French players celebrate after winning the World Cup. (REUTERS/Michael Dalder)
MOSCOW, July 15 (Reuters): France won the World Cup for the second time in spectacular style on Sunday by ending battling Croatia’s dreams of a first major title with a 4-2 victory in one of the most entertaining and action-packed finals for decades.
France triumphed thanks to an own goal from Mario Mandzukic, an Antoine Griezmann penalty — awarded after a VAR review – and second-half strikes by Paul Pogba and teenager Kylian Mbappe.
Ivan Perisic and Mandzukic replied for Croatia.
It was the highest-scoring decider since England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra-time in 1966 and the highest in normal time since Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 60 years ago.
There were as many goals in 90-action-packed minutes in Moscow as in the last four finals combined, and three of those went to extra time.
The game featured the first final own goal and the first VAR-decided spot-kick — one that Croatia were furious about and that was arguably the turning point of the game.
But the only statistic France will really care about is that the result makes them world champions for the second time following their triumph on home soil 20 years ago.
The French led 2-1 at halftime after Mandzukic’s own goal and Griezmann’s VAR penalty, with Ivan Perisic briefly bringing first-time finalists Croatia level.
Quickfire strikes by Pogba and Mbappe midway through the second half put France in charge before Mandzukic was gifted a goal by keeper Hugo Lloris to set up a nervous last 20 minutes.
France, however, held firm to ensure there was no repeat of two years ago when, again heavy favourites, they were beaten in the European Championship final by Portugal in Paris.
The win means Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 side, becomes the third man to lift the World Cup as player and coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
“How marvellous,” Deschamps said having been carried shoulder high around the pitch by his players. “It’s a young team who are on the top of the world. Some are champions at the age of 19.
“We did not play a huge game but we showed mental quality – and we scored four goals.
“It hurt so much to lose the Euro two years ago, but it made us learn too and we worked so hard for 55 days here.”
Croatia started full of energy but fell behind when Mandzukic, who scored the extra-time winner against England in the semi-final, became the first man to score an own goal in a World Cup final when a Griezmann free kick skidded in off his head in the 18th minute. It was the 12th own goal of the tournament.
That meant it was the fourth successive knockout game in which Croatia conceded first but again they found a way back. Perisic, who got the equaliser against England, was on hand to level 10 minutes later, smashing in a low shot after Sime Vrsaljko had headed Luka Modric’s free kick across the box.
But then came the moment that Croatian fans will argue about for the rest of their lives and which will keep the VAR debate at the top of the sport’s agenda.
Perisic flapped an arm at a corner and seemed to have got away with it but, either because of or at the same time as a mass French player protest, Argentine referee Nestor Pitana conducted a protracted VAR review and awarded the 28th penalty of the tournament, another record.
Griezmann stroked the ball home in the 38th minute for his fourth goal of Russia 2018.
That made it the highest-scoring first half since 1974, when West Germany led the Netherlands 2-1 – also the final score – but this time there was more to come.
Croatia were on top again after the break, continually winning their one-on-one duels in the air and in every tackle and forging forward in the French box with plenty of variety.
But France’s defence held and Deschamps’ side went 3-1 up on the hour as Mbappe and Griezmann combined to set up Pogba on the edge of the box. The midfielder’s right-footed shot was blocked but he coolly curved the rebound in with his left.
Six minutes later Lucas Hernandez tore down the left to set up Mbappe to drill a low shot beyond keeper Danijel Subasic for the brilliant 19-year-old young player of the tournament to score his fourth goal at the finals.
After three successive extra-time knockout games the chances of Croatia coming back again looked impossible but they were thrown a lifeline by Lloris, who tried to dribble round Mandzukic only for the striker to tap the ball into the unguarded net.
Croatia, beaten by the French in the semi-finals in their first World Cup appearance in 1998, continued to press, with player of the tournament Luka Modric industrious to the end, but their energy was sapped and France safely held out.
The heavens opened for the presentation in torrential rain but man of the match Griezmann could not have cared.
“I don’t know where I am, I am really happy,” he said as his team mates danced around him in celebration.
“It was a very difficult match, Croatia had a great game. We came back and we managed to make the difference. We cannot wait to bring the cup back to France.”
Croatia will also go home to a heroes’ welcome – surpassing the achievements of the famed class of ’98 – and the way their shirtless fans sang and danced long after the final whistle on Sunday suggests that pride will soon overcome disappointment.