MOSCOW (Reuters) - Not even the loudest of thunderclaps could shake Antoine Griezmann on Sunday, as the 27-year-old chose the World Cup final to live up to the star billing his talent has for so long promised.
Ignoring the crashing of the heavens, and a sea of angry, whistling fans, the Frenchman wrong-footed the goalkeeper and calmly stroked home the second of France’s goals in a breathtaking 4-2 win over Croatia.
Flashes of lightning followed which was fitting for a mercurial player at the centre of all French creativity whose sparks of inspiration helped illuminate an extraordinary final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Griezmann set up France’s opener with a deftly-floated free kick, which was glanced into his own net by Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, and he laid off a superbly weighted ball for Paul Pogba to rattle home France’s third at the second attempt.
It was also Griezmann’s corner which created the solitary goal in France’s semi-final victory over Belgium.
Yet remarkably, for a player courted by the world’s biggest clubs who won the golden boot at Euro 2016 and was voted that tournament’s best player, his only major team honour was a Europa League winners’ medal, won with Atletico Madrid this year.
No more. On Sunday night Griezmann and his team mates produced a pulsating performance before falling to the ground, hugging and sobbing as world champions.
“I do not know where I am,” the stunned 27-year-old said while organisers hurried to set up the presentation stage on the pitch. “We cannot wait to lift the Cup and bring it back to France.”
While waiting for the presentation Griezmann burst into tears, seemingly as the enormity of his team’s achievement swept over him, and while a rainstorm soaked the Luzhniki arena, the player embraced French president Emmanuel Macron who kissed his forehead and clasped his shoulders.
Once the French had their hands on the coveted golden trophy, Griezmann grasped it and ran down to fans behind the goal to show them the World Cup, before skipping back along the side of the pitch holding it aloft.
And when he finally emerged from his on-pitch celebrations the tears had been replaced by a wide smile.
“Frankly I have not yet realised what we have done,” he grinned after being named man-of-the-match.
“The World Cup... it’s a lot... I am very proud of this team, the players, the coach, the staff. We were really a united group either on the bench or in the line-up. We did something incredible, we wrote history,” he said, downplaying his individual role.
But certainly it had been a virtuoso performance by a player of undoubted talent who finally answered his doubters on the game’s biggest stage.
He had stayed calm under pressure, unlocked the Croatian defence and been key to victory.
For now, though, he wanted to look forward.
“Now we will party and tomorrow we will party with France and with all the French people,” he said, again breaking into an enormous grin.
“It is France we love. (We have) different origins but we are all united. We are many players with different backgrounds, but we have the same goal, we wear the same jersey, we work for each other.
And now they will party together. As world champions.
Editing by Ed Osmond