When it rained goals and tears in a FIFA World Cup Final

Putin, Macron, Modric French President Emmanuel Macron embraces Croatia's Luke Modric at the post-match ceremony after the World Cup final as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic watch on | AFP

How many movies have you watched where there is a scene that tugs at your heart, and it rains at just the right time? Too many to count? How about if the downpour was coordinated so well in the most important sporting event of the year, that you'd wonder if those weather 'gods' were actually watching the game with great interest?

Silly, yes. But fiction became a stunning reality at the Luzhniki Stadium, when a warm sunny day suddenly turned overcast towards the 18th minute of the FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia. Croatia had conceded a free kick against the mighty France. Antoine Greizmann stepped up, swung a free kick that missed all the heads, except one. The ball grazed the head of Mario Mandzukic before settling inside the net. Drizzle.

The gloomy skies seemed to reflect the mood of the Croatians, rather than the French. This was supposed to be the day of the underdog, but here was Croatia 'taking the L' from Greizmann. It was about the same time that Novak Djokovic beat an underdog finalist, Kevin Anderson, in (one of) the biggest games of the tennis calendar.

Suddenly, things weren't looking good for the challengers on the day. Djokovic may have pledged his support for the Croatian team, but he seemed more like France in his Wimbledon final—staging a comeback after a lengthened lull, cruising to a redemptive victory. France had won its first and last World Cup back in 1998. They now have two and a bright future ahead.

Perhaps, the loss in the Euro 2016 final was the lesson the team needed to pull itself up. Just like Sunday, France were the overwhelming favourites on that fateful day, but they had lost to an average Portugal side. Croatia, as they have proved through this tournament, was no average side, but compared to the vibrant, pacy and lethal Frenchmen, they were no match.

Croatia pulled through to the final on the back of three consecutive games that ended in a draw by the 90-minute mark. Two finished on penalties, while the semifinal was settled in extra time. Those teams were, indeed, average sides, and they brought out the fighting spirit of the Croats. The small nation of 4 million people displayed a knack of returning stronger to lazy starts in each game.

When Ivan Perisic levelled scores in the final with a wicked strike, it looked like the game was well and truly on, with the possibility of a Croatian fightback. The rain had stopped, and things on the pitch were starting to look bright for the Croatians once again. Then, the much forgotten video assistant referee decided that it would not be right if the final of the system's first World Cup did not feature one of his interventions. The hero had turned villain—Perisic had handled the ball in the box.

It was Greizmann once again, to take the set piece. Olivier Giroud kissed his forehead, there was a loud rumble from the skies as Greizmann walked up to the ball, and he delivered it with ease. The game started to slip away from Croatia, and France were a goal up at half-time. Until that point, Croatia were dominating the game. But the second half took the game away from the Croats, as France galloped away at a pace that was too fast for their rivals.

The two players who had come to define the French campaign, Pogba and Mbappe, scored from outside the box. But not for one moment, did the Croatians look like they would give up. They looked harried and lost. But they pressed on, nevertheless. The failure to close down the gaps and allow Pogba and Mbappe to score was haunting them. Mandzukic pulled one back in the most bizarre fashion, not befitting a final, when it seemed like Hugo Lloris had tried to nutmeg the striker, but it rebounded off him and into the net.

The ending happened so quickly. After the last three World Cup finals ended in extra time, to watch a tournament like this end so tamely was somewhat of a dampener, not because one side was just better, but also because they were the most clinical. Croatia had all the match statistics in their favour, but lacked the killer instinct that the French possessed in abundance.

It turned out to be a horror night for Croatia, but the country had come this far and their supporters were more than just proud. The Croatian players stood in a huddle after the game and patted each other on the back. It may not be the most fitting end to a World Cup this entertaining—who doesn't love a competitive final—but this group had lived a fairytale.

For the French side, the young group had slipped under the radar during the group stage, where the focus was everywhere else but their party. France looked lacklustre against the small teams they faced, but once out of the group, they burst onto the scene, reminding everyone why they were one of the strongest teams on paper all along. It wasn't the most beautiful football that won France the title, but the victory was a product of the sum of the parts that contributed each in their unique way.

Kylian Mbappe was awarded the young player of the tournament and with good reason. The 19-year-old is the first since Pele to score in a World Cup final. The boy is extremely aware of his skyrocketing stock and his celebrity status. Under a good coach, he will learn to keep his head down and work hard to emulate the works of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Unlike the two legends, Mbappe has a World Cup even before he left his teens.

Also in esteemed company is the little engine of the Croatia team—Luka Modric. He won the Golden Ball award for the player of the tournament, joining a long list of players including Messi, Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and Johan Cruyff. But the warrior had a hollow look in his eyes. Tears welled up as he waved at the Croatian supporters. Later, he collected his award and stood on the little stage posing for pictures. But there was no smile.

Modric stood there with the Golden Ball, but he looked like he would burst into tears anytime. The whole crowd roared. Everybody knew that the man deserves more than just the Golden Ball, for his impact on this team. Like Lionel Messi, four years ago, Modric carried his team to the final. But there was little the two men could do.

Then, as the Croats collected their silver medals... It rained. No, it poured. The world leaders stood drenched, as the Croats came, one by one, took their medal and left. It signified not only the downpour of goals on the day, but also the tears of Croats. The tears in Zagreb, where tens of thousands had gathered to cheer their ragtag team of heroes. There was no revenge of 1998 this time.

Their beautiful story had come to an end at the hands of the ruthless Frenchmen. But it was a story the FIFA World Cup desperately needed. It is a subplot in the larger picture of this highly entertaining tournament, which sets it apart as one of the best editions in its 88-year history. More than a victory for the French, the 2018 World Cup will be remembered for a long time to come as the first time an underdog got to the final. And that is how it should be.