“Trois cent millions de soviétiques/Et moi, et moi, et moi”
At any moment, we look upon the cultural objects not only as a reflection of our times but as a platform for expression. The musician yearns through her melodies and counter melodies; the novelist writes drunk, edits sober and broods regardless; the designer draws upon prevailing interests and toes the various lines of high, middle and low brow before settling in a space of his own. Always, it is a manifestation of the present moment, the beholder not bothering to look for beauty so much as to shoulder ugliness and make it something you can stand for more than a few seconds at a time.
In the twenty years since the 1998 FIFA World Cup, soccer, like this planet, has undergone monumental, identity-shifting changes that have placated the bored masses while at turns enthralling, inspiring and enraging the truly devout, left searching for hope amidst seas of anger and ultimately meaningless Arsenal Champions League berths. Both have inspired roughly the same number of divisive, cynical thoughts for the digital age, compressed and condensed for your basura attention span.
And yet, when the chickens come to roost, we know – or, at least, think we know – the name of the game, and whatever means we utilize to achieve our ends end up being enough to justify those ends. On Sunday, in plain sight of corrupt world dignitaries, oligarchs and protesters, as well as many millions of people who actually wanted to see the game play out for its own sake, France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final.
As opposed to the tiki-taka validation of Spain’s triumph in 2010, or the mannschaft-in-greased-motion of Germany in 2014, France’s victory was not a generation-defining stylistic success. Simply put, the French were better when they had to be, though they, like every other team in the history of the game or, really, of any sport, benefited from several fortuitous occurrences. For as weird and wonderful as this edition of the biggest tournament in the world was, Didier Deschamps’ squad was a perfect embodiment. It wasn’t that France won; it was the way that they won.
Nothing about France’s formation or adjustments said anything new about the state of the game of soccer on any transferable level; we can’t expect to see, for instance, Borussia Dortmund or Inter Milan adopt France’s tactics next year, mostly because most club teams, high-level or not, do not have Kylian Mbappé or Antoine Griezmann. Their greatest triumph may very well have been that they won despite themselves and their propensity to combat positive space with negative.
The French were a powerhouse-in-hiding anyway. The site has been spectacularly wrong before, but FiveThirtyEight’s pre-tournament calculations gave Les Bleus the fourth-best chances of winning the Cup, albeit at a paltry 8%, behind perpetual favorites Brazil and the previous two champions, Germany and Spain.
Then again, their opponents in the Final, Croatia, had an even lesser chance of making the Final, at 7%. After upending all of the other teams in their group – Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland, each of whom entered the tournament with at least some expectation of making real noise in Russia – Modric and company turned the heat way up, broke the oven, called the repair man and then punched him in the head, seemingly just for a laugh, on their way to this match.
Coming off three consecutive extra time games in the knockout stages, including two tense shootout victories over Denmark and the host team Russia, Croatia entered the game as underdogs, though their play would have led you to believe otherwise. Vatreni dominated possession and fired shot after shot in the general direction of Huge Lloris, with varying degrees of success.
An own goal caroming off the head of Mario Mandzukic, one of Croatia’s best players throughout the tournament, put France up early. After Ivan Perisic equalized via set piece, a questionable foul (to French or Atlético supporters, anyway; most others would deem it a flagrant dive) drawn in the penalty area yielded Griezmann a chance from the spot, which he buried.
Pick either of Griezmann or Paul Pogba as the singular driving force of the French in this World Cup, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Pogba’s vision and passing acumen recall the Xaviesta heyday of Spain, and Griezmann has gone from partying so hard he earned a national team suspension to Man of the Match in a World Cup Final, both ascending to the inner edges of “best in the world” conversations at their respective positions.
If you did pick either, though, you do so at your own risk, as you would be ignoring the king-making performances of Mbappé, whose blazing speed and positively sublime finishing ability at the age of 19 already guarantee him a place in the nightmares of keepers the world over for years to come. A star of AS Monaco’s 2016-’17 Ligue 1 title-winning side before a mind-melting transfer fee made him the second-most expensive player in the world behind only his teammate Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappé was the sole goalscorer in France’s win over Peru and netted a brace to knock out Lionel Messi and Argentina. While the team in totality has nothing interesting to say aside from its sheer excellence and embarrassment of youth, Mbappé has all the precociousness of a piano prodigy, with ability to boot.
Pogba and Mbappé scored within minutes of each other in the second half to put France up 4-1, and though Mandzukic brought one back to cut the lead in half, the tide was by then too strong in France’s favor. Valiant efforts on the parts of eventual Golden Ball winner Modric, Ivan Rakitic and the rest of Zlatko Dalić’s merry band of checkerboarded heroes proved ultimately futile, and the French claimed their second World Cup.
In front of Vladimir Putin, and in a time when ultra-nationalism has somehow returned to prominence across the globe, and, indeed, FIFA’s own corruption becomes more apparent by the day, two sons of African parents, one of Cameroonian descent and the other of Guinean-Muslim descent, had given credence to Les Bleus as the best national side in the world.
The exorbitant transfer fees are on the horizon. They seem to have been knocking at Griezmann’s door for the better part of a decade, and they will encroach upon the territories of other young Frenchmen in light of this, too. When and where they all land is anybody’s guess, particularly after the somewhat surprising departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid to Juventus mid-tournament (though, of course, after Portugal had already been eliminated, and Ronaldo was on vacation).
For now, it seems best only to view this French side through its accomplishments. This one, maybe, is a generational marker for at least one nation, a melting pot unified under red, white and blue and made all the better by the contributions of the people comprising its makeup, no matter the background or differences. À votre santé, la France.