MOSCOW: Two hours after the final whistle and about 90 minutes after the fireworks exploded above the Luzhniki Stadium crowning France world champions for a second time, a smoked-glass door slowly opened and Croatia’s players, showered and smelling of expensive aftershave, started to weave their way towards their team bus.
Defeated 4-2 and pivoting on a cruel penalty decision, the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic were refreshingly upbeat. There were no signs of tears. Disappointment, yes, but acceptance that things had not gone their way and that was, unfortunately, football. Modric spoke of how the penalty “killed” his team and questioned why the free-kick that had led to France’s opening goal could not have been reviewed by the referee’s video assistants. Yet he smiled and spoke glowingly of the experience and his pride in creating history for his country.
“Unlucky to lose? I think so,” Modric said. “Everyone has the same sensation that we played well. I think we were the better team. But sometimes the better teams don’t win. We were surprised, especially because the first goal he gave the foul, which wasn’t in my opinion, and they scored from that. After, we recovered, and when we played the best football he gives a penalty to them. It kills you. It’s not easy always to come back, but in the end we tried, we fought until the end and we have to be proud of what we did. But it wasn’t enough to win it.”
The difference between success and victory can be cruelly fine at times. Were it not for the penalty decision, Croatia — much the better team for the first hour in Moscow — may well have gone on to triumph, arriving in Zagreb today as world champions rather than defeated heroes. Instead, as Modric, the last of his 23-man squad, stepped aboard the bus, the smoked-glass door burst open again.
Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Mendy — carrying a large wireless bluetooth speaker — waltzed through the press zone, the phalanx of gathered journalists pleading for a few soundbites. The players delivered nothing but some song lyrics, a few dance steps, and wide smiles for their camera phones, which were recording the scenes and broadcasting them live to social media.
It was left then to Les Bleus’ less-brash bunch: Hugo Lloris, Adil Rami, Steven N’zonzi, Ngolo Kante. N’zonzi, who had earlier demanded his limelight-loving teammates let Kante hold the trophy because the tiny Chelsea midfielder was too shy to ask himself, spoke of “the best feeling in the world”. Kante meanwhile whispered that, with such a young squad, the win could be the start of a prolonged period of success for his country.
Rami looked at the win through a wider lens. “Me, I'm French of Moroccan origin and I'm proud of it, proud to show that I'm not a thug, proud to make my country joyous like that,” he said. “I love France. I am also happy for everyone. This country deserves that. It’s very difficult now, we have had a lot of problems with terrorism, but now we are so happy to be champions of the world.”
Lloris had become just the second French captain in history to lift the World Cup, but leaving the stadium it was Raphael Varane, winner of 16 titles by the age of just 25, who cradled the famous golden trophy in his arms like a newborn baby. If Kante’s prediction is correct, the illustrious old trophy may well mark the birth of a new period of French domination.
Qualifying for the 2020 European Championships starts in less than two months.