In a way, it was fitting that Luka Modric won the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player. France had several candidates – Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane, N’Golo Kante – but ultimately prevailed because they were the finest collective. Even though Olivier Giroud failed to score, they were a side with no weak links, with an excellent goalkeeper, perhaps the best defence, a midfield with a variety of attributes and attackers who could score. They will obviously be compared to France’s 1998 champions, but they also bear similarities with Italy’s 2006 and Germany’s 2014 winners, sides who were not defined by a philosophy as much as showing strength in each department, togetherness, organisation and a winning mentality.
Pictures: France beat Croatia in World Cup final 4-2
2. Europe has reigned supreme
European teams have won the past four World Cups. They also tend to fare better in European World Cups. Nevertheless, it was still notable just how well they did: all four semi-finalists, six quarter-finalists, 10 teams in the last 16. With no African side in the knockout stages for the first time since 1982 and Argentina particular disappointments as the South American challenge ended, it suggested some other continents are slipping further behind. Mexico apart, Concacaf’s representatives were poor. At least the Asian sides managed a better record than in 2014, with Japan going 2-0 up against Belgium and Japan beating Colombia, but it was still a World Cup to indicate Europe, whether through its competitive top leagues, infrastructure and coaching schemes or players, has a significant advantage over the rest.
Pictures: See Richard Jolly's team of the tournament
3. Germany succumb to the curse of the holders
It felt like underachievement when the holders Brazil went out of the 2006 World Cup in the quarter-finals. In a way, it was overachievement. Germany’s shock exit – their first departure at the opening hurdle since 1938 – means four of the last five defending champions have failed to get out of the group stage. If a recurring theme is that luck seems to desert the sides who triumphed four years earlier, other common denominators appear to be showing too much faith in their proven winners, an understandable mistake, and a certain complacency. Even Germany were not immune.
Podcast: A look back on the highs and lows of Russia 2018
4. This was the set-piece World Cup
The final number was 73; 73 set-piece goals, or 43 per cent of the 169 goals in the tournament. It seems an absurdly high number and reflects upon several factors. One is the lack of creativity some sides showed in open play and the contrasting way some planned superbly at set-pieces; England were a case in point. VAR clearly had an impact, too, both in terms of the penalties awarded for grappling early on and then, as defenders tried not to concede spot kicks, as unmarked attackers were allowed to finish. It also suggests the way for limited sides to progress in future tournaments is to work on their dead-ball routines.
When one favourite underperforms, the draw can open up for someone. When two or three do, it radically reshapes a tournament. The failings of Germany, Argentina and Spain afforded everyone else an opportunity that, ultimately, Croatia took to reach the final. There is a case for calling Zlatko Dalic’s side the second best team in the World Cup. An alternative view is that the four finest all ended up in the same half of the draw: France, Belgium, Brazil and Uruguay. Yet that should not detract from Croatia and England’s achievements in going further than virtually anyone had anticipated before the World Cup. They took the sort of chances that do not normally materialise.
Pictures: Croatia team returns home to heroes' welcome