France registered their second FIFA World Cup title 20 years after with a 4-2 victory over a resilient Croatia in a gripping finale inside Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday.
The young French squad with about 70 per cent of the players boasting African roots of some sort, might not have won many admirers for their way of playing at the June 14 – July 15 tournament, but that mattered little to the 67 million French nationals, many of whom crammed on the Champs-Elysees in Paris after the final whistle to celebrate well into Monday morning and later in the day when the team returned home.
Players receive Legion of Honor
President Emmanuel Macron’s office announced that the victorious players would be awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award for “exceptional service” to the nation, just as then president Jacques Chirac had bestowed on the Zinedine Zidane-inspired France team after their first World Cup triumph on home soil in 1998.
Didier Deschamps, who captained the 1998 winning side and coached the 2018 version, saw his players ride their luck in the first half when Croatia — the second smallest nation with a population of just four million to play in a World Cup final — bossed the game, but proved clinical when they had to in the second half.
A scandalous flop by Antoine Griezmann to win a non-existent foul put his team ahead via an own goal by Mario Mandzukic from Griezmann’s resulting free kick.
And the Croats deservedly pulled level through an Ivan Perisic leveler, only for a controversial VAR (video assistant referee)-assisted penalty from Griezmann to give France a 2-1 lead at half time.
Paul Pogba and 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe put France clear before goalkeeping captain Hugo Lloris gifted Mandzukic a goal through his carelessness.
It was a nightmare of a game for Mandzukic who now holds the unenviable distinction of being the first man to score at both ends in a World Cup final. Conversely, Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele scored twice as a 17-year-old against Sweden in 1958.
First team to score four goals in Finals since 1970
France became the first team to score four times in a World Cup final since Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in 1970 in Mexico, and the highest scoring final since England defeated West Germany 4-2 on home soil in 1966.
France had also eliminated Argentina 4-3 in the round of 16 clash, but these two high-scoring games did not paint a true picture of Les Bleus in the 32-team tournament.
In their remaining five games they managed just six goals, inclusive of two penalties scored by Griezmann, plus another own goal, and a goalkeeping howler against Uruguay.
Deschamps, often criticized for his team’s dour style in his six-year reign despite an array of talented, young and exciting players, thus became the third man in the history of the World Cup to win the trophy as captain and coach after Mario Zagallo of Brazil (1958 and 1970), and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer (1974 and 1990).
On top of the world for next four years
Deschamps and his players can thus be proud of their achievement in Russia, and he had no hang-ups of his pragmatism over style. He told AFP. “Are France beautiful champions? Well, we are world champions and will be on top of the world for four years.”
He added: “I have never seen or experienced a World Cup like this one. There was a leveling off towards the top, and the so-called smaller teams came in so well prepared physically.
“They hurt the countries who I always remember as being the strongest. The teams who had most control in terms of possession were practically all punished by quick attacks.
“In football if you know how to defend well you can be sure that you will get at least two or three chances on the counter-attack or from set-pieces.
“Against Denmark we were not very nice to watch. That would not have been enough had we kept playing like that, but we managed to keep raising our game.”
Well deserved, but not the best
The Russia World Cup has revealed that results in football games are defined by small margins, and in the end Deschamps did it his way and the end result was success. Well deserved, but certainly not the best team in the tournament, but rather the team which benefitted greatest from the half chances and referees’ decisions.
“Africa, not France are the true winners”
Sports and politics don’t often mix but Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro could not help but declare that Africa and not France were the true winners of the greatest show on earth.
He was quoted as saying: “The French team seems like the African team, in reality Africa won, the African immigrants who arrived in France. How much they despised Africa, and in the football World Cup France won the trophy thanks to African players or the sons of Africans.”
The Russia World Cup was a great spectacle, even if not the “greatest ever” as claimed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
The Russian people were fantastic hosts and the show went on seamlessly despite the despicable behavior of some media outlets to tarnish the former communist country’s reputation and its ability to professionally organize the tournament.
It did not work and as the tournament grew towards its end, many visitors saw the media’s hidden agenda for what they really were.
Introduction of VAR
Meanwhile, the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup saw the introduction of VAR for the first time, and although the use of technology in modern sports is welcomed and indeed inevitable, its execution here left a lot to be desired, even if most of the decisions were correct.
The VAR team was meant to constantly check for clear and obvious errors related to four match-changing situations — goals, penalty decisions, red cards and mistaken identity — and communicates with the referee only for clear and obvious mistakes or serious missed incidents.
And the referees received clear instructions on when to accept information from VAR and when to review the video footage on the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action/decision.
On-field review (for interpretation)
- foul committed by attacking player
- offside interference
- foul leading up to penalty
- foul by attacking player
All direct red card incidents
VAR advice only (for factual incidents)
- offside position leading up to goal
- ball out of play leading up to goal
- foul committed inside or outside the penalty area
- ball out of play leading up to penalty
- offside position leading up to penalty
All cases of mistaken identity
These appear to be clear and specific instructions for both the referees and VAR, yet astonishingly, there was repeated misuse of VAR throughout the tournament.
Brazil, victim of VAR
In Brazil’s first game against Switzerland on June 17 in the Rostov Arena, Swiss player Steven Zuber clearly shoved Brazilian defender Miranda out of the flight path of the corner kick before heading home an equalizer in the 50th minute, yet there never seemed to be any communication from VAR to the referee for him to review a foul committed by the attacking player in the lead up to the goal.
Then Brazil suffered again is their second game against Costa Rica on June 22 in St Petersburg when the referee awarded a penalty (albeit a soft one) to Brazil. VAR somehow got involved in a situation in which they had no authority as it was not a clear and obvious error by the referee to award a penalty, nor was it a situation where the foul was committed outside the penalty area, the ball was out of play leading up to the penalty or offside position leading up to the penalty.
There were also a number of penalties in the regular course of games and during shootouts where the goalkeepers made as many as three steps off the goal line to effect saves, which were clear and obvious errors related to goals.
Technology is good and it is here to stay, but the human element has got to be on par with the technology if the game is to progress the way it ought to and deserves.
Let’s hope it will be nearer to perfection by the time the Qatar 2022 World Cup edition comes around.