….told you Croatia hadn’t played anyone.
By all rights I should be apologizing yet again for another World Cup prediction botch. One-nil, as it turned out, was not the correct call. Should have bet the over.
The story of how I watched the game was, sadly, not very insightful or interesting. I’d hoped to catch the final at a “sportspub” – literally, that’s what the business calls itself. I arrived to find a sign advertising dollar beers during FC Cincinnati games…and locked doors. I mean, I’m an Amerisnob MLSupremacist, sure, but what does it say when the newly-promoted USL-to-MLS team rates the lighted sign and the World Cup final isn’t worth getting up early for?
It was probably a different story downtown, but any idiot can join a party at Fountain Square! I wanted to mix with the people!
Right up until I didn’t. One wise-looking gentleman declared his preference for France, because Croatia killed a lot of Muslims when they became a new country. At least, I think he said he was supporting France on that basis. I may have misheard, but I had zero interest whatsoever in correcting that misapprehension. But this is the sort of thing that does take the fun out of supporting a World Cup team for literally no reason. Countries kill people, that’s why they’re called countries. If you stopped cheering for a country because of who they killed, you'd be left with no countries to cheer for, and probably not that many clubs, while we're at it.
Same guy also came up with the theory that the team that has more possession wins. So that cheered us up.
Lest you think that my little suburb is uneducated in the ways of the beautiful game. I overhear the guy in the Budweiser T-shirt next to me say to his girlfriend "the goalkeeper can use his hands," and I immediately assume these two are blessedly unenlightened. But no! He was explaining the backpass rule.
One of the truly wonderful things about soccer is how it brings people together. This is not one of those stories. At least the game was great!
So, uh, remember when I said Croatia was crummy and France was going to overwhelm them with their class and style? Oops! I swear to God, as soon as the replay showed that Griezmann had faked his way to the free kick, I said out loud "Here comes a goal." World Cup finals tend to parcel out quality with injustice in roughly equal measures, and it looked like Griezmann followed up his knavery with beauty.
Nope! Poor Mario Mandzukic. Delighting us by diving into the photographer at the semifinal, and just a tad unlucky with the bounce this time around.
In an even more cruel world, it would have stayed 1-0, and Mandzukic would have gone from semifinal hero to final goat. Not greatest of all time, goat, the more traditional definition. But by golly, Croatia bailed him out!
I feel like I should at this point link to a wonderfully written, clear, and expertly explained account of the final by Neil Blackmon, one that I completely disagree with. If I may paraphrase for you too lazy to click, individual French brilliance overcame Croatia's higher quality and Didier Deschamps' botched coaching.
You can say Croatia should have gone into halftime 1-0 to the good, and have a very good case. Four years ago, they would have at least gone in 1-1. We will debate until the heat death of the universe whether it really should have been a penalty, I suppose. But we would have done that anyway. For the first time in World Cup final history, a referee consulted the video, and reversed his call. Croatia probably won't be the last victim of this – I tend to think the correct call was eventually made. And hey, somebody had to be first. Just like somebody had to give up the first own goal in a World Cup final. It just was Croatia's bad luck to be on the wrong end.
Whether the game would have gone differently if Croatia had been ahead, or even tied, is, unlike Barbie, beyond our ken.
What we do know is what happened afterwards.
Guys, it was a mugging. If we had known Sunday morning that N'Golo Kanté would be completely ineffective, committing a yellow card foul leading to one Croatian goal, and that Hugo Lloris' head would go completely on walkabout handing Croatia another, we would have assumed France was going to lose comprehensively. Even after the fact, you'd never know from reading that Croatia was the first team to give up four goals in regulation at a World Cup final since 1958. (Also the last time a teenager scored. I forget his name, but I think he ended his career in the NASL.) France took Cinderella to Miller's Crossing. It was a nearly identical plan to what frustrated and defeated Belgium - it just shakier on defense. Kanté will look back on this tournament with joy, and he's a deserving world champion, but he was a liability against Croatia, and I don't think anyone, least of all Croatia, saw that coming.
It also looked to me like Croatia, after all, was exhausted. They had one fewer day's rest and had played what amounted to an entire extra game in the knockout rounds. To everyone's considerable credit, no one has brought that up as an excuse, so it's tempting for me to exclude it entirely. If fatigue was not a factor, thought, something was, because I don't remember a World Cup final switching in momentum nearly so drastically. And this is counting the gift goal from Lloris. The only thing that slowed France down in the second half was Pussy Riot.
I like Paul Pogba, so I was happy he got a goal. Every goal is pretty, as they say. But Kylian Mbappé! Creating the third goal, scoring the fourth - is there anyone who isn't looking forward to experiencing his career unfold? A world champion before twenty, with the goal of the game. Ridiculous to say the sky is the limit for him, when he's already up there with Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn. Maybe everything he does after this won't live up to 2018, which would be understandable. Youth and immortality can be lethal, as Diego Maradona has proven over the years.
I think Deschamps did a masterful job, just as he did wonderfully impressive work as captain in 1998. But I have an unusual fondness for the 1998 France team, barring that idiot Laurent Blanc. You, gentle reader, might be more rational in your attitude towards France. This was a final where you could make a mild case that for once, ball lied. Scoreboard lied.
I can't get there, though. Yes, Griezmann should be remembered as a cynical villain, but I think France would have won anyway. Replay the game ten times, and see how many times Kanté is ineffective or Lloris absent-minded. A shutout win for France was as likely as a goalfest. Depending on Mbappé's career going forward, this tournament may recall 1958. But for now, I think of 1986. First they cheat ya, then they beat ya.