Here we are now. And how they have entertained us! As the most attractive, most open football World Cup in recent memory approaches its conclusion, after four-and-a-half weeks of thrilling, nerve-shredding, who-dares-wins play from 32 teams, only two are left standing. In Moscow on Sunday, France — one of the pre-tournament favourites — will play Croatia — who no one gave a ghost of a chance before the tournament started — for the most glorious prize in international football.
What a final we have on our hands. And what a study in contrast the two teams are.
France, a traditional football powerhouse, former World and European champions, blessed with a new generation of lethal attacking talent, counting among their number the audaciously gifted 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, who is the breakout star of the tournament, the only teenager after Pele to have scored three goals in the World Cup finals, defensively drilled, discipline blended to perfection with verve, managed by a former World Cup and Euro winner.
And who are they up against? Croatia, a country with a population of four million, forged by war, with no formal football education system, who have never been in a final before, led by Luka Modric, a genius of a playmaker who is one of the most underrated footballers in the world, a man who, with his slight build and 1970s hairstyle, looks a throwback to a different era, the very antithesis of the buffed, tattooed and elaborately coiffured modern, elite footballer.
Their progress through the tournament, too, could not have been more different. France have played within themselves; they have been a menacing, controlled presence, capable of exploding into the realm of the otherworldly. Croatia have hauled themselves over the line, leaving everything on the pitch in every knockout game, winning two consecutive matches in penalty shootouts and, level with England at the end of 90 minutes of the semi final, sealing their win in the 19th minute of extra time.
If you were to want two more contrasting teams, you would have to invent them.
Openness and unpredictability have been two of the tropes that have defined this tournament. They have been two recurring themes of this World Cup. The matchup between France and Croatia in the final is a tribute to these motifs, the perfect coda to a perfect tournament.