The first goal is the one I think I’ll remember. It wasn’t the pretty one—that would be Paul Pogba’s, which came in the fifty-ninth minute, after a long pass from Pogba to Kylian Mbappé, the visionary precision of which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And it wasn’t the jaw-dropping one—that would be Mbappé’s own, a few minutes later, when he blasted the ball almost casually into the net from twenty-five yards out. No, the goal that most neatly symbolized France’s World Cup-winning 4–2 victory over Croatia, on Sunday—and, for that matter, Les Bleus’ brilliant, contrary, insolent, dazzling World Cup campaign—was the one that shouldn’t have counted. It was the one they didn’t score.
This was a team, after all, that thrived by making beauty incidental. No team in the World Cup possessed more lethal attacking talent. No team scored more gasp-inducing goals. Benjamin Pavard’s screaming volley against Argentina might have been the goal of the tournament. The sight of Mbappé warping down the pitch on the counter, moving so fast that he looked like a trick of the light—like an artifact within the camera lens—might have been its most indelible image. But the impression France gave, in match after match, was that these were weapons it would rather not utilize. Sure, Didier Deschamps’s tactics seemed to say, we can unleash a thousand dragons; we can turn the world into fire. But why should we?
Why, when it’s easier and more confounding to pack the back of the pitch, frustrate you, confuse you, let you wear yourself out, and then tesseract past you when you’re too maddened and tired to expect it? The weird miracle of France’s run through the World Cup was that the team played what looked like negative football while visibly retaining the high-alert, supercharged-ions look of a group that’s on the attack. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was as if José Mourinho had devised a game plan for the Harlem Globetrotters. To appreciate what the French players were doing you had to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. It wasn’t negative football. It was negative-capability football. And it worked.
For that reason, though, it’s hard to imagine that this French victory will transform soccer tactics in the way that Spain’s victory in 2010 did, or Germany’s in 2014. Anyone can copy a style of passing, or a disposition toward pressing on defense. How do you copy a self-negating philosophical principle? France’s tactics looked less like a diagram of movement and more like the realization, on the pitch, of a book of paradoxical koans. You shall triumph when you overcome that which would allow you to triumph. Only by embracing limits will you ever truly be free!
But, then, this was a paradoxical World Cup. Politically, it was somehow both a massive authoritarian distraction—the cutaway shots of FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, grinning beside Vladimir Putin in the stands—and a sustained demonstration of human unity in joy. Aesthetically, it was both the most thrilling World Cup in recent memory and the one with the least straightforward drama; every French match, at least, felt like the comments section to an article that no one had time to read. Narratively, it was fascinatingly ambiguous. World Cups generally turn into coronations for a single dominant team, but France seemed to invert all the normal expectations for dominance. Belgium was a dominant team. Croatia was a dominant team. France just won the World Cup.
And so the goal that stood out, for me, was the first. In the eighteenth minute, Antoine Griezmann took a cheeky dive, after being lightly breathed upon by Marcelo Brozović. Free kick to France, thirty yards from the Croatian goal. Griezmann took it. The ball clanged off the head of Mario Mandžukić, who could not have seen it coming, and ricocheted past Danijel Subašić and into the netting. Croatia had been the better team. But now France led, 1–0.
And this, you felt, was what France had been playing for all along. Isn’t the ideal to win without having to take a shot? Wouldn’t that be, in a way, the most convincing victory? The French stars are faster than you, but before that they are smarter than you, and they are meaner, and they don’t care what you think the sport is supposed to look like. And, anyway, they’re the world champions. So, what’s it supposed to look like? This is 2018. Who said anything was going to make sense?