The World Cup final had everything. On the biggest sporting stage on earth, Mario Mandzukic scored an own goal, referee Nestor Pitana used replay to confirm an ambiguous handball, and Russian protestors disrupted the proceedings in the second half. A few more set piece goals were scored. Antoine Griezmann did a Fortnite dance.
In the end, France bested Croatia by the unusually high score of 4-2, the underdogs’ valiant effort not quite enough to overcome the favorites. Talent was the difference, just as it was for Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014. Not Messi and Ronaldo-level talent, but talent all over the field, and the ability to combine and use that talent effectively.
Manager Didier Deschamps was criticized for his pragmatism at times, his opponents saying he was restricting the creative freedom of his attackers. There was a good bit of truth to that, as was proven when France struggled mightily to break down what was essentially the United States’ U-23 side in a 1-1 friendly draw in June.
France’s biggest strength though, was knowing exactly the minimum they had to do win and then performing to that minimum. Their wins weren’t convincing, but not once did they have to go to extra time, and despite facing a difficult path to the final (Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium in the knockout stage), they scored 11 goals in four knockout games.
As for the creativity criticisms: Kylian Mbappe was put in a position to unveil himself to the world stage as soccer’s next superstar, winning the best young player award, and Paul Pogba was brilliant throughout the tournament, playing better than we’ve seen him at the club level. Griezmann was a contender for the Golden Ball (won by Croatia’s Luka Modric) until the end.
With a roster primarily consisting of younger, prime-aged players, France is set up to be good for years. Mbappe promises to win at least one Ballon D’Or. Players like Anthony Martial (22) who narrowly missed out on this year’s World Cup roster are in the pipeline, ready to join Mbappe in attack.
They’ve found sustainable success by looking everywhere for talent, compiling a diverse roster of players with origins from numerous countries and ties to clubs throughout Europe. Every national team can take lessons from France’s approach.
A World Cup win is a pretty impressive building point.