As it turns out, lifting the World Cup isn’t so much a matter of winning games as it is not losing them. If that sounds void logically, you needn’t look past the newly crowned world champions France for the evidence.
While fabulously gifted, the French rarely flashed their true ability in Russia. They did so for half an hour against Argentina in the Round of 16. And they did it for a brief spell once Croatia was already behind in Sunday’s final, running up the score to 4-2.
When Les Bleus briefly went behind early in the second half against the Argentines – the only real trouble they ran into all World Cup – they responded with their best half hour by far, quickly smashing in three goals. Then they went back to cruising on through on autopilot and the game really wasn’t as close as the final 4-3 score suggested.
All tournament long, the French did just enough, sitting in and defending small leads. Nobody in the tournament had as much firepower, as much speed, as much scintillating young talent. But manager Didier Deschamps chose not to make use of it, relying on his rock-solid defensive block instead, and coasting on whatever goals his team stumbled on.
France ambled through the group stage with a VAR-assisted victory over Australia, a narrow win over Peru and a listless 0-0 with Denmark. After the Argentina game, it suffocated an out-of-sorts Uruguay. And then it got a single goal against Belgium in the semifinal and rode it out by bunkering into its own box.
On Sunday, of course, the French lifted their second World Cup, a final won on an own goal and a penalty. The former resulted from a very soft free kick given to Antoine Griezmann, headed behind his own goalkeeper by Mario Mandzukic. The latter was awarded via VAR and was possibly even softer, from a slight, unintentional and naturally positioned handball on Ivan Perisic – who had equalized for Croatia just 10 minutes earlier. France only added the insurance goals once Croatia had opened up its lines in search of an equalizer.
Les Bleus, then, were never punished for their largely passive approach to the final, making a start so lax against the fiery Croatians that they almost looked disinterested in winning this thing. They were outshot 7-1 in the first half – and outpossessed 61 percent to 39 – yet got two goals and a lead they would never relinquish.
Attacking-third touches in the first 10 minutes…
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) July 15, 2018
Yet, in this century, that’s how World Cups are won.
Four years ago, Germany hardly set the Brazilian final alight. It hammered Portugal 4-0 in their opener and gave the home team a famous 7-1 beating in the semifinals. That’s what everyone remembers. But other than those performances, Die Mannschaft tied Ghana, barely beat the U.S. 1-0, and then only vanquished Algeria in extra time, France by a score of 1-0 and Argentina in another session of extra time in the final. In five out of their seven games, the Germans didn’t exactly dominate.
Go back another four years, to South Africa, and a mighty, almost mythical Spain won all four of its knockout games 1-0 – and didn’t get its winner over the Netherlands in the final until extra -time. La Roja even lost their opener against Switzerland.
In 2006, Italy needed a 95th-minute penalty to knock out Australia in the Round of 16. It rolled over Ukraine in the quarterfinals but then needed extra time to overcome Germany and lifted the trophy by beating a 10-man France on penalties.
How about 2002? Same story, more or less. Brazil, while playing attractive and attacking soccer, only beat Belgium after the Red Devils were denied a valid goal. England was defeated on a David Seaman howler. The Brazilians squeaked by Turkey 1-0 to reach the final, and capitalized on a once-a-decade mistake by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn for the World Cup-winning goal.
The last winners before that? France, which won its knockout games in extra-time, on penalties and by a single goal – against Croatia, in the semifinal – before sweeping Brazil aside 3-0 in the final.
It takes a certain kind of cynicism to win the World Cup. Nobody likes to admit it, but even the most feted of champions get there by not losing, rather than winning. Deschamps understands this. He captained the last – and only other – France team to win it. He grasped from the start that the margins would be so thin, the peril of elimination so big at every turn, that risk was to be avoided at all cost, rather than taken in the name of pleasing soccer.
To Deschamps, all those attacking weapons gave him the liberty defend, rather than the other way around. It’s why he started a striker in Olivier Giroud who was hardly his best and hopelessly out-of-scoring form. But who put in a strong pressing shift and gave his team an outlet when it occasionally transitioned out of all that defending.
Having some of the quickest forwards in Griezmann and the electric 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, and one of the best connectors in Paul Pogba, meant that Deschamps could count on them to find a goal when he needed it. Others might have opted to unleash their attacking dominance to win beautifully and perhaps comfortably. So when Croatia seized control of the game in the second half, threatening to make yet another comeback, Deschamps didn’t panic. He’s too pragmatic for that.
Instead, he waited and was rewarded with a moment of individual skill from Pogba, who put the game away on the hour mark. And then, with Croatia long-since defeated, Mbappe whacked in a fourth. A routine back-pass to French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris led to a bad mistake, as he tried to dribble past Mandzukic, who poked it away from him and into the net. But it didn’t matter.
In the end, none of it matters other than who is holding that golden statuette aloft.
When your nation is carved onto the World Cup’s list of winners, the methods employed to get there are largely forgotten in the highlight reels, the soft-focus documentaries and the jubilant coffee-table books.
The score in this final will make France look like good and worthy winners. And indeed, Les Bleus probably were the best team at this World Cup, even if they rarely played like it. It was seldom pretty but it always worked.
France has won a second World Cup, and that’s all anybody will remember.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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