Like Lionel Messi in Brazil four years ago, Croatia captain Luka Modric lost a World Cup final but won the Golden Ball given to the tournament’s best player.
Modric is metronomic, Mbappe works in bursts. With both teams playing 4-2-3-1, the Croatian playmaker lined up in the middle of the attacking three behind Mario Mandzukic, whereas Mbappe was on the right of France’s three. Almost everything for Croatia went through their captain and he never stopped looking for pockets of space. But his constant movement also meant he picked up loose balls and made a surprising number of tackles for a man not known as a destroyer. The 19-year-old Frenchman wanted the ball, too, but his wide role meant someone had to get it to him – he kept looking for it, though, and tried to help out his right-back Benjamin Pavard, who was having a hard time containing Ivan Perisic.
Croatia started by the far the better and Modric was the main architect, demanding the ball, laying it off, getting it back and then looking for a pass to break France’s lines. Mbappe, on the other hand, could not get in the game. There was a scuffed clearance, a bad touch and a squabble with Paul Pogba about not getting a pass earlier. But then we saw why he is likely to be one of the most exciting players in world football for the next decade. He made Ivan Strinic look silly with a run to the by-line, skinned Domagoj Vida in a foot race early in the second half, before repeating the trick to help set up Pogba for France’s third and then adding France’s fourth with a low drive from 25 yards out. Modric, meanwhile, was continuing to probe and harry but as France coach Didier Deschamps had said in the pre-match conference, he cannot do it on his own.
If by flair you immediately think of tricks, then Modric is not your kind of player. Mbappe is but he did not try many here, although everything he does has an element of showmanship – he is similar, in that way, to Cristiano Ronaldo. A roll of his studs over the ball, controlling passes with the outside of his boot, back-heeled flicks. What Modric gives you is consummate craftsmanship. His control is instant, his range of passing, with both feet, is phenomenal. Dead ball, moving ball, it does not matter. It was his free-kick that set up Perisic’s equaliser and he barely misplaced a pass all game.
If this was a boxing contest, the fight might have been stopped after six rounds. Modric was all impact. He took every Croatian set-piece and he seemed to have the ball at his feet every other sequence of play. But France are a formidable unit to penetrate and in Mbappe they have the most dangerous counter-puncher in the game. Having been quiet for most of the match, the boy from the banlieues gave us three demonstrations of his potency. He sent Vida loca twice, the first resulting in a shot on goal, the second in the cross for the Pogba goal, and then beat Subasic with a snap shot from distance. That made him the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score in a final and bag four goals at a World Cup. The Brazilian went on to have some impact on the game, so should Mbappe. The Paris St Germain star leaves Moscow with a winner’s medal and the prize for the best young player at the tournament – surely one of FIFA’s easier decisions.