How else could the wildest, most unpredictable and entertaining World Cup in recent memory end, but with the wildest, most unpredictable and entertaining final?
That France won, beating Croatia 4-2, wasn’t unexpected. France had been among the favorites when the tournament started a month ago. But virtually everything else that happened Sunday at a sold-out Luzhniki Stadium was a surprise.
There was a penalty-kick goal following the first video review ever in the final, an own goal and a bizarre score that came after France keeper Hugo Lloris gave the ball to Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic just a few yards from his own net.
But when the dust had settled, France had won the highest-scoring final since 1966 and collected its second World Cup in 20 years. And even for the winners who came in favored, that was proving a lot to wrap their heads around.
“I don't really realize yet what it is. The World Cup, it's a lot," forward Antoine Griezmann said. "I'm very proud of this team. I’m going to be in the history of French football. With my team.”
Added coach Didier Deschamps, the third man to win a World Cup as a player and a coach: “We will realize what has happened tomorrow and in the following days. At the moment they don’t really know what’s going on, they don’t know what it is to be world champions.
“From tonight they are going to be different. There’s nothing above [this].”
The last three World Cup finals were all conservative games decided in extra time or penalty kicks. Sunday’s game broke from that tradition in a big way with Mandzukic opening the scoring in the 18th minute by inadvertently heading a free kick from Griezmann into his own net.
It was the 12th own goal of the tournament and the first in a World Cup final. It was also the earliest goal in a final since Zinedine Zidane scored for France on a penalty kick seven minutes into the 2006 title game.
But Croatia needed only 10 minutes to get the equalizer with Ivan Perisic gathering a ball at the top of the penalty area, making a nice fake to escape the mark of France’s N’Golo Kante, then blasting a left-footed shot into the bottom right corner for his second goal in as many games.
Perisic gave the goal back 10 minutes later, though. Defending on a Griezmann corner kick, Perisic saw the ball skim the back of French midfielder Blaise Matuidi and hit him in the hand before going out of bounds. Argentine official Nestor Pitana was screened on the play but after consulting with the video assistant referees, he looked at a replay and awarded the penalty, which Griezmann converted for the 22nd penalty-kick goal of a tournament, good for both a World Cup record and a 2-1 lead.
“In a World Cup final you do not give such a penalty,” Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic said. “But it in no way diminishes France’s win. I have to congratulate my players for this game, maybe the best game we played.
“What we had in terms of luck in this tournament we lacked today. Especially in terms of the first two goals.”
For Croatia, which had rallied from deficits in its three previous knockout-stage games to win in extra time, there would be no more comebacks. Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe made sure of that, expanding France’s advantage with goals six minutes apart early in the second half.
Croatia’s only response was a gift from Lloris, whose bungled first touch after receiving a back pass put the ball right on Mandzukic’s foot, setting up an easy shot at the unattended net.
France joins Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Uruguay as the only countries to win the World Cup more than once. And there could be more titles on the horizon. Mbappe, 19, who was named the tournament’s best young player, is on the verge of superstardom and six of the 11 players France started Sunday are younger than 26, meaning they likely have at least one more World Cup together as a group.
“I had a very young group. But the quality was there and that was it,” Deschamps said.
When the final whistle sounded, giving France that title, the players gathered at one end of the field, hugging beneath a confetti shower, taking endless selfies and congratulating one another on making good on the pre-tournament predictions that called them the favorites. Some players accepted flags from fans and set off on victory laps around the pitch.
At the other end Dalic pulled his team into a tight circle where, arms around one another’s shoulders, they celebrated an improbable underdog journey that brought them to the final undefeated. Behind them thousands of Croatian supporters cheered as if their team had won.
“We were all sad, downcast. But I told them: ‘Hold your heads up high. We have given our all and you have to be proud of this tournament,’” he said. “If someone had offered us second place before the tournament started, that would have been fantastic. You have nothing to be sad about.”
Then Dalic, coach of the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final in 68 years, shared one of the things he said motivated Croatia throughout the tournament.
“On our bus there is a slogan: ‘A small country with big dreams,’” he said. “That’s a good message to all. If you work hard [with] good players you can produce a result. But you have to have a dream first of all. And ambitions. And follow those dreams and ambitions.