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France’s Win Over Spain Was a Prelude to an Epic Rivalry in the Making

Kylian Mbappé’s defining touch, Sergio Busquets and Paul Pogba’s clinical mastery, the gift that is Gavi—France-Spain had it all, and there is plenty more to come

Getty Images/ Ringer illustration

If the UEFA Nations League final between France and Spain was a trailer for the next era of international soccer, then I can’t wait for the feature film. Here were two teams that, when playing at their peak, could make a good claim to be the best on the planet. We had Spain, whose intricate patterns of passing bewildered Italy during this summer’s European championships, and who were the only team to make Roberto Mancini’s champions look consistently vulnerable. Unluckily for Spain, we also had France, the current holders of the World Cup, and a side not only of remarkable technical ability but also the uncanny habit of winning while well below their best. To be reductive, this final was poetry against pragmatism: and France duly and sometimes dully prevailed 2-1. Still, some might say, it was only the Nations League, right? A tournament formed as no more than a series of glorified friendly fixtures. Who truly cares?

Well, this is the thing: Judging by the manner with which Luis Enrique celebrated his team’s goal Sunday, and with which Didier Deschamps greeted France’s victory, it mattered a huge amount to them. Enrique and Deschamps, like Zinedine Zidane before them, went from being hugely accomplished players to some of the most intriguing coaches in world soccer. Deschamps has been notable for effective if functional stewardship to a generation of French talent. Meanwhile, even while Enrique was winning a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League in his first season at Barcelona, many of his club’s own supporters doubted how good he really was. Yet Enrique long ago demonstrated that he has a rare ability for nurturing elite talent, and the latest proof of this gift has been his support of Gavi.

Against Italy in the Nations League semifinal and then France, to the bemusement of many, Enrique relied on the 17-year-old to provide balance and thrust in his midfield, and neither time did Gavi fail him. There was a period in this final when Gavi escaped the attention of his opponents twice in quick succession, as if his unassuming nature had caused them to underestimate him: Somehow both cunning and happy-go-lucky, he had the air of a fresh-faced child clambering over a fence to get into a music festival. Having seen how elusive he could be, France—and particularly Aurélien Tchouaméni, himself still only 21—swiftly improved their security measures after that.

The most notable thing about this game, from the very beginning, was the astonishing level of skill on display. This sounds like a trite thing to state, but it is easy to take this degree of technique for granted. There was one moment in the first half when Sergio Busquets watched a long clearance drop from the heavens and caught it with his instep as calmly as a man putting his house keys in his jacket pocket. On another occasion, Paul Pogba looked up at an apparently impregnable midfield and then rolled a sublime through-ball directly through it. It was fitting that these two players gave us these memories early in the encounter because in many ways they were the axis on which this match turned. Both of them play with a supremely unhurried style: in the case of Busquets, partly because he has never been quick, and in the case of Pogba, because his running style is such that he never looks as fast as he actually is. Pogba’s limbs don’t cover the ground so much as absorb it, his stride a sort of wormhole which folds vast distances across the pitch.

Watching Pogba play for France is always interesting. He so often appears more measured in possession—and happily so—than he does for Manchester United, where it is mostly his job to be effervescent. Before his team was stunningly eliminated by Switzerland at Euro 2020, he was possibly the tournament’s best player, and though he did not quite reach that peak Sunday he was the picture of control. He had to be because across from him Busquets was exceptional. The 33-year-old, now back to his best after some difficult months, nudged and dragged the ball here and there with infinite care, sending his opponents veering off in the wrong direction time and again with a subtle body swerve, a disdainful flick. While almost everyone else sprints, Busquets strolls about, his brain having already scanned the multiverse of threats and opportunities before him.

Though Busquets and Pogba may have seemed to lack a sense of urgency, these appearances were deceptive. Both countries, given their untimely exits at Euro 2020, arrived in this final with a score to settle, and the manner in which Spain beat Italy and France beat Belgium in the semifinals felt cathartic. These teams are closely matched, and with the World Cup next year this was a moment to make a declaration of intent. For France, that declaration came in two decisive stages. The first stage was a goal of typical brilliance from Karim Benzema, drawing his team level just seconds after Spain had taken the lead. Benzema, whose triumphant return to the national team is a thing of wonder so long as you don’t pay too much attention to the reasons for his absence, beat Unai Simón with a swirling strike from distance that may rank among the best he has scored for his country. The second stage was the winning goal by Kylian Mbappé, who until then had been playing well below his highest level. Time and again, Mbappé would charge down the flank alone and then look up to find himself unaccompanied, and generally with four or five Spain players between him and his nearest teammate. When he came to supply the game’s defining touch, though, he was all alone. There are times of late when the pressure to deliver has looked as if it is weighing heavily upon him, but not here. He rolled the ball beneath Simón, claiming the title for France, and putting the rest of the world on notice.

If this match truly was a trailer then, like all the best trailers, the best action was still far from view. France had a formidable lineup but were still missing key stars, most notably N’Golo Kanté. Meanwhile, Spain, who for all their dominance of the ball, were short of incisiveness in the final third and keenly felt the absence of their other two precocious teenagers, namely Pedri and Ansu Fati. They will be formidable when fielded alongside the gift that is Gavi. This was therefore just a preliminary skirmish, following which France have their noses in front, but are keenly aware of the menace in the chasing pack. The ongoing rivalry of these teams looks set to be a thrilling one.