When a relatively young and inexperienced France squad left for Russia looking for the country’s second Fifa World Cup crown, there was no doubt about the kind of talent they possessed. Didier Deschamps had brought together a bunch of skilled youngsters who could mesmerise any opponent on their day but doubts persisted over their ability to soak in pressure when it mattered.
For instance, former defender William Gallas had spoken about the absence of leader in the run-up to the tournament and the bookmakers had listed France only as the fourth favourites behind Brazil, Germany and Spain. “I didn’t have their quality when I was their age, but can you win the World Cup with only young players? I’m not sure,” the former French star had said.
Oh, how the French team proved him wrong.
By the time the Les Bleus reached the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the summit clash against surprise finallist Croatia on June 15, 2018, they were well and truly the favourites.
Luka Modric’s Croatia had shown a never-say-die attitude to overcome hosts Russia and former champions England in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. But the French had simply raised the bar since beating Argentina in a seven-goal thriller in the opening knockout round.
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That 4-3 win over the Lionel Messi’s Argentina had definitely given Deschamps’ boys the belief that they can overcome any opponent in their quest for glory and from there on they played like champions, beating Uruguay 2-0 and Belgium 1-0 to make it to their third World Cup final.
But then, even the best do need a bit of luck to fulfill their destiny and France definitely had the rub of the green going their way, not once but twice in the final. And they were too good a team to let that advantage slip.
Croatia began strong, knowing well that they could ill afford to hand over the initiative to the Frenchmen, who not only could launch scathing attacks on the opposition citadel but were very difficult to breach while defending.
Croatian centre forward Mario Mandzukic had the ignominy of going into the history books as the first player to score an own goal in a World Cup final in the 18th minute. But Modric and his team had come back after conceding first thrice in the tournament, and it looked like they were at it again when Ivan Perisic found the back of the net with a scorcher.
However, it was another first – technology intervention in a World Cup final – that went France’s way just before half time. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana spent considerable time studying Perisic’s handball inside the box as his hands were sticking out when the ball struck. But it was difficult to ascertain if the ball was headed towards goal or any other French player.
Pitana finally pointed to the spot after watching the VAR replay and Antoine Griezmann slotted home with ease to put the champions ahead once again.
France was definitely the better team in the second half as Paul Pogba and then Kylian Mbappe, who became the first teenager since Pele to score in the World Cup final, put the result beyond doubt with clinical finish skills.
Croatia needed Deschamps to withdraw the industrious N’Golo Kante to finally breach the French defence again with the Les Bleus’ custodian Hugo Lloris guilty of holding on to the ball far too long for Mandzukic to pounce on.
The mistake, however, did little to kill the euphoria in the French camp as they won the highest scoring final since the 1966 summit clash between England and West Germany. In the process, Deschamps became only the third person to win a World Cup trophy as a player and coach.
The 51-year-old, who was the captain of the 1998 World Cup winning team, credited the mental make up of his players for the triumph.
“As you know, we had a very, very young group because 14 of them were on a discovery journey in the World Cup. But the quality was there and that was it. My greatest source of pride is that my players managed to have the right source of mind for such a tournament,” he said soon after the triumph.
Indeed, the skilled youngsters showed they are mentally strong enough to win the global title at the end of what was a fantastic tournament.
Watch the highlights of the magic moments in 2018 here.
Bonus viewing: You can watch the official film of the 2018 Fifa World Cup here.