Sometimes, only rarely, you get an ending that fits.
This World Cup – already the finest in recent memory – finished on Sunday with a match so remarkable that it seemed custom-tailored to the occasion. Everything about the final two hours in Moscow will be celebrated, debated, picked over and replayed for years to come.
France was the 4-2 victor, deservedly. Croatia lost it, unfairly.
In this unique instance, those two opposed ideas can be said to be true. The great winners in all of it were the hundreds of millions of neutrals who had the pleasure of watching.
As a rule, World Cup finals are turgid affairs. Once the enormity of the prize gets into players’ heads, teams capable of world-class flair revert to amateurish caution.
Often, one weary mistake ends it, and only the champions find the result satisfying.
In Sunday’s final, both teams came to play. Then things got strange. And then they got stranger.
The result was a champagne buffet of incident, quality, disaster and injustice, along with special musical guests Pussy Riot, the anti-Kremlin punk band, delivering an unscripted pitch invasion. There have been seasons of soccer that did not contain as much as this game.
There was an own goal, a penalty goal, another the result of pure goalkeeping madness and three more of outrageous elegance. It was like a Wikipedia entry titled, Goals: A Comprehensive Guide.
Croatia will exit sport’s biggest stage feeling hard done by. Most of that animus will be directed at the referee, Nestor Pitana. The poor Argentine had an awful time of it in the early going.
He called a phantom foul that allowed the free kick that led to France’s first tally, a beautiful effort nodded into the Croatian net. Unfortunately, it was put in by a Croatian, Mario Mandzukic.
For the next five minutes, Mr. Mandzukic staggered about the pitch in a daze. You could see his life coming apart in instalments. He needn’t have worried. So much was left to happen that by the end, you could hardly recall Mr. Mandzukic’s gaffe. It seemed to have taken place weeks before.
Croatia responded through Ivan Perisic. Then Mr. Pitana pooched it again – an uncalled handball in the box that turned into a grossly unfair penalty for the French once he’d had a long look at the replay.
We’d almost got to the end of a month without the Video Assistant Referee system revealing itself for what it is – a more scientific way of getting things wrong. Mr. Pitana has done soccer a service by reminding everyone that subjective things – such as whether someone intends to touch a ball while leaping and twisting in a forest of bodies – remain subjective no matter how long you stare at them.
Had 2-1 been the final scoreline, we’d now be in the cancel-all-police-leaves stage of Croatian anger. And they’d have been quite right.
But, in a small mercy for the game and, bizarrely, its Croatian opponents, France scored twice more. Those goals spared the runners-up a lifetime of wondering.
Croatia also scored again – Mr. Mandzukic, another small karmic miracle – when French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris decided to walk the ball about in front of his own net for 15 minutes. Mr. Mandzukic sprinted up, tapped it away from him and in.
This was the DEFCON 1 of goalkeeping howlers. It’s the sort of goof-up that ends careers. Had it been the margin in a French loss, they’d be rolling the guillotine back out in front of the Bastille.
But in the end, it didn’t matter and Mr. Lloris didn’t seem to care. He didn’t celebrate any more or less exuberantly than his teammates. He was already confident that the worst professional screw-up of his life had advanced to the “something we can look back at and laugh about” stage.
That’s how weird this game was – something that would be considered difficult to believe had it happened on a November afternoon in Bournemouth was just another thing that happened in the final of the World Cup.
The whole game was – there is only one word for it – bizarre.
One of the great beauties of this tournament – and especially so from the Canadian perspective – is that you needn’t care all that much about who wins to enjoy it.
You may have an old-country connection to one of the participants, but it’s limited by geography. You don’t live there.
When your team goes out, you’re free to pick another. You won’t root for them nearly as hard, but you’ll pay attention. When that one loses, yet another catches your eye.
You have your choice of underdogs, hot, new tickets or traditional powers. Maybe a few at once. The tournament goes on long enough that you can really dig in to unfamiliar sides.
But by the end, your team is long gone and all you’re pulling for is a good game. What you ask of the eventual champion is that it performs with ambition and wins deservedly.
(Also, it would be nice if the game had some off-the-ball talking point, some show-stopping highlight or something to spark a good bar argument.)
If that’s the measure of greatness, France and Croatia put in one of the great shifts in sports history. They gave us a classic at the exact moment everyone was hoping for one.
For the French, the result is an extension of their already estimable soccer glory. They are now two-time World Cup winners. Their manager, Didier Deschamps, is only the third man to win as both player and coach. This generation of players is still young. The best of them – Kylian Mbappé, scorer of a peach of a goal on Sunday – is only 19.
France has the capacity to dominate internationally for the next decade.
Even if that turns out to be the case, it will be difficult for the French to outdo this moment.
Along with Croatia, France has given us the Citizen Kane of soccer matches – one that you could profitably watch a hundred times and still find something new in it upon each viewing.
World and European titles are wonderful things. But is there anything greater than one perfectly imperfect game?
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the referee Nestor Pitana’s last name. This article reflects the correction.