France overpowers Croatia 4-2 to win 2nd World Cup

The final ends a tournament full of surprises in a briefly changed Russia.

France overwhelmed Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday to win the biggest tournament in international soccer for the second time.

France had been among the favorites to win the tournament from the outset and proved too much for Croatia, who dominated possession but were undone by an early own goal and a penalty given for the first time in World Cup history using the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Croatia pulled two back, including one from a goalkeeping error, but it wasn't enough with a French win cemented in the 65th minute by 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé.

The first French goal came off Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic's head from a free-kick in the 18th minute. Croatia equalized 10 minutes later through Ivan Perisic, but at the 35th minute France won a penalty.

It almost didn't happen -- referee Nestor Pitana initially gave a corner kick to France after the ball appeared to come off Perisic hand but the VAR system, introduced for the first time this World Cup, suggested he review the decision. After consulting the VAR, Pinatan ruled it had been handball and gave the pentalty.

Antoine Griezmann slotted the penalty left into the Croatian goal putting France 2-1 up.

Croatia never caught back up, though they kept battling. On the 59th minute, Paul Pogba scored a strong goal off his own rebound to put France 3-1 up and then a superb, low, long strike from Mbappé sealed France's victory in what was the highest scoring World Cup final since 1966.

It gave France its second World Cup win; it last won in 1998 when it hosted the competition.

Till the end, this was a surprising World Cup, of firsts and upsets -- the penalty, the first ever given after a VAR review remains controversial, with opinions online divided over whether it had in fact been a handball from Persic.

The game was also disrupted when, shortly into the second half, four members of the punk protest group, Pussy Riot ran onto the pitch and were chased and then dragged away by security. The activists were dressed as Russian police officers and released a statement saying the pitch invasion was a demonstration against political trials and persecution in Russia.

France's win brought to a close one of the most unpredictable tournaments in recent years in which many of the sport's giants fell by the wayside and underdogs exceeded expectations. Favorites Brazil, Spain and Germany all underperformed, while teams like England and Russia -- barely expected to progress -- reached the semi-finals and quarter-finals, respectively.

Croatia, while never a complete outsider, was nonetheless one of those, with a team of world-class but older players digging deep to get their country to its first World Cup final. Along the way, they dispatched two favorites going into the competition, beating the European champions Portugal, and running roughshod over Argentina in a spectacular 3-1 win.

France, by contrast, started as a favorite and drove toward the final with a single-minded determination that's produced results, if not always excitement. A young team flush with talent, they have turned their brilliance on and off when required -- winning a stunning 4-3 victory against Argentina, coming from behind with some of the most spectacular goals of the tournament.

But in the final group-state match they settled for an infuriating 0-0 draw with Denmark in which both sides essentially agreed not to play, needing just 1 point each to qualify for the following round. In the semifinal, France elected to smother a creative Belgium, suffocating its attack and relying on a single goal.

But they were seen as worthy winners as they raised the cup in the Luzhnik stadium. They were watched by French President Emmanuel Macron, who attended along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Macron and Putin met for talks first in the Kremlin.

The final also closes out a World Cup for Russia that has also, for a month at least, transformed the cities in which it was held, with a party atmosphere reigning and fans from a bewildering combination of countries dancing in the streets and partying every night for weeks on end.

In Moscow, residents have been stunned at what has been permitted during the competition, and the light touch of police, who stood by and allowed the party to go on, including drinking that's normally forbidden in public areas, and wild scenes right up to the Kremlin.

Fears that the competition would be marred by violence from soccer hooligans -- over-emphasized by some media before the tournament -- never materialized thanks to an aggressive crackdown by Russia's security services. Fans arriving in Moscow also enjoyed the city, which has received a colossal makeover in recent years, and some were surprised at the thriving restaurants and bars that have appeared to replace the post-Soviet gloom many expected.

After Sunday's final, thousands of Russians again flooded the area around the Kremlin, filling Nikolskaya Street, which has become the epicenter of the street parties for the past month. Russians, yelling "Russia" and waving flags, vastly outnumbered the jubilant French.

If you didn't know, you would think it was Russia that had won the World Cup.

"France won but all the same it's Russia that's victorious," said Vova Antonov, a fan partying on Nikolskaya.

The tournament has without a doubt been a boon for the Kremlin in altering the country's perception on the world stage, temporarily competing with headlines about its bombing campaign in Syria, war in Ukraine, nerve-agent poisonings in Britain, political repression at home and election meddling in the United States and elsewhere.

But few expect the spell will last far beyond Sunday's final when the last fans begin to leave Moscow and Putin on Monday heads for Finland for his first summit with President Trump.

Russian police have already said that drinking laws will be reasserted, waving flags in the Red Square will likely be ill-advised and climbing lampposts to shout probably will end in arrest. Even during the tournament, two prominent human rights activists were detained for holding signs calling for the release of Oyub Titiev, who leads the rights group Memorial in Chechnya and who is currently on trial.

That case and others will remain once the tournament ends, including that of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who has been on a hunger strike in a Russian jail for 63 days while demanding the release of three dozen other Ukrainian political prisoners.

"It will become sad," said Nikolai Korshch, wistfully amid the crowds in central Moscow. "Like they put the lights out."

The World Cup, though, will perhaps leave a mark on Russia, beyond the stadiums built or refurbished in 11 cities across the European half of the country. It will also be remembered for Russia's own team's shocking success, reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1970 by beating Spain, having been dismissed even by their own fans as likely not to even reach the knockout stages.

It will perhaps also be remembered as a moment when Russia and the rest of the world could have fun together.

"I really wish it could continue a little longer," said Svetlana Panina, dressed in a Russian headdress in a crowd of fans.

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