MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin tried to use the World Cup, Pussy Riot tried to interrupt it and 31 other teams did all they could to win it, but it was France that owned soccer’s finest tournament and it wasn’t even close.
Sunday’s 4-2 final victory over a mightily courageous, yet ultimately exhausted Croatia, wrapped up a month of as much dominance as modern soccer will allow. The game in its current form is an equalizer, and traditional powers are seeing their buffer zone above the rest drastically reduced.
Yet amid all that France sometimes cruised, sometimes crushed, and never fretted its way to the second World Cup title in its history, with the minimum of fuss and maximum of excellence.
This wasn’t a plucky underdog upsetting the odds or a troubled giant overcoming its demons and prevailing regardless. This was the Golden State Warriors version of securing a championship. By being the best team, showing you are the best team, and being as clinical as needed when it was all on the line.
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The signs were all there to begin with, but soccer lovers are hopeless romantics. We talked of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi perhaps finding the ultimate cherry to top their careers, of Brazil embarking on a stirring redemption tour, of Germany doing it all again or Belgium going on a magical run. Or, in the final, of Luka Modric summoning one last virtuoso performance to give a tiny nation its most treasured moment.
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But France wasn’t left searching for a golden touch to put it over the edge; it already had every piece it needed. It had the best young player in the tournament and one of the very best players in the world. They happen to be the same person, and Kylian Mbappe’s career looks now like just as much of a juggernaut as one of his fearsome forward runs.
France has the best defensive midfielder, the best-timed tackler and the finest all-purpose player. They’re all wrapped up in a single package too, and despite being about the 10th-most famous man on his squad, N’Golo Kante is a bonafide celebrity when it comes to his contributions.
France was like the Warriors during these past NBA Finals because it had too much firepower, too many backup plans, too many different ways to win. It is the kind of dominance that doesn’t lead to soccer’s equivalent of Game 7. Les Blues became the first team since Brazil in 2002 to win the tournament without the need for extra time or a penalty shootout during the knockout stages.
Antoine Griezmann is an attacking dynamo and was man of the match in the final, but there were plenty to choose from. His early free-kick deflected off Mario Mandzukic and put France ahead and his penalty pushed them in front once more after Ivan Perisic drew Croatia level. Paul Pogba added a third in the second half before Mbappe dealt the final blow.
There was even time for goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to remind us that while France might be infallible, it is not flawless, gifting Mandzukic a late consolation that had no effect on the outcome.
Cue mass celebrations at the final whistle, not just at the Luzhniki Stadium, where French president Emmanuel Macron and all the dignitaries got drenched by a flash downpour that was either a stroke of bad luck or Putin’s perverse humor. That’s in jest –even a strongman leader doesn’t have the ability to stop forces of nature like the thunderous Moscow skies or the fearless French counter-attack.
The joy was felt back in Paris and all around a country starting to realize just what a special team it has on its hands.
France’s squad is largely drawn from the country’s working classes, then funneled through academies where technical excellence is held in precious esteem. It used both aspects to shine, the fierce determination of the aspirant to protect its leads, and easy flair to build them.
It is hard to see anyone toppling France from this perch, but soccer is strange that way. The same was said of Germany four years ago, and Spain four before that. Whether France is a team for the ages remains to be seen, but it is most certainly “the” team for right now.