By Clement Nwankpa Jr
France are world champions. And to win their second World Cup, Les Blues had to beat Croatia 4-2 in the final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday.
This writer was in Kaliningrad on June 16 when Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0 in the World Cup opener. After the dominant midfield performance by the Croats replicated in their 3-0 defeat of Argentina, this writer had, writing under the headline, ‘Croatia 0-3 Argentina: Five things we learnt’, stated thus;
“The way the Croats are playing, they should have some say in who wins this World Cup. If you thought Nigeria was weak, how would you describe this annihilation of the mighty Argies? The sooner teams start taking them seriously, the better. For sure, they are not going to be beaten easily. Can they better the bronze won by Croatia’s golden generation in 1998?”
It is little surprise that they had gone all the way to the final weathering consecutive 120 minutes football from the second round through to the final.
They had won two penalty shootouts against Denmark in the second round and Russia in the quarterfinal before relying on a Mario Mandzukic strike in the extra-time in the semifinal to progress against England.
Parading what many saw as the best midfield in the competition, they blew apart oppositions in group D but showed sheer tenacity in the knockout stages. And fittingly that mercurial midfielder, Luka Modric, that ran Eagles midfielders ragged in Kaliningrad drawing question marks on Mikel Obi’s relevance and most suitable position, was voted tournament’s most valuable player. That midfield dominated most games in Russia with Modric, the master orchestrator.
Recall after that game, José Mourinho lampooned Gernot Rohr for fielding Mikel as a number 10 against Croatia. The question on Mikel’s ideal position dominated the press conference preceding the Iceland game. For the next two games, Mikel was deployed in a deeper role.
Too much written already about the final losers. But scarce consolation for the Super Eagles. That was the only team that truly dominated them and the end should give the Nigerians some credit.
Step in, France. Croatia lost to deserving champions. They were blown apart by a hyper-offensive French team. Perhaps if the French weren’t that awe-inspiring in the final third, Croatia would have held on the way they did against the other knockout round oppositions.
But the Croats were up against the next-big-thing in football, Kylian Mbappe, voted Young Player of the tournament and the likes of Antoine Griezmann. The Croats simply caved in.
An own goal by Mario Mandzukic in the 18th minute gave France the lead before Ivan Perisic levelled up for Croatia inthe 28th minute. Griezmann restored France’s lead from the spot in the 38th minute.
Pogba scored France’s third in the 58th minute while Mbappe grabbed the fourth in the 65th minute. Keeper Hugo Loris gifted Croatia’s Mandzukic a goal in the 69th minute.
France held on as Didier Deschamps became only the third person to win the World Cup as a player and coach. When the rains poured down in Moscow during the trophy presentation, it was a fitting reception for Deschamps, the famed water-carrier of the victorious French team in 1998.
Les Blues won a second World Cup while Croatia bettered that bronze won by that golden era in 1998. Standing there during the presentation was Davor Suker, the France 98 top scorer, now Croatian FA Chairman.
But the Croats’ performance shows Eagles weren’t really that bad. They beat the stubborn Iceland 2-0 came within six minuted of picking a valuable draw against Argentina ultimately losing 1-2. The only team that really dominated proceedings against the Nigerians were Croatia, the finalists.
If the Nigerians were slightly more experienced, the outcomes would have been more favourable, particularly against the more fancied Argentina and Croatia. It is desired to be seen how Rohr will build upon this Russia experience to ensure the team is more competitive at this level in 2022.