VAR has generally been hailed as a success in this tournament, but it destroyed the World Cup final. Croatia, quite rightly, were left wondering how a system brought in to eliminate obvious errors could make two decisive mistakes within 18 first-half minutes, the first allowing a French goal to stand that probably should have been ruled out for offside, and then gifting them an extremely dubious penalty.
Human error at high speed is one thing; human error having viewed, or refused to view, replays, something else. The Argentine referee Nestor Pitana had a desperate game.
Croatia have made a habit on this tournament of defying the odds, but there are certain odds that simply cannot be overcome. To beat a squad with the talent and depth of France, having already played 90 more minutes than them in the tournament, was always a huge ask for Croatia. To have to do it after their opponents had been handed two goals made it all but impossible.
France are a cussed, tough, well-organised side. They were probably the best team in this tournament, but they will not be much-loved beyond their borders. For all the quality in their ranks, they are a determinedly prosaic team. There is a sense with them almost of an opportunity missed, of a glorious side that has not quite been allowed to develop. They had done nothing from an attacking point of view when they took a 17th-minute lead, with the first controversial goal.
There was a question as to whether Marcelo Brozovic had actually fouled Antoine Griezmann in the concession of a free-kick, to which the answer was maybe, but the Atletico forward was clearly ready to collapse long before any contact came. Then, there was the issue of Paul Pogba being offside as Griezmann delivered a perfectly flighted free-kick. Although he did not touch the ball, he did touch Mario Mandzukic, who would not have needed to go for the ball had Pogba not been there.
As it was, Mandzukic, stretching, ended up flicking the ball into the top corner. It’s very hard to see how Pogba was not interfering. But VAR was not consulted and the goal stood.
The script said that, at that point, an exhausted Croatia should collapse. But this is a remarkably resilient side, one that had fallen behind in each of its four previous knock-out games. It levelled in this one too, Ivan Perisic switching cleverly on to his left foot before driving in with the aid of a slight deflection as Croatia kept a free-kick alive in the box.
The game seemed finely poised until, 13 minutes before the break, a near-post corner flicked off Blaise Matuidi and struck the arm of Perisic. He was not more than two feet behind the midfielder, probably unsighted and his arm was down by his side, in no realistic sense in an unnatural position.
But the decision was reviewed and Pitana, whose reputation in Argentina is as a man who loves the limelight, gave a penalty that Griezmann converted.
There has been a liberalisation of the interpretation of the handball law over the past two years that has acknowledged that players’ arms have to be somewhere and that it shouldn’t be an offence unless players make a clear effort to gain an advantage with their hands.
This World Cup, as penalties for Portugal and Australia demonstrated before, has been a regression to the bad old days when major decisions were made on moments of chance. Even in that context, though, this was a bizarre decision. France, having had one shot in the entire game to that point, were somehow 2-1 up.
There was a Croatian flurry early in the second half and Hugo Lloris, as he tends to do once a game, made an outstanding save, this time denying Ante Rebic.
But Croatia’s fatigued limbs were always vulnerable to France’s pace in the counter. First Pogba took advantage following a Kylian Mbappe surge down the right, then Mbappe himself, after a glorious pass from Pogba, drilled in a finish from 25 yards to become the first teenager since Pele to score in a final. Mandzukic capitalised on a rare moment of sloppiness from Lloris to pull one back, but the game had long since been done.
France are an undeniably solid side and have many very fine players. The youth development programmes that have led to the extraordinary explosion in French talent over the past quarter-century or so are still in full working order. For the third World Cup in a row, the side that won is one that has industrialised youth production.
Performances in subsequent tournaments may lead history to look judge this side kindly, as the Euro 2000 success shone a rosier light on 1998, but in the moment, this all felt a little unsatisfactory.
Ce n’est pas magnifique, mais c’est la VAR.