Catherine Ivill/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — France overwhelmed Croatia 4-2 in Moscow to win the world’s biggest international soccer tournament for the second time.
France had been among the favorites to win the tournament from the outset and proved too much for Croatia, who dominated possession but were undone by an early own goal and a penalty given away before halftime.
Croatia pulled two back, including one from a goalkeeping error, but it wasn’t enough with a French win cemented in the 65th minute by 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé.
France’s win brings to a close one of the most unpredictable tournaments in recent years in which many of the sport’s giants fall by the wayside and underdogs exceed expectations.
Croatia, while never a complete outsider, was nonetheless one of those, with a team of world-class but older players digging deep to get their country to its first World Cup final. Along the way, they dispatched two favorites going into the competition, beating the European champions, Portugal, and running roughshod over Argentina in a spectacular 3-1 win. They also ended the host Russia’s unlikely World Cup run, defeating them in the quarterfinals.
France, by contrast, started as a favorite and have driven toward the final with a single-minded determination that’s produced results, if not always excitement. A young team flush with talent, they have turned their brilliance on and off when required — winning a stunning 4-3 victory against Argentina, coming from behind with some of the most spectacular goals of the tournament. But in the final group-state match they settled for an infuriating 0-0 draw with Denmark where both sides essentially agreed not to play, needing just 1 point each to qualify for the following round. In the semifinal, France elected to smother a creative Belgium, suffocating its attack and relying on a single goal.
French President Emmanuel Macron attended the game in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin. Macron and Putin will met for talks first in the Kremlin.
The final brings to an end a World Cup for Russia that has also, for a month a least, transformed the cities in which it was held, with a party atmosphere reigning and fans from a bewildering combination of countries dancing in the streets and partying every night for weeks on end. In Moscow, residents have been stunned at what has been permitted during the competition, and the light touch of police, who stood by and allowed the party to go on, including drinking that’s normally forbidden in public areas, and wild scenes right up to the Kremlin.
Fears that the competition would be marred by violence from soccer hooligans — over-emphasized by some media before the tournament — never materialized thanks to an aggressive crackdown by Russia’s security services. Fans arriving in Moscow also enjoyed the city, which has received a colossal makeover in recent years, and some were surprised at the thriving restaurants and bars that have appeared to replace the post-Soviet gloom many expected.
The tournament has without doubt been a boon for the Kremlin in altering the country’s perception on the world stage, temporarily competing with headlines about its bombing campaign in Syria, war in Ukraine, nerve-agent poisonings in Britain, political repression at home and election meddling in the United States and elsewhere.
But few expect the spell will last far beyond Sunday’s final when the last fans begin to leave Moscow and Putin on Monday heads for Finland for his first summit with Trump.
Russian Police have already said that drinking laws will be reasserted, waving flags in the Red Square will likely be ill-advised and climbing lampposts to shout probably will end in arrest. Even during the tournament, two prominent human rights activists were detained for holding signs calling for the release of Oyub Titiev, who leads the rights group Memorial in Chechnya and who is currently on trial.
That case and others will remain once the tournament ends, including that of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who has been on hunger strike in a Russian jail for 63 days while demanding the release of three dozen other Ukrainian political prisoners.
The World Cup though will perhaps leave a mark on Russia, beyond the stadiums built or refurbished in 11 cities across the European half of the country. It will also be remembered for Russia’s own team’s shocking success, reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1970 by beating Spain, having been dismissed even by their own fans as likely not to even reach the knockout stages.
“Moscow will never be like this again,” one woman shouted in joyful amazement to a reporter after that match.
It will perhaps also be remembered as a moment when Russia and the rest of the world could have fun together.
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