David Lee in Russia: France win second World Cup with thrilling 4-2 victory over brave Croatia

France won the World Cup for the second time, ending Croatia's dream of a first title with a 4-2 victory on Sunday in one of the most entertaining and action-packed finals in decades.
The French team celebrate winning the World Cup for the second time – a day after France marked its National Day and on the 20th anniversary of its maiden World Cup triumph.
The French team celebrate winning the World Cup for the second time – a day after France marked its National Day and on the 20th anniversary of its maiden World Cup triumph. PHOTO: REUTERS
Stewards removing pitch invaders during the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018.
Stewards removing pitch invaders during the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018.PHOTO: AFP
France's defender Adil Rami (centre) kisses their World Cup trophy at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018.
France's defender Adil Rami (centre) kisses their World Cup trophy at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018.PHOTO: AFP
France's Kylian Mbappe shoots at goal at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.
France's Kylian Mbappe shoots at goal at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS
France's players lifting the World Cup trophy after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018.
France's players lifting the World Cup trophy after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
France's players celebrating during the trophy ceremony at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018.
France's players celebrating during the trophy ceremony at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on July 15, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
The overjoyed players of France celebrating after beating Croatia and winning the FIFA World Cup 2018 final between France and Croatia, on 15 July 2018.
The overjoyed players of France celebrating after beating Croatia and winning the FIFA World Cup 2018 final between France and Croatia, on 15 July 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - Like the unofficial French anthem by Magic System that blared through the speakers, there was truly magic in the air in the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday (July 15).

France were trumped in almost every statistical department - shots attempted, corners won, number of passes and possession.

But Les Bleus triumphed in the one statistic that mattered most - goals - as they beat Croatia 4-2 for their second World Cup.

In front of 78,011 fans inside the arena and more than a billion viewers globally, this World Cup final ebbed and flowed from end to end in a way that has not been seen in recent deciders.

There were no goals after 90 minutes in the last two finals and you have to go back to 1966 for the last time there were at least six goals scored in a final.

This was a fitting finale to an unpredictable World Cup that featured subplots even Russian spy novelists may not have been able to conjure.

Mario Mandzukic, Croatia’s match-winner in the semi-final against England, opened the scoring in the 18th minute when he headed into his own goal.

Ivan Perisic equalised with a delightful left-footer just 10 minutes later but followed his team-mate’s hero-turned-villain script when he handled the ball in his own area in the 33rd minute.

 
 
 

Referee Nestor Pitana missed the incident, but awarded a penalty after consultation with the video assistant referee (VAR) - the first time that has happened in a World Cup final.

Antoine Griezmann was as cool as ice as he rolled in the spot kick, wrongfooting Danijel Subasic.

The drama was unrelenting even in the second half and it continued to rain goals following the evening shower.

Four pitch invaders also found a way through less than 10 minutes after the restart and it seemed an eternity before they were removed.

That seemed to break Croatia’s concentration after they had again dominated the early exchanges as they had in the first half.

Paul Pogba, who has stepped out of the shadow of his Manchester United imposter in Russia to boss the midfield alongside N’Golo Kante, beat Subasic with a long-range effort in the 59th minute.

The mercurial Kylian Mbappe, 19, followed suit six minutes later and became the first teenager to score in a final since Pele in 1958.

There was still time for Hugo Lloris to raise Croatia’s hopes with a 69th-minute howler when the usually reliable French goalkeeper failed to dribble past Mandzukic and the ball trickled into the net.

But Didier Deschamps’ team did just enough to get the job done against opponents who must have felt the effects of playing 450 minutes in 15 days.

Deschamps, written off as a dull player and coach even though he now joins an elite club – alongside German Franz Beckenbauer and Brazilian Mario Zagallo – to have won the World Cup in both capacities, deserves credit for managing a billion-dollar squad and convincing them to work together for the greater good.

Said the 49-year-old after the match: "“It is really beautiful. It is marvellous. We did not play a great match but we showed a strong mental quality. I am very happy for this team. We are coming from very far and it has not always been easy, but thanks to hard work, they are here and are on top of the world for the next four years."

This was best exemplified by Mbappe, the star who has arrived and perhaps the only one given true freedom in the 4-2-3-1 system, setting the tone as early as the eighth minute when he tracked back to tackle Croatian left-back Ivan Strinic.

“I’m very happy. I was able to show my ambitions and our collective ambition, which was to win. It was a long road, but it was worth while and we are world champions and very proud," said the teenage star, who plays his club football for Paris Saint Germain. "It is the life that we wanted, we are proud to make French people happy.

With a population of only 4.2 million, Croatia have every reason to feel hard done by after winning admirers - most neutrals in the stadium were heard chanting “Hrvatska” – with their fairy-tale run and defiant brand of attacking football.

“We are sad but proud at the same time. We played well but the penalty knocked the wind out of us and after that it was very difficult," said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

“The French did not surprise us, we let in two soft goals coupled with an own goal and a penalty. We wanted to win the World Cup so much but that’s football.”

But France have proved their greatness throughout this victorious campaign by stepping up a gear whenever the need arose.

Time and again during this Cup, the inconsequential 0-0 group-stage draw against Denmark notwithstanding, their team have delivered when it mattered most.

 
 

They were criticised for their workmanlike wins over Uruguay and Belgium in the last two rounds, and there will be those who say they can never compare with the swashbuckling Brazil teams of 1958 and 1970, or even hold a candle to the French class of 1998.

But France are also only the fourth team to score four goals in a World Cup final. As the players ran into the stands to celebrate with their fans, it was clear that this win had a powerful significance.

It didn’t merely exorcise the ghost of their Euro 2016 final defeat by Portugal, it also suggested that they are ready to create a dynasty of their own.