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Skill beats scrap

France’s soccer team players celebrate as they hold their World Cup trophy. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

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Skill beats scrap

After surprises and upsets, France wins the World Cup

France, the second-youngest team in the FIFA World Cup tournament, yesterday beat Croatia 4-2 to win the cup for the first time since 1998. Croatia had won each of its three previous matches either during the 30 minutes of extra time when the first 90 minutes ended in a tie, or past that in a shootout.

The scrappy Croatians couldn’t beat either the skillful French or new technology. This World Cup was the first to use the controversial video assistant referee (VAR), and the referee on the field consulted VAR before reversing his original call and awarding France a key goal on a penalty kick by Antoine Griezmann.

Croatia’s appearance in the final was just one of the plot twists in the tournament. World Cup competition includes 32 teams, and this year’s first shock for Americans came when the United States team, ranked 25th in the world, failed to qualify. U.S. viewership of the 2018 competition was 42 percent lower than in 2014, when the U.S. team did play. Volkswagen and other companies created commercials featuring fans from different countries trying to convince Americans to support Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, or others.

Soccer fans were surprised when England’s new coach, Gareth Southgate, left off the team two of the country’s best players, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, when he felt they were not a good fit. England defender Danny Rose told reporters the team after that knew Southgate meant business. This year the team won its first penalty shootout in a World Cup, and the jaded English started watching the games religiously—even in theater audiences and wedding ceremonies. In the end, the English team that had not seen a semifinal match for 30 years came one game short of the final.

The tournament took place in Russia, and as always the host country played the first match. Some analysts thought Russia faced immediate elimination, but Russia beat teams including 2010 winner Spain and made it to the quarterfinals. Individual brilliance was not enough in the tournament: Many fans believe Lionel Messi is the best soccer player in the world, but Argentina didn’t make it to the quarterfinals. Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t carry Portugal very far. Germany, the 2014 champion, did not even advance to the final 16.

In the quarterfinals, France eliminated Uruguay and its star Luis Suárez. Belgium defeated Brazil, the second-best team in the world. England beat Sweden, 2-0, keeping its dream alive. But Russia’s run ended after an excruciating match against Croatia. With an injured goalkeeper and exhausted team, Croatia managed to hold on to a tie score and go to penalty kicks to eliminate the host country.

France knocked out Belgium in one semifinal after a pristine match with jaw-dropping plays from both sides. France’s Kylian Mbappé, 19, had gained fame when he scored two decisive goals against Argentina. He drew more international attention for his play against Belgium.

In the other semifinal, England scored early against Croatia, dominating the first half with possession and play. In the 67th minute of the game, Croatia scored and managed to hold on and send the game to extra time. In the 108th minute, Croatian forward Mario Mandžukić scored, giving his side the lead. England was not able to bounce back.

Moscow provided the venue for the Croatia vs. France final. Mandžukić quickly went from fame to shame: France’s first goal came when the ball bounced off him. He made up for that with a goal late in the match, but it wasn’t enough. Mbappé scored another goal and Paul Pogba also drilled a low shot into the net.

The next World Cup will be fought for in Qatar in 2022. The Women’s World Cup tournament is in France next year.