside the area and just as two more approached, sent the ball flying high into the net with a scorching strike.
FIVE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS
* Lionel Messi. The Argentine’s fourth World Cup, and probably his hopes of winning the game’s greatest prize, ended in disappointment in the Round of 16 loss to France.
One magnificent goal against Nigeria, a missed penalty against Iceland and two assists as Argentina chased the game against France were the most memorable moments of an otherwise forgettable tournament for one of the world’s great players.
* Africa. For the first time since 1982, not a single African side made it out of the group stage.
Senegal came closest, falling behind Japan in Group H because of their disciplinary record but no sense of grievance at that outcome can disguise a hugely disappointing showing from the five representatives of the continent.
* Asia. Asia’s five teams at least got some wins on the board, something the continent’s representatives conspicuously failed to do in Brazil four years ago, but only Japan managed to get out of their group.
The Blue Samurai came within a whisker of giving Asia their first quarter-finalists since the continent first hosted the tournament in 2002 before Belgium came from two goals down to knock them out with a last-gasp Nacer Chadli strike.
* Germany. Even if fellow heavyweights Spain and Brazil also failed to get to the business end of the tournament and defending champions going out in the group stage has become a trend at World Cups, Germany’s exit was particularly humiliating.
They needed a late Toni Kroos strike against Sweden just to stay alive until their final group match, where South Korea delivered a 2-0 coup de grace that left the Germans bottom of a group they would have expected to dominate.
* Nikola Kalinic. The AC Milan striker’s tournament lasted five days before he was sent home for refusing to come on as a substitute in Croatia’s first game against Nigeria, saying he had a back problem. Coach Zlatko Dalic said he had used the same excuse in a previous friendly and to skip training.
In his absence, Croatia went on to get to the final for the first time, guaranteeing the remaining 22 players a place in the country’s sporting pantheon. The phrase “Don’t be like Nikola Kalinic” went viral on social media.