Didier Deschamps: an apology. There was a theory that only one man could stop France from winning the World Cup and that individual was not Neymar or Lionel Messi, but Deschamps. Instead, he has now emulated Franz Beckenbauer, the only other to win the World Cup as both captain and manager.
It is a remarkable feat, but, until the flurry of goals rendered it one of the most entertaining World Cup finals, this felt a very Deschamps kind of win, incorporating an own goal from a free kick that probably should not have been awarded and a disputed penalty and included a first half when France had one shot and scored twice. Perhaps it represented a victory for pragmatism over romanticism.
The dream that a country of barely four million people could win the World Cup died. Deschamps, a former defensive midfielder whose first substitution was to bring on a defensive midfielder, was its unsentimental assassin.
Croatia may have been the best team for much of the first hour, but France lifted the trophy. They did so emphatically, but also deservedly. They became the first side since the great Brazilians of 1970 to score four goals in the World Cup final. The idea that Deschamps is one of management’s roundheads was rebutted by his charges.
They have been the tournament’s strongest team, the best balanced, with excellence in each half of the pitch, courtesy of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, plus N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane.
Even the names reflect Deschamps’ good fortune and yet talent still needs harnessing and organising, configuring and motivating. France froze in the final of Euro 2016. Two years later, they performed.
Gifted players ended up expressing themselves. Mbappe became the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final when drilling in their fourth. Pogba delivered the third to show how he has allied defensive discipline with attacking threat.
Above all, though, there was Griezmann. He was Euro 2016’s top scorer. Mbappe’s emergence has demoted him to the supporting cast. Perhaps that enabled him to ghost around, a master of elusive excellence.
Griezmann teed Pogba up for his goal. He ends the tournament with four goals and three assists. A man who missed a penalty in a Champions League final scored one in a World Cup final, albeit after the intervention of VAR.
France’s opener was the third goal in as many games that has stemmed from Griezmann’s dead-ball expertise. In the quarter- and semi-finals his set-pieces were headed in by Varane and Umtiti. This time, the unwitting Mario Mandzukic applied the final touch for a goal he later cancelled out with one at the right end.
It was a sign of the spirit that has propelled Croatia thus far. Trailing and forever mounting comebacks is not a failsafe formula, but a team who ought to have been tired have instead proved terrific.
Yet France’s status as rightful winners is underlined by their route to glory: Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium, Croatia. They have beaten the attacking and the defensive, the individuals and the true teams.
And teamwork has long been a priority for Deschamps. From Karim Benzema to Adrien Rabiot, gifted players have been omitted in his reign. It is easier to make such decisions when the alternatives are so enticing but the collective has been prioritised. His decision-making – restoring Olivier Giroud to the starting 11 as the non-scoring striker, removing the booked Kante – has been justified.
Just as he did in 1998, Deschamps has drawn players together. He was never the most showy of players and he has similar traits as a manager. Perhaps it means he is underestimated. But he is a select group of two now: the only men who have led teams to the World Cup as both player and manager.