Russia had been a controversial choice to host the World Cup, but had prepared well for a tournament that covered large distances, but also showed Russia from its best side, despite all the initial misgivings.
France had entered the tournament as one of the pre-tournament favourites, just as they had done two years before at the 2016 Euros, where the team had nevertheless been defeated by Portugal in a very boring final. Manager Didier Deschamps, who had captained France to their 1988 World Cup title most definetly counted with one of the most talented sides in the world: a solid midfield with some of the world’s best midfielders in Manchester United’s Paiul Pogba and the Chelsea’s ever-working genius Ngolo Kanté, as well as Juventus’ experienced Blaise Matuidi. Also defensively the teams stood strong with Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris on goal, behind Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti, and two excellent backs in Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard and Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez. But what was strongest was its attacking prowess, led by the young genious of Paris St. Germain’s Kylian Mbappé, alongside Ateltico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembelé. France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, had even cut out the star striker from Real Madrid, Karim Benzema, amid some controversial rows among players.
France had won a difficult qualification group ahead of Sweden, Netherlands and Bulgaria, but were not impressive in the first round of the tournament: they defeated Australia 1-2, Peru 0-1, to tie Denmark 0-0 in a bore of a match to win the group. In the last-16 France faced a potentially strong Argentina with a shambolic defense in what turned out to be a great match, France won 4-3 with some fantastic goals, and France coming back from being 1-2 down. In the end it was in Kyllian Mbappé’s speed that made the difference, him winning the penalty kick of the first goal, and scoring two other goals to put France in the quarterfinals.
Uruguay were defeated 2-0 on goals by Varane and Griezmann for them to face the best team of the tournament in the semifinals: Belgium. In a strong match with many chances but two great goalkeepers, France won 1-0 on a header by the Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti, and were ready for their first World Cup final since their 2006 defeat to Italy, where they were to face a surprising Croatian side.
Croatia had been at the top of World football since their independence, and had already made it far in the 1998 World Cup, when they reached the semifinals. They were always a team to be reconned with, having a long list of players in Europe’s biggest clubs, and the 2018 squad was no exception: an experienced defense that included Atletico Madrid’s SimeVrsaljko, Sampdoria’s Ivan Strinic and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren, in front of Monaco’s Danijel Subasic in goal. Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Juventus Mario Mandzukic were strong strikers, but the big stars were in midfield, where two of the world’s best midfielders dominated: Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic.
Despite this amazing lineup Croatia had not qualified directly: they had come second to the surprising Iceland (who in 2018 qualified for their first World Cup ever), but had qualified to Russia through a play-off victory over Greece.
Croatia were paired again with Iceland in the first round group, alongside Argentina and Nigeria, and the Croatians cruised through a group that looked difficult: they defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the first match, and completely outplayed Argentina, winning 3-0, in a match where Modric and Rakitic completely tore apart the South Americans. In the last match in Rostov, they defeated Iceland 2-1 and were alongside Uruguay and Belgium the only side to win all their matches in the first round.
In the last-16 Croatia faced Denmark in a very close match that ended 1-1 (with Modric missing a penalty in the dying minutes of extra time), and had to go to penalty kicks, where Croatia proved cooler, winning 3-2.
In the quarterfinals Croatia faced an exciting Russian home-team, who had unexpectedly made it to the quarterfinals after defeating Spain in the last-16. It proved an exciting match, with Denis Cherysev bringing the Russians ahead on a splendid goal, but Croatia equalising through Andrej Krmaric, and then going ahead 1-2 in extra time, before a fighting Russian side equalised in the dying seconds of the match. But as against Denmark, Croatia were the better side from the penalty spot, and were to face England in the semifinals.
There were, as always, huge expectations amid the English fans that they could make their first final since 1966, and probably also a bit of under-estimation of the Croatian side, whose penalty wins were also seen as lucky. And England did indeed start the best, and went ahead after only five minutes, but if anything, Croatia proved that they never give up, and after pressing in the second half equalised through Ivan Perisic, and in extra time Mario MAndzukic gave the Croatians the victory, and their first World Cup final ever.
Against all expectations and in their first World Cup final, Croatia started as the best team dominating possession and controlling the midfield. But as often happens, it was the French who went ahead in what was basically their first attampt: a free kick into the area was touched by Mario Mandzukic head, and the hero of the semifinal had brought France ahead with an own-goal. However, it did not shake the Croatians who deservedly equalized ten minutes later when Ivan Perisic controlled and powerfully shot from the edge of the area.
The 2018 World Cup had been the first to introduce Video Assistance Refereeing (VAR) to help referees in difficult decision. And VAR intervened for the first time in a World Cup final, although not without controversy. During a French corner kick the ball hit Ivan Perisic’s hand; initially the Argentine referee did not make a call, but watching the repeat on the VAR screen, he changed his mind and gave France a penalty kick that Antoine Griezmann scored.
In my opinion it was not a penalty.
2-1 at halftime, and although Croatia came out to play their chance in the second half, France appeared in control and ready to utilize the young Kylian Mbappé’s speed for their counter-attacks. France made it 3-1 by Paul Pogba, and it was indeed Kylian Mbappé who made it 4-1 with a powerful shot from the edge of the area. At only 19 years of age he became the youngest goalscorer in a World Cup final since the legendary Pelé in 1958. While Mbappé was not the revelation of the tournament, he was the tournament’s best young player, and had probably been awarded player of the tournament award had it not been for the brilliant Luka Modric.
With a 4-1 lead the match was effectively over, but France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris decided to give Mario Mandzukic a present but losing control of the ball in front of goal and letting Mandzikic push it into goal. Mandzukic is thus the only player to have scored for both teams in a World Cup final.
4-2 and France were champions for the second time since 1998, but Croatia had been a worthy and dignified finalist, and won many hearts. It was also the first final since 2002 that did not go into extra time, and was thus one of the most special finals in World Cup history, and a worthy final for a great tournament in Russia.
France: Hugo Lloris (c); Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez; Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kanté (Steven Nzonzi, 55), Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi (Corentin Colisso, 73), Olivier Giroud (Nabil Fekir, 81). Manager: Didier Deschamps
Croatia: Danijel Subasic; Slime Vrsalkjo, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic (Marko Pjaca, 81); Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic (Ante Kramaric, 81), Luka Modric (c ); Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic. Manager: Zlatko Dalic