Well, wasn’t that World Cup final a strange game of football? Croatia came out and played like the dominant, heavily favoured, massive nation they absolutely aren’t, while France — at least until they had it wrapped up in their 4-2 win — played like scrappy little underdogs. Charming when actual underdogs do it; frankly uncomfortable from this group of players.
And that’s before we consider the details. The penalty that was totally consistent with the rest of this tournament, and totally outrageous at the same time. The referee, Nestor Pitana, double, triple, quadruple-checking his homework. N’golo Kante, overrun in midfield, hooked before the hour mark. Hugo Lloris, demonstrating that you can win a World Cup and look really Spursy at the same time. A pitch invasion. Obviously a pitch invasion.
Also, you don’t have to be a fully-paid up disciple of expected goals (xG) to appreciate this ultra-minimalist effort:
First half xG map for the World Cup Final. France's counterattack has been exceptionally poor. Les Bleus are winning 2-1 anyway. pic.twitter.com/0wvmTwdVBA— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) July 15, 2018
But that’s World Cup finals: they are always, always weird. Strange things happen. Think back to 2010, when the Netherlands came out with their fists and their feet, or 2006, when Zinedine Zidane led with his head. Or 1998, when Ronaldo disappeared from the team sheet, then reappeared, but in name only.
Even when nothing specifically odd happens, everything feels strange. A dive to win a free-kick becomes a dive to win a free-kick in the World Cup final. This, perhaps, is a natural consequence of what the World Cup final is: its significance, its weight. A game that comes once every four years for everybody watching, and maybe once in a lifetime for those on the field. Each action is heavy, and the ripples are proportionately unsettling. What did that throw in mean?
This uncanny air is useful, since it helps to mask the other thing about World Cup finals: as games of football, they are usually a bit rubbish. It’s perfectly possible to be in your mid-30s and not remember a properly decent one. 2014 and 2010 were nervous and taut; 2006 was a headbutt (even if it was a hell of a headbutt). 2002 was too one-sided, and 1998 was haunted by zombie-Ronaldo. 1994 was mesmerizingly dull, and 1990 basically just a fight.
Not 2018. Oh no. The tournament got the final it deserved, and even if a quibble here and there might keep it from greatness, it was certainly a very good game of football. We probably have Croatia to thank for this: nobody could have blamed them had they tried to kill the game, but instead they came to attack and, for a good chunk of the game, they made France look very nervous.
As for France … well, they came to Didier Deschamps, and they nailed that. It’s a shame they were never truly forced to chase this game, since it would have been nice to see this squad forced onto the front foot. The sense that this is a team performing within its own capacities is hard to shift. But it was fun watching them scramble around as they realized they were in a game, and they had the good sense to add a little glamour at the end.
Weirdness wasn’t done at the final whistle, of course: first the World Cup went missing for a while, and then the heavens wept to see Emmanuel Macron happy. But whether you think weirdness or goodness was the winner of this game after 90 minutes, both sides put up a strong showing. Just as with the tournament as a whole. Often, World Cups go out with whimper. This time, with a bit of a flourish, and a squelch.