Moscow (AFP) – A month on and 63 games later, the 2018 World Cup reaches its climax on Sunday as a young France side spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann look to win the trophy for the second time when they take on Croatia in Moscow.
It is a final very few people could have anticipated four weeks ago, when the competition in Russia was just beginning.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar have all gone home. So have the traditional powers of the international game — Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Instead it is a gifted French side with the second-youngest squad at the tournament, embodied by the lightning-quick Mbappe, who face a Croatian team inspired by Luka Modric, arguably the finest midfielder in the world at the moment.
Perhaps many neutrals will be disappointed that it has not come down to a clash between two genuine giants of the game, or that there is no South American presence.
It is just the second time that none of Brazil, Germany, Italy or Argentina have made the final, after Spain’s win over the Netherlands in 2010.
A tournament that will be remembered for the colourful presence of hordes of Latin American supporters has a final between two European sides after the continent exerted its power in the latter stages.
But this is still the World Cup final, and for France there is the possibility to join Argentina and Uruguay in winning the trophy for the second time, after 1998.
Back then, Didier Deschamps was the captain. Now he is the coach, and he can become just the third man to win the trophy as a player and a manager, after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer.
– ‘The game of our lives’ –
“A World Cup final, it’s a bit like a boyhood dream coming true,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
“We are so close to the trophy that we want to touch it. This is the game of our lives.”
Beaten on penalties by Italy in the 2006 final, France’s hunger is all the greater after the agony of their defeat as hosts against Portugal in the Euro 2016 final.
“It serves a lesson to us, and it means we know what it is to play in a final,” added Matuidi.
Half of France’s team is different now, however, with Mbappe having burst onto the scene. His explosive performance in the 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16 lit up the competition, but apart from that France have played like a Deschamps side, with the emphasis on defence.