MOSCOW — The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded with a six-goal festival at Luzhniki Stadium. As the game concluded, the rain started hammering down — it may have been a metaphor for both teams. For Croatia, the rain was tears of sadness, but for France, it was tears of joy as Hugo Lloris lifted the 2018 FIFA World Cup trophy into the night sky.
Croatia’s Cinderella story ends
At a tournament full of surprises, Croatia may have been one of the biggest. Croatia drew the world’s attention as it overcame 1-0 goal deficits against Denmark, Russia and England to advance to the World Cup final at the Luzhniki. The run showed it is possible for smaller countries to be competitive at the World Cup.
“My players will be fit for the final,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalić announced to the press last week.
The run, however, had taken its toll.
Pro Soccer USA went to the Vatreni’s final training session ahead of their final against France and keeper Danijel Subašić and attacking midfielder Ivan Perišić were both absent nursing injuries.
Overall, Croatia played 360 minutes of football throughout the knockout stage, a full 90 minutes more than France. Perhaps it was no surprise then that Croatia ran out of steam in the final.
Once again, the opponent took an early lead when Mario Mandžukić scored an own goal in the 18th minute.
Croatia’s Ivan Perišić managed to equalize 10 minutes later, but the Inter Milan forward became a tragic hero when he caused the penalty that would break Croatia’s neck. Perišić handled the ball inside the area, and referee Nestor Pitana used the first-ever video review in World Cup history to judge it an illegal play and award France a penalty kick. Antoine Griezmann stepped up and made it 2-1.
“I wasn’t even sure why there was a review. When the penalty was eventually awarded, I didn’t even think about it being a championship match,” Griezmann later explained to the media.
“We played well the first 20 minutes. Then there was that own goal and then the penalty. Let me say, that you should never give a penalty like that in a World Cup final,” Dalić concluded.
After halftime, Paul Pogba (59’) and Kylian Mbappé (68’) each scored as well for France.
“Four goals were conceded, and you can’t expect a good result after that,” Dalić said. “Against a strong side like France you don’t make mistakes.”
Even when Mandžukić scored Croatia’s second, there was a sense that there was not enough left in the tank for Croatia to come back.
“On our bus, it says we are a small country with big dreams,” Dalić said. “This is a great message for smaller countries at the World Cup. You should never give up. Even at 4-1 down, we didn’t give. Overall we played a great tournament.”
France, deserved champion
France national team head coach Didier Deschamps was often the target of criticism throughout the tournament. Equipe Tricolore are gifted with one of the most talented team in world football.
Up front, the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are some of the most explosive players on the planet. But instead of playing into France’s attacking strengths, Deschamps chose pragmatism – defense over attack was the ideology used by France throughout the tournament.
As a result, France produced the most boring game of the tournament – the matchday 3 group stage match against Denmark (0-0). That game, in particular, was infuriating for fans as France showed its potential against Argentina in the round of 16 – eliminating Lionel Messi’s side with a spectacular 4-3 victory.
What followed was a pragmatic 2-0 victory against Uruguay and a 1-0 victory against Belgium, which left the opponents fuming after France resorted to time wasting.
“I would rather lose with Belgium than win with the France side,” Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said after France’s semifinal victory.
The results, however, brought France to the final where the Equipe Tricolore scored four goals once again. After the fourth goal by Mbappé, France once again turned to defensive football, only occasionally breaking forward.
It was a pragmatic approach that worked and earned France a second World Cup title.
“We saw that some of the best technically teams did not have enough. So yes, it wasn’t always beautiful football. But France are world champions, that is all that matters,” Deschamps said at the postgame press conference.
Critics will now have a tough time arguing against his methods.
Luka Modrić joins list of incomplete World Cup heroes
Croatia star Luka Modrić was voted the player of the tournament. The Real Madrid star had been excellent throughout and carried the Vatreni all the way to the final.
Modrić is a controversial figure back home due to his involvement with Zdravko Mamić, former boss of Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb. Mamić is in exile trying to escape several charges involving racketeering and illegal player transfers, and Modrić made questionable statements at the court proceedings against Mamić. As a result, many Croats refused to celebrate his goals.
That attitude seemed to change at the final. Throughout the game, there were Luka Modrić chants from the Croatia fan block inside the Luzhniki.
“We are glad that Luka Modrić has won the Golden Ball. He played a terrific tournament. It is another commendation for the team. We are very proud,” Dalić said after the match.
The final was perhaps not Modrić’s best game at the tournament. But even then, the Real Madrid playmaker completed 90.3 percent of his passes. Even when Croatia was three goals down, the playmaker did not panic – he continued to keep his side together and was perhaps the only reason why the Vatreni did not completely fall apart after France’s fourth goal.