First time in finals for tiny Croatia, the second-smallest nation in the field of 32, and France, the second-youngest team in the field, went undefeated in five matches
By Arnie Leshin
It was a lesson to be learned by those who follow the world’s most popular sport.
It came when France turned back Croatia. 4-2, Sunday night on soccer’s biggest stage — the championship match of the World Cup before millions of television viewers and a capacity crowd at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia.
The lesson taught was sportsmanship, something that doesn’t occur in other tense, rough-play, tight matches. For ages, there have been brawls on the pitch that led to fights in the stands that led to stands collapsing, people injured, and soccer blending this in with the action on the field. And yes, it’s much more dangerous than ice hockey.
But there was nothing that even approached this in the finals matching France and Croatia. It was a different look. Time after time a player or players from each team would be helping up one of the fallen, sometimes injured members of the opposition.
It happened early and never stopped. It was an unusual sight to see, and you had to do a double-take when it took place. It was sportsmanship both ways, and it replaced the usual head-to-head pushing and shoving that brought fouls, yellow cards.
But this was a classic finale. It was hard–fought and well-played soccer by both teams. There were more goals scored in this title game since 1953 when the great Pele’ scored five times and Brazil outscored rival Argentina, 5-3.
For France, this was its first World Cup championship game since winning over Germany in 1998.
Twenty years later, it was a match wherestatistics were replaced by a pair of back-to-back goals France that gave it a 4-1 lead and forced Croatia into another comeback effort that just didn’t work out this time. The second-youngest side in the 32-country field, Francedisplayed its youth.
It upped its one-goal lead that stood up through the first half when 19-year-old Paul Pogba got past the defender and booted one past goalkeeper Daniel Sobasci in the 59th minute. Shortly after, teenager Kylian Mbappe’ raced down field, faked out the defender, and kicked another one past Sobasci.
That hurt Croatia most in its first appearance in the World Cup final. It was also hurt when its 33-year-old veteran midfielder Mario Mandzukic handed France an own goal for a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute. Twenty minutes later, forward Antoine Griezmann increased the advantage after an assist from Pogba gave him a penalty kick from the left of the goal.
Then Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic trimmed the gap to 2-1 with a header past keeper Hugo Lloris in the 28th minute, and it was still 2-1 for France at intermission.
But despite leading in possessions, 66 percent to 34 percent, shots on goal, 14-7, and 6-2 on corner kicks, Croatia just couldn’t get an closer following Mandzukic’s goal at the 69th minute.
But no-quit Croatia, a feisty team that had won three-straight matches in extra time, continued to attack. But every time it worked its way down the field, France was much too stingy, teaming up to knock away each Croatia shot at the goal. In addition, Lloris came up with a pair of stops, one less than Sobasci.
France had pitched three shutouts before defeating Argentina, 4-3, in the quarterfinals. Next it shut out Belgium, 1-0, and sent Belgium into the consolation match for third place against England Saturday night and stunned the English, 2-0.
It was a disappointment for Croatia, the second-smallest nation in the field, while the French were ready to celebrate through the streets of Paris and elsewhere in a land with a population of 76 million. But Croatia and its 4.1 million population should be proud of its team and give it a hearty welcome on its return.
And the spotlight soccer event, the stellar one in the sport, can take pride with the sportsmanship shown in the championship match, No doubt, there has to be credit where credit is due, and this is deserving of it.
And even after the final whistle, there was nothing but hugging and well wishes from both teams, and the same was true from the coaches.