When the decisive blows arrived it was the entire French squad in the victory scrum by the corner flag. Hugo Lloris, the France goalkeeper, had run the entire length of the pitch. All the substitutes were disappearing under one another. There were even a few members of the backroom staff contemplating joining in, and who could blame them? France were on their way to their second World Cup and a party was already underway behind the goal where the tricolours were fluttering.
Not even Croatia, with all their powers of durability, could recover from the second-half goals that Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé scored in quick succession to open up a three-goal lead and ensure France will soon be wearing a shirt with two stars, rather than one, above their cockerel. Didier Deschamps has become only the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager, standing alongside two giants of the game in Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer. Mbappé is a world champion at the age of 19 and, in the end, the embarrassing lapse from Lloris to let Mario Mandzukic pull one back for Croatia will not matter greatly.
France should be thought of as deserving champions, too, bearing in mind their assured performances throughout the tournament and any team that scores four times in a final is entitled to feel euphoric. That, however, told only part of the story and it was difficult not to sympathise with Croatia bearing in mind the narrative of the first half in particular, when Mandzukic scored an own goal and France were awarded a penalty because of a borderline VAR decision that will always polarise opinion.
Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, has promised us his team would take defeat with dignity and his players kept to it in trying circumstances. Even at 4-1 down they refused to wave the white flag of surrender, rousing themselves for one last push after Mandzukic had punished Lloris’s slackness.
Croatia had begun this final as though affronted by the suggestion France were widely assumed to be the favourites. But the luck went against them in the key moments of the first half when the game took shape, starting when Marcelo Brozovic was penalised for an alleged foul on Antoine Griezmann in the build-up to the opening goal.
So many goals have been scored from set-plays in this World Cup but none has carried such significance or been shrouded in so much misfortune.
Mandzukic was jumping between Pogba and Raphael Varane, straining to clear Griezmann’s cross, when the ball skimmed off the top of his head, eight yards from his own goal. His attempt to help out in defence had gone horribly wrong. There was nothing Danijel Subasic, Croatia’s goalkeeper, could do and France were ahead before any of their own players had managed a single attempt at goal.
It was the 53rd own goal in the history of the World Cup – going all the way back to a Mexican player, Manuel Rosas, doing the same against Chile in 1930. Nobody, however, had done it before in a final and presumably Rosas did not have to suffer the indignity, as Mandzukic did here, of the public announcer letting everyone know who was to blame.
Another side might have wilted. Except, of course, we should know enough about Croatia by now not to be surprised by their reaction. Ten minutes later, N’Golo Kanté became the first player to be booked. Luka Modric floated the free-kick to the far post and Ivan Perisic was waiting on the edge of the penalty area, anticipating where the ball might eventually arrive. Domagoj Vida turned the ball back to his teammate and the expertise in Perisic’s first touch opened up the chance to take aim. He let fly with a left-footed, diagonal shot that flew past Lloris at speed.