As the curtain falls on what has been an exhilarating display of football, France could emerge as the world champions on Sunday afternoon, but that will be flowing against the tide of a vexing 2018 World Cup script, argues MQONDISI DUBE
Russia's weather is known to be unforgivingly cold, but when the 32 teams touched down for the 2018 World Cup, temperatures were significantly warmer.
However, the build-up to the tournament resembled the dominant cold Russian weather; there was no vibe, it was cold.
But once the hosts blasted five past a hapless Saudi Arabia in the opening match, the mood significantly shifted. What followed was end-to-end action, probably the best seen on the field since France 1998.
While in most World Cup tournaments, there have been upsets, these usually come in drips and drabs. But the scriptwriters for the Russia tournament opened the 'upsets' floodgates.
It has been relentless, breath taking action, which saw a first World Cup without one of the regular Big Brothers: Germany, Italy, Argentina and Brazil in the semifinals.
For neutrals, this was the stuff of dreams, a World Cup that did not respect names but form. Italy had failed to make it to the finals for the first time since 1958, with some remarking, "a World Cup without the ‘Azurri’ was like pizza without cheese".
Germany, in keeping with what is fast becoming an acceptable, but cruel rule, bombed out in the group stages, following in the footsteps of other defending champions, France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014. Only Brazil upset the script after winning the 2002 edition in South Korea; they refused to bow out in the group stages in Germany in 2006.
The exit of Germany in Russia marked the first major casualty, but the warning lights had already flashed right in Portugal and Argentina's face. Iceland had held Argentina to a 1-1 draw, while Croatia thumped Lionel Messi's side 3-0.
Portugal almost went out and had to cling on against an unheralded Iran while Argentina were minutes away from elimination when Marcos Rojo popped up with an 84th minute winner against Nigeria in the final round
The stage had been perfectly set for an exhilarating tournament and one-by-one, the giants began tumbling out.
Portugal and Argentina did not last long, taking the next off-ramp; the round of 16. Before long, the most successful team in the World Cup history, Brazil was at the boarding gate ready to fly back to Brasília after a 2-1 loss to Belgium. Before then, Belgium had to hang on for dear life, as they needed a late winner to dispatch a stubborn Japan 3-2, in the round of 16.
Russia, after suffering a 3-0 reversal at the hands of Uruguay, were seen as no hoppers against 2010 champions, Spain in the round of 16. But true to the script, Russia breezed through, to make it to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1970.
The semi finalists had two previous winners, France and England, who were the 'script spoilers' although the English's progress is in line with the shock results. England has been far from impressive in recent tournaments, and was only making the semifinals for the first time since 1990.
There was a prospect of a final of novices, had Belgium triumphed over France and Croatia overcame England.
Belgium failed to read the right script, as Samuel Umtiti rose above Marouane Fellani to power in the winner for France. But the script was back and firmly intact when Ivan Perisic pushed the ball home, to cancel out the England opener on Wednesday night. The game went into extra time and Mario Mandzukic reacted the fastest to a ball played into the box, to fire Croatia to their first ever World Cup final.
For now, France is the major impediment to the completion of an amazing World Cup script. Croatia, a nation of just over four million people, now carries the gargantuan task of crafting the perfect, unimagined World Cup script in recent years.