It was a final that had everything Russia 2018 has been celebrated for, everything it has enthralled us with, except one key ultimately decisive factor: a surprise.
France lifted their second World Cup trophy because Croatia just couldn’t lift themselves that bit further, that bit more, although the end result of 4-2 – making this the highest scoring final since 1966 – was one of many factors that felt so unfair on them.
That was at least the surprise of the game, even if there was nothing surprising about the eventual winners. France were really made to work for this, in a way they haven’t been throughout this World Cup, and in a way that made them look so mortal and often so much less than world champions for the first time. That that happened on the day of glory is ironic, but maybe part of the challenge, part of the journey.
The brilliant finishes by Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe put a real gloss on the victory, both in terms of aesthetics and the score, but they were not when it was won. They were not when this 21st World Cup final was decided.
What really decided it were some of the other elements that defined this World Cup: glorious chaos, VAR, a penalty and some astonishing drama.
It is at least some mercy for all of Croatia and the game that the final moment wasn’t the Antoine Griezmann penalty – and the Ivan Perisic handball – that will now cause such controversy, after referee Nestor Pitana brought it back for VAR review.
That will be debated a lot. What cannot be debated is how Croatia had been the better side up to then, how good they’d been.
This is also the challenge for a country of their size by the time they manage to make it to a game of this size.
Croatia didn’t just stretch the limits of their player pool to get this far, but also the limits of their energy given that they were the first team to play in the World Cup final after three previous knock-out games had gone to extra-time. After those kind of exertions, you need a few things to fall your way, but that was not happening. The opposite was.
Everything was going against them, bar the direction of play. Although Croatia had started the game much the better side, and France didn’t look assured, everyone was still left looking at the latter celebrate the opening goal. Again, almost everything in that went against them, too. It likely wasn’t a foul on Griezmann, Paul Pogba might have been offside, but the ball definitely last hit a Croatian rather than a French player.
That it was the man who put them into the final in Mario Mandzukic made it all the crueller. That at least wasn’t the decisive moment, because Croatia still had enough fight in them, still had the tenacity to fight the fates. That was the story of the goal, though part of it was another pointed detail.
France were actually looking more chaotic at the back than in any game this tournament, with every Croatian cross bringing a rare panic rather than their usual poise. So it was with Luka Modric’s 28th-minute delivery, as that bouncing ball saw Sime Vrsaljko force his way onto it, Mandzukic head it back and then Domagoj Vida help it on… before Ivan Perisic lashed it into the corner from the edge of the box with one of the goals of the World Cup.
Except that just saw something else go against them: this time that VAR decision.
That was really it, though. It wasn’t the last big action of the game, but it was the last time that Croatia really looked and believed like they could pull off the impossible.
It instead just became the stage for France to become football immortals, and that without a display really befitting the status.
Pogba and Mbappe then at least scored goals befitting the status.
There was still one more piece of chaos, as the previously unflappable Hugo Lloris allowed Mandzukic to tackle him for a goal.
It didn’t matter. Neither did the manner of victory.
As Didier Deschamps would well say, with full conviction, all that matters is the victory itself.
This France have that, and now football immortality.