In retrospect, perhaps it was unrealistic to think that Croatia, considering the relative youth of its national program, could withstand the challenge of France in Sunday’s World Cup final in Moscow.
Consider that Croatia first had to survive three extra-time elimination matches, two by penalties, to get to the championship match. That said, the Croatians still fought but ultimately could not match the deep and dexterous French, losing 4-2 to end the month-long championship that invariably captivates the world every quadrennial.
It was the second World Cup title for France, its first since 1998.
For Croatia, it was its first championship match. It became the first Eastern European nation in a World Cup final since Czechoslovakia lost to Brazil in 1962. And along the way, the Croatians asserted themselves by defeating world powers England and Argentina, both former Cup champions.
Still, beating France would be a difficult task, even for a program that finished third in the 1998 World Cup, when they lost to France in the semifinals. The championship match was the sixth meeting between the teams with France holding a 3-0-2 advantage.
The tournament ended in historic fashion by becoming the highest-scoring championship match since England’s 4-2 dispatching of West Germany in 1966 and by featuring the first own-goal in a Cup final.
And then there is the story of French coach Didier Deschamps, the captain of France’s first World Cup champion. He joined Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbaur of Germany as the only men in World Cup history to have played for and coached a champion.
The French won because it had the biggest stars, obvious after watching veteran Paul Pogba score and Kylian Mbappe, just 19, catapult his way onto the world stage.
Mbappe became the first teenager since the iconic Pele — who scored twice as a 17-year-old in a 5-2 win over Sweden 1958 — to score in a World Cup final. Mbappe now becomes the focal point of a national program that became the second-youngest ever to win a World Cup title.
“If Kylian keeps equaling my records like this I may have to dust my boots off,” Pele tweeted.
“The king will always remain king,” Mbappe replied.
According to USA Today, Mbappe has decided to donate his entire salary from the World Cup to a non-profit organization that provides hospitalized children access to sporting events. Sports Illustrated says that’s approximately $22,500 per game and around $351,000 for the event.
No, France isn’t going anywhere.
If there was a consolation prize for the Croatians, in just their 28th year of existence, it was that its captain, Luka Modric, was voted the tournament’s most valuable player, ahead of England’s captain, Harry Kane, its top goal scorer.
“We have no regrets because we were the better team for much of the game,” Modric told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, some clumsy goals swung it their way. …They will be celebrating, but we can hold our heads high.”