MOSCOW (Reuters) – “The greatest World Cup ever” got the final it deserved when a young, exciting France team swept aside Croatia with a pulsating 4-2 victory and performances that suggested a changing of the guard at the top of the sport.
Antoine Griezmann finally lived up to the star billing his immense talent has long promised, and Kylian Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a final since Pele 60 years ago.
Paul Pogba scored a scorcher and the showpiece was the highest-scoring 90-minute final since 1958.
Croatia, a nation of just four million people, more than played their part but playing the French had been a match too far after they battled through three extra-time matches in a row – the equivalent of four games in 11 days.
Host Russia had used the extravaganza to detoxify its global brand and enhance its reputation by breaking down a number of negative stereotypes, and showcasing itself as a nation that can host huge events and welcome tens of thousands of visitors.
Football, too, can now use this World Cup to focus on the positive and on the future as the sport’s governing body FIFA seeks to put behind it the 2015 corruption scandals which scarred the organisation’s reputation.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar all left the party early, but the youthful France team, and others, showed enough in Russia to suggest there are characters who can step into those giants’ shoes.
Gareth Southgate’s young England team also suggested a brighter future. The country had been seeking to reach the final for the first time since their home triumph in 1966, but fell to the Croatians in the semi-finals.
More importantly, though, their honest, enthusiastic and down-to-earth approach was a million miles away from the jaded cynicism and paranoia which had hampered Englad’s previous campaigns.
Right from the opening match when Russia – the lowest-ranked nation to host the tournament (70) – excitement built and, after Ronaldo got a hat-trick as Portugal drew 3-3 with neighbouring Spain, mumbles about this being the greatest World Cup started growing.
The fantastic goals, upsets and late drama was unrelenting and by the time FIFA President Gianni Infantino made his address ahead of the final, he said it was indeed the greatest – and plenty of pundits, commentators and visitors to Russia agreed.
France coach Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 side who won on home soil, became the third man to lift the World Cup as player and coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
He might be forgiven for raving about the 2018 tournament.
“I have never seen such a World Cup because there was a levelling at the top,” he said. “The small teams… arrived really well prepared.
“I don’t know if it was a beautiful World Cup – there were crazy scenarios sometimes.”
Beauty, though, is in the eye of the beholder and there was more than enough on show over the past month to suggest ‘the beautiful game’ is more than just a tired cliche for football.
Certainly, there will be challenges ahead with the next World Cup being held in hot Qatar with the timng switched so the tournament runs over November and December 2022.
But the emergence of new, exciting talent, the challenging of the old guard – champions Germany finished bottom in the group stage – and new technology in the form of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology wiping out almost all cheating, points to a bright future for the tournament and the sport.