(Zidane's World Cup final was pretty good, too.)
To appreciate what France accomplished, let’s first appreciate what Croatia accomplished.
A nation of 4-million battled its way to the finals of the World Cup against a nation of 65-million, with superior training and playing conditions.
In the final, Croatia displayed its soccer sense and its tenacity while trailing, 4-1. Croatia’s tough forward, Mario Mandzukic, burning over his inadvertent own goal earlier, rumbled to harass the French keeper, Hugo Lloris, who was being nonchalant with the ball at his feet. Mandzukic stripped him of the ball and plopped it in the goal, and then made sure it was speedily escorted back to midfield, to keep the game moving, to keep hope alive.
This was the same mental and physical toughness Croatia had displayed for six previous matches in this World Cup, three of them with 30 minutes of extra time. Croatia never gave up, was chippy at times but with plenty of skill, and was admirable in the 4-2 defeat.
Let Croatia’s resolute play be a model for the Third World of football – from the Americas to Asia to Africa. The swelling excitement from Croatian people and players told me there is room for healthy national pride in the World Cup. Teams from Panama, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Nigeria came to Russia with hope -- better than many other things any nation could be doing.
But the highest achievement in this sport increasingly belongs to the wealthy developed nations of Western Europe, for all their troubles. France, with children of immigrants who left marginal or failing societies, displayed a resourceful, skilled, athletic team of disparate personalities. American fans who love the proud individuals in pro basketball could surely relate to the French faces, the French handshakes, the French jokes going around during the celebration.
“Someday, maybe us,” Americans could dare to think to themselves.
Now the sport sails into uncharted waters – first in 2022 Qatar, a host of no known soccer asset save for American dollars in unmarked envelopes in the seedy corridors of FIFA gatherings. Then, in 2026, the friendly folks from FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, for goodness’ sakes.
However, the expansion does have one benefit, as Rory Smith of the New York Times pointed out in his illuminating column: in 2026, the quotas will be expanded for the lesser regions, and just might make room for African nations like Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana as well as that absent western giant, the United States. He’s right – there is no magic cutoff line, based on absolute standards, between deserving and undeserving.
Nevertheless, I still hate the expansion. There need to be standards. The qualifying round is more valid when there is a real price for losing.
But that is the future. Right now there is an appealing champion, with dashing players all over the formation.
People are wondering if this World Cup, with all its upsets and late strikes and departing superstars and new faces, qualifies as best ever. This is a debate I hardly want to enter because everything changes every four years.
I covered eight straight World Cups from 1982 through 2010, and have followed the last two around home.
Among the highlights: 1982: Brazil might have been the best team I have ever seen in a World Cup – but it lost to seething, under-rated Italy. 1986: Diego Armando Maradona willed and cheated Argentina to the Cup. 1998: Zinedine Zidane, performed ballet in the Stade de France, still the most beautiful final ever played by an individual. 2010: Spain displayed artistic tiki-taka passing – a new era, many of us claimed. 2014: oops, check that: Germany’s system won with its system, its synchronized parts.
For that matter, I could make a case for the 1966 World Cup in England, not because of who won but because of the epic film, written by Brian Glanville – maybe the best sports documentary ever made – depicting Pelé and Eusebio, Russians hacking Hungarians, the mysterious North Koreans, and England beating West Germany in the final.
The film includes Queen Elizabeth II at Wembley, and ends with the groundskeeper at the end of a long, noisy day: “And at Wembley, Mr. McElroy locks up.”
The 2018 World Cup, now over, was pretty good, too.