World Cup winners France provide flair and panache to cast aside pragmatic image
Accused of being allergic to adventure, France showed in Russia - particularly in the final - that they are more than capable of providing football of a thrilling nature
On their way to becoming the new world champions of the most popular sport in the world, France have had to bear some sneers about the crabbiness of their football.
Sometimes they don't exactly discourage them, either. So, in fairness to a team with individuals of great flair and a side who triumphed in a World Cup final with more goals than any for the last 50 years, three cheers for the fun on Sunday night in Moscow.
And any charge that Les Bleus are banal spoilsports with an allergy to adventure ought to be set aside, at least for a while.
The French will eventually look back on a World Cup deemed to have been the most entertaining for decades, and know they were worthy champions of it.
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They may have established their first-half advantage over Croatia thanks to two inglorious goals - an own goal from Mario Mandzukic, and a controversial penalty - but by the end of an eventful if not always suspenseful evening, they had left behind some highlights that will remind forever that this France has plenty of panache.
The game’s most highly-valued teenager, the €180 million (Dh773.5m) Kylian Mbappe, scored the goal, coolly taken, that put the outcome beyond the reach even of Croatia, this World Cup’s admirable kings of the comeback.
He was again involved in the move that led to the third French goal, started and completed by the man who used to be the most costly footballer in French history.
Paul Pogba has had a good month, and the wonderful pass he directed, first time, to trigger an Mbappe gallop-and-chase was of the highest class. Pogba, having had a right-footed shot blocked, then put a left-footed volley past Danijel Subasic after Mbappe’s cross was laid off to him.
That was handsome stuff. But France were not always as dynamic as that, and in truth, much the most enterprising and stylish football of the first 45 minutes had been played by Croatia, who for the fourth time in as many contests had to find an answer to going 1-0 down.
Their highlight was the poised and clinical finish of Ivan Perisic, who was permitted to feel he is owed goals - he has hit the frame of the goal twice in the tournament - as well as ovations for his World Cup. Not many players bamboozle N’Golo Kante, but Perisic niftily sidestepped the anchor of France’s midfield before powering his team back into contention.
He then suffered some very bad luck. Perisic’s handball, brought to the attention of the referee by VAR, probably had to be punished with a penalty, although the residual feeling around the Luzhniki stadium once Antoine Griezmann had converted the spot-kick for France's 2-1 lead was of deep dissatisfaction.
France had not examined Subasic at all from open play, and not had a great deal of possession in the opposition half. At that stage, les Bleus were in danger of becoming a drab representation of the ultra-functional style Didier Deschamps, their head coach, is derided for.
The second half altered the picture for the better. It revealed the dashing face of France; it also showed their captain and most experienced current international to be everything but robotically functional, and, rather, very human indeed.
A little over 24 hours before the final Hugo Lloris had suggested that for Croatia to be defeated, his team would “need to play the perfect game”. What he did with 21 minutes of the final left was anything but perfect.
After the final whistle, Lloris, whose superb saves in the quarter- and semi-final had pushed France into the final, was able, as he waited to be presented with the gold trophy, to look up at the giant screen replaying the six goals of the night and smile as he watched himself gift Mario Madzukic Croatia’s second goal.
It was a pit-of-the-stomach mistake; Lloris will get over it because his team had enough of a lead by that stage, and because they are France, defensively sound, young men you can rely on to protect a two goal cushion for 20 minutes, even on the kind of stage that can make anybody suffer vertigo.
Over this tournament, many young Frenchmen will have grown up a great deal. Those players who suffered defeat, at the Stade de France, two summers ago in the final of Euro 2016 will have exorcised some ghosts.
And almost all of these world champions can look forward to the next European championships and most to the next World Cup. For this French squad, this triumph can be an extremely powerful springboard.
The defence who protected Lloris last night are made up of centre-backs from Real Madrid and Barcelona who are 25 and 24 years old, and two full-backs of 22 who have emerged from relatively obscurity in the last month.
Pogba is 25, Griezmann 27, and as they cavorted in the fierce Moscow rain after the trophy celebrations, they looked like young boys, splashing around on a muddying surface, carefree. Nobody would begrudge them their joy. And there may well much more of it. Much, much more. Mbappe, clutching his own trophy as the Best Young Footballer of Russia 2018, will only turn 20 in December.
He could yet have four more World Cups, even five to look forward to during a career that, managed wisely, has the makings of real greatness.
Updated: July 16, 2018 10:59 AM