It had been 20 years. Twenty years and three days, to be precise. Twenty years since French streets filled and the Champs-Elysees transformed into a resplendent sea of humanity, the only apt comparison the liberation of Paris. On Sunday, when Kylian Mbappe struck to put the result of the World Cup final beyond all reasonable doubt, the sequel began.
Twenty years and three days after the most glorious day in French soccer history, the second-most glorious arrived. France won its second World Cup title in style, beating Croatia 4-2.
A tight and tense first half gave way to an explosive second, France’s flamboyant stars running riot. Paul Pogba, oft-derided and underrated, turned on the style and capped a Golden Ball-worthy tournament with a back-to-front beauty. Mbappe, the World Cup’s breakout star, ended Croatia’s improbable run once and for all.
Mbappe hadn’t even been born on that memorable day in 1998, when the 2018 team’s manager, Didier Deschamps, lifted the World Cup. That triumph changed France forever, altering its national identity, bringing a nation closer together than ever before. It remains to be seen whether this one will.
But after they rose to the occasion on the biggest stage of all, one thing is clear: France has a new generation of heroes. They’re the diverse group of players, players of all shapes, colors and sizes, primarily the sons of immigrants, who stormed onto the Luzhniki Stadium field in Moscow at the final whistle; who danced joyously; who clapped along with fans, hoisted Deschamps up into the air, and waved bleu, blanc et rouge flags altogether. They grew up on the ’98 team. Now they’ve emulated it.
And now, 20 years on from its first unparalleled party, France has a second.
France goes ahead against the run of play
The game began with French nerves and intermittent Croatian pressure. It was cagey, as expected. France prioritized defensive solidity and caution, as expected, and as it had all tournament.
And as it had all tournament, it struck out of nowhere.
On one of its few forays into the final third, Antoine Griezmann baited Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic – or, more accurately, the referee – into a foul. There wasn’t zero contact. But Griezmann created it; he fabricated it to frame defender. It should have been a no-call.
Nonetheless, from the ensuing free kick, Griezmann swung in a beauty, at the ideal height to engender indecision. Mario Mandzukic leapt to clear the ball, but instead inadvertently flicked it into his own net:
It came against the run of play. It was somewhat fluky. But it was quintessential France at the 2018 World Cup. It was opportunistic. For the fourth straight game, Les Blues went ahead from a set piece or penalty.
And for the fourth straight game, they seemed to be in control. But this one wouldn’t be quite so simple.
Croatia gets its deserved equalizer
Croatia rightfully drew praise for the way it approached a game of such magnitude. It was fearless. It was the aggressor for much of the first half. And it responded 10 minutes after France’s opener with a clever set piece of its own.
It sent right back Sime Vrsaljko streaking down the right, sprinting into the box late. Luka Modric aimed a looping ball to the fullback at the far post, which Vrsaljko won. Croatia then won the second, third, fourth and fifth balls. Ivan Perisic took a lovely first touch with his right foot at the top of the box, and stung a left-footed drive past Hugo Lloris:
France, though, would hit back again on – you guessed it – another set piece.
Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces – and VAR
It’s been the story of this World Cup: set pieces. The two final openers were dead-ball goals No. 69 and 70 of the tournament. No. 71 put France ahead.
On a play eerily similar to its opening goal against Belgium in the semifinals, France sent a runner darting to the near post. Except this time, Blaise Matuidi whiffed on the header – and that was problematic for Croatia. Ivan Perisic instinctively responded to Matuidi’s miss be bringing his left arm down toward the ball.
Referee Nestor Pitana missed the ball-to-hand contact live. But his video assistant (VAR) sent him to the pitch-side monitor for the first video review in World Cup final history. Pitana came away from it pointing to the penalty spot.
Griezmann converted with ease:
Perisic and Croatia were desperately unfortunate. But VAR worked just as it is supposed to. It was a clear and obvious error on the field – and a clear and obvious handball, to the extent any handball can be. France was back in control.
The French, despite their lead, looked shaky for about 55 minutes. Then one otherworldly Pogba pass snapped them out of their stupor.
Pogba sprung Mbappe down the right with a swerving half-volley, perfectly-weighted. He then continued his run, collected the ball at the top of the box, and at the second attempt extended France’s lead:
A guarded game had been broken wide open. Pogba’s brilliance, it seemed, had lifted Les Bleus over the line, to glory.
Six minutes later, Mbappe made it 4-1.
France, at that point, let its guard down ever so slightly. Or at least Lloris did. His howler gave Croatia a lifeline:
But the French countdown was on. The party back home had an official start time. And it won’t be ending anytime soon.
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More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Here are the top 18 moments of the 2018 World Cup
• Belgium beats England to claim third place
• Why England is here to stay despite disappointing finish
• Slideshow: France, Croatia fans go wild during World Cup final