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If anyone expected to tune in to the World Cup final and watch a clinical and professional French victory against a battered, bruised and tired Croatia, how disappointed they must have been.
After 64 matches with only one scoreless draw; amidst upsets, unpredictability and Croatia’s stunning run to the final, the World Cup delivered in spades.
If the finale didn’t bring a smile to your face from go to whoa you are most likely French or Croatian and were far too caught up in supporting your colours. For those of us not too fussed about the ultimate winner, the last day of competition did exactly what it should and entertained from start to finish.
I’m not sure who the script writers were but their sense of drama was spot on, even before the opening whistle.
To whet the appetite, Will Smith was “gettin’ jiggy with it” in the pre-game. Personally, I never in my life expected to see the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as the pre-game entertainment at a World Cup, but there you go.
It was a pre-cursor to some of the unexpected that was to follow and somewhat symbolic of the surprises that had already played out over the last month.
Interestingly, Croatia settled quickly and after fifteen minutes looked far more likely than the French. Clear cut chances aside, the plan was simple. Denying the French rhythm while playing out from the back and turning the ball over in the Croatian attacking third might not be some revolutionary new age strategy.
However, it did appear to catch the French a little on the hop and with the Croatian press prepared to take a rough and tumble approach, it was a physical start to the contest.
With only a brief Kylian Mbappe incision into the box, Les Bleus had little to celebrate early, until an own goal in the 18th minute from the head of Mario Mandzukic.
After the World Cup we have had, there was little chance the writers would allow this final to slip into mediocrity with a disciplined French defensive performance for the next seventy minutes. When the captain of the Croatian submarine bellowed “up Perisic”, Ivan the midfielder was on cue with a stunning strike from distance to equalise in the 28th minute.
The ongoing script was to mess with the minds of many. Perisic was to be one of the key victims of it and when a stray left hand made contact with the sphere in the box, Antoine Griezmann neatly finished from the spot ten minutes later.
It was VAR assisted, and the architects who drew up the storyline were poignant in presenting the technology as efficient, effective and reliable. With so much fear around the world, who could have thought that it would all have worked a treat when needed the most?
It was foreshadowed in the television coverage prior to kick-off. Footage of the toss of the coin, exchange of pleasantries, handshakes all round and then a cut away to the VAR booth. It was almost like some sort of boast from FIFA and they should be pleased in the most part with the contribution of VAR; it was far from a disaster.
With an own goal, a penalty and a stunner from Perisic to flavour the first half, along with a bit of VAR thrown in, the script had everything. Surely that would be enough?
No sir! Paul Pogba’s stunner in the 59th minute was a masterclass in ambidextrous artistry, as his blocked right foot strike was followed by the pure and instinctive use of his left to find the net.
Perhaps the only missing ingredient to that point had been the impact of some new and deliciously exciting youngster, destined to play a key role in world football for the next decade.
Enter Mbappe, who found space outside the area and scored with a low and powerful strike to the keeper’s right.
Now in full swing, the French appeared destined for greatness yet quirkily, Mandzukic found the net for a second time, at the same end, after a goal-keeping catastrophe from Hugo Lloris.
The gloveman must have been looking for a hole in which to hide after failing to tidy up the most simple of scenarios.
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It made for a nervous final 20 minutes for the French and despite Luka Modric doing everything to provide one final restoration of hope to the Croatian cause, it was not to be.
The second half added the genius of Pogba, a goal-keeping howler and the birth of a star to the chaos of the first 45 minutes.
Throw in a pitch invasion by four members of the Pussy Riot protest group and the rather entertaining Nestor Pitana who ‘thumps upped’ his way through the game quite well and every possible box was ticked by those responsible for concocting the storyline.
One day, we might all reflect on the final and say, ‘they don’t write ‘em like that anymore’.
My lasting memory will be Antoine Griezmann; emotional, in tears and shock. Despite notoriety, his contract renewal with Atletico Madrid and considerable personal income, he was overcome.
He had just won the World Cup in the most incredible of finals and when all is said and done, that is what it was all about.