Moscow (AFP) – France won their second World Cup 20 years after their maiden triumph on Sunday, seeing off a dogged and desperate Croatia side who refused to lie down in one of the most electrifying finals in recent years.
The breathless 4-2 victory under stormy skies at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium means Didier Deshchamps’ side — balancing youthful vitality and tournament nous — have buried the pain of their defeat in the Euro 2016 final on home soil.
For the small nation of Croatia, the loss spells bitter pain but fans at home will celebrate the best run in the nation’s history, which featured a stunning win against Argentina and a semi-final victory against England.
Earlier, Croatia’s fans, massed behind Danijel Subasic’s goal, unveiled an enormous flag during their national anthem and their side roared out of the blocks, pinning France back in their own half.
It was the French who scored first, courtesy of an own goal in the 18th minute by Mario Mandzukic following an Antoine Griezmann free-kick but they were pegged back by a lovely Ivan Perisic strike 10 minutes later.
Griezmann restored France’s lead from the penalty spot after the referee awarded a controversial spot-kick with the help of VAR (video assistant referee) for a hand ball.
As thunder rolled around the stadium, Griezmann lined up the penalty, holding the ball under his arm. Crotia goalkeeper Subasic did his best to put the French striker off but he held his nerve to lash the spot-kick into the net.
Croatia were first out after half-time and again were into their stride quickly, with the brilliant Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield as roars of “Croatia” echoed round the stadium.
But Manchester United’s Paul Pogba extended France’s lead within a quarter of an hour, stroking the ball home — sparking scenes of joy behind the goal from French fans, who knew their country had one hand on the trophy.
Kylian Mbappe appeared to make sure just just minutes later. But Croatia were given renewed hope when Mandzukic made the most of a mistake by France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
– France victorious –
France, strongly fancied to win the final, started their tournament in France slowly, beating Australia and Peru by the odd goal before a goalless stalemate with Denmark saw them top the group.
But they moved up through the gears in the knockout stages, seeing off Lionel Messi’s Argentina in a seven-goal thriller before cruising to a 2-0 win against Uruguay and seeing off Belgium 1-0 in the semi-final.
For Croatia, the match in Moscow was perhaps one too far after they were taken to extra-time for three consecutive games.
Deschamps, who captained France when they lifted the World Cup in 1998, has become just the third man to win the trophy as both a player and a manager after Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo.
Croatia have brought joy to their Balkan nation of just four million people by defying the odds to progress to the final while reigning champions Germany, then Argentina and Brazil all fell by the wayside in Russia.
Football fever has slowly built over the past four weeks as France took its young national team to heart, with ecstatic scenes on the Champs-Elysees avenue after their semi-final victory.
Giant screens were erected in scores of fan zones across the country under exceptionally tight security, with the biggest gathering of all expected in Paris, where 90,000 will converge on a fanzone next to the Eiffel Tower.
Red-and-white chequerboard patterns were everywhere in Croatia, on cars, in shop windows, trams, buses as well as on jerseys worn by waiters, shop workers or TV presenters.