Frantic final encapsulates a flawed but fabulous World Cup
Just like that, it's all over. What began under a cloud of tentative optimism has ended in a blaze of frantic and mesmeric glory, with a final that quite perfectly encapsulated the mad month of football that had preceded.
It was 90 minutes to sum up 33 days, a blurred mess of speed and strength and controversy, immaculate skill and referees running to televisions, and where the purest footballing team doesn't necessarily win but somehow Vladimir Putin is the only one under an umbrella in the pouring rain.
This was the Russia World Cup alright, its many warts and all.
That many have argued for this to be regarded as the greatest World Cup of all time shows how far football has come as pure entertainment. In this modern era, the teams do not need to be great, and the elite players do not even need to touch their very best for the games to be gripping, the storylines engaging and the tournament instantly memorable.
The final pitted two teams with contrasting footballing philosophies in a winner-takes-all death match. If not good vs evil, it was at the very least idealism vs pragmatism.
If you had been following events in Russia since June 14, you probably could have guessed the outcome. For all of Croatia's class on the ball, its determined pressing and intelligent exploitation of France's midfield holes, it came off second best to some bad luck, a set piece and that killer mix of unbelievable speed and skill.
When we look back at this tournament in years and decades to come, what will we remember?
Will it be the recurring images of a group of two or three forwards with jets in their boots racing towards an outnumbered pack of scrambling defenders? The likes of Hirving Lozano, Eden Hazard, Denis Cheryshev and most notably Kylian Mbappe putting the fear of God into defences on the counter-attack?
Perhaps it will be the sight of a lone giant overcoming a crowded sea of bodies in a penalty area to send the ball into the net — be it of his own team or the opposition — from a dead-ball situation?
Or will it be the one-on-one duel of the penalty, a goalkeeper staring down his opponent from 12 yards and daring him to blink first after the referee has made his most telling interjection, either on his own accord or with some help from his friends in the broadcast booth?
Whatever it is, you will have found it in this final. More than doing its tournament justice, this World Cup final wrapped it all up in a neat little highlights package, telling the full story of Russia 2018 without missing a beat.
This tournament's place in history is another matter entirely though, and one that will likely be coloured by what is to come. There's every chance we will look back at this as the last innocent World Cup — a ridiculous notion given the circumstances surrounding it — with the move to 48 teams and a November kick off in Qatar now just four-and-a-half years away.
In many ways it's the end of an era. No World Cup will ever look or feel like this one ever again, and whether that is for better or worse is, for now, a mystery.
But for now we can sit back and reflect on a pretty damn wonderful month of escapism in football, when the best of sport allowed us to briefly ignore the worst of everything else.
It's the greatest trick the World Cup plays, every four years, and even as its own waters get muddied you imagine that's how it will remain.
The 2018 World Cup and its final in Moscow were not exhibitions of football at its most progressive and imaginative, but at its most universally enjoyable and effortlessly entertaining.
And you really can't ask for a whole lot more than that.