French President Emmanuel Macron reacts during the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 15, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

No refuge from politics but France victory a fitting climax

July 16, 2018 - 2:46 am
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MOSCOW (AP) — Kylian Mbappe high-fived a political protester who invaded the field during the World Cup final. French President Emmanuel Macron leapt out of his seat in a VVIP area that included a leader charged with genocide. And Vladimir Putin was drenched in a sudden downpour as the trophy was handed over to the victorious French team.

This year's World Cup was never going to be a refuge from politics when it was being staged in Putin's Russia, but the players did their best to keep the tournament for themselves.

A final with six goals — France beat Croatia 4-2 on Sunday — was a fitting climax to a month that produced some of the most enthralling matches in World Cup history.

The lasting images will be of pure elation as the France players leapt into the crowd to collect flags, then crashed Didier Deschamps' post-match news conference, dancing on the table and spraying champagne and water on the coach.

"Sorry," Deschamps said. "They're young and they're happy."

No need to apologize. This young squad earned its right to go wild.

Particularly Mbappe, a 19-year-old forward whose career trajectory should move into a stratosphere occupied for so long by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The old guard went home early; another failed challenge for World Cup titles by Portugal and Argentina. Mbappe flies home with a winners' medal.

It's not just about his composure on the ball, and eye for goal. Just look at the coolness early in the second half dealing with a member of the Pussy Riot activist group which protests against what they consider to be Putin's repressive regime: A double-high five. Nothing fazes the guy who became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958.

"I've always been ready, mentally, to do beautiful things," Mbappe said. "I'm free and, most of all, I enjoy it."

Not only Mbappe. Benjamin Pavard, a 22-year-old defender, will be hot property in the upcoming transfer window. Raphael Varane has also been at the heart of the defense that didn't concede a goal in four of seven games in Russia. The starring role by Paul Pogba, who scored the decisive third goal on Sunday, was a riposte to critics of his contribution at Manchester United.

"These kids, they play like it's a pick-up game," said 32-year-old France defender Adil Rami, who was on the bench for the entire tournament.

In so many ways, France lifting the trophy was one shred of order in this month of so much disruption. And it wasn't just about the often-confusing use of video review on its World Cup debut. Set-pieces are back in vogue, accounting for 73 of the 169 goals, including Mario Mandzukic's own-goal from Antoine Griezmann's free kick that gave France an early lead in the final.

Germany's title defense disintegrated in the group stage. Spain, in turmoil from the start, was sent home in the round of 16, signaling the end of the tiki-taka tactics behind the country's title run in 2010. No longer is it all about keeping hold of the ball.

"The teams with the highest level of possession were all punished by fast forwards," Deschamps said. "When you defend, you are guaranteed to have two or three opportunities on the counterattack."

Croatia bulldozed its way into the final in a sure sign of the establishment being disrupted. The gritty resolve was always evident in the final. Even at 4-1, the Croats didn't give up on their first shot at a major soccer title, but they finally ran out of steam after three straight extra-time matches.

"I have never lived through such a World Cup," Deschamps said. "There was a leveling at the top. And the small teams on paper arrived really well prepared athletically. My memory was that great football nations would have some difficulty and then they would grow stronger."

Only France did, reasserting the World Cup's status at the pinnacle of soccer over the increasingly-predictable club competitions across Europe. Even Russia, the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, managed to reach the quarterfinals.

"You have to believe it's possible and many things have to fall into place," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said after his country's first final. "You have to follow those dreams and ambitions and then maybe one day it will come true."

Maybe one day politicians will not try to hog the limelight at a sporting event as they did at the Luzhniki Stadium and across Russia. FIFA allowed one of the coveted seats to be given to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Another went to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe's last dictator.

But there was some payback from Mother Nature. By delaying the trophy presentation, leaving Croatia's despondent players waiting even longer to depart the field, the storm clouds gathered. The downpour soaked the dignitaries.

That shouldn't be a problem when the World Cup heads to the desert nation of Qatar four years from now, when France will hope to defend its title and the smaller nations will have been given hope by Croatia.

"Talent is not sufficient," Deschamps said before departing to rejoin the victory celebrations. "What makes the difference is psychological."

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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