France led 2-1 at halftime on Sunday after a Mario Mandzukic own-goal and an Antoine Griezmann VAR-penalty, although Ivan Perisic briefly brought first-time finalists Croatia level.
Quickfire strikes by Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe midway through the second half put France on course for the title, but Mandzukic was gifted a goal by French keeper Hugo Lloris to set up a nervous final 20 minutes.
France, however, withstood a spirited Croatia assault to lift the trophy for the second time – the first on foreign turf, following their success on home soil 20 years ago – and ensured that there was no repeat of two years ago when they were beaten in the European Championship final by Portugal in Paris.
The victory means that Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 side, becomes the third man to win the World Cup as player and coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
“As a football fan, this is the sort of thing you dream of at the beginning of a World Cup,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.
“For most of these fans, the win is sweeter than they had imagined. The crowd absolutely erupted as soon as the final whistle sounded, all 80,000 of those packed in the fan zone.”
It was the highest-scoring final since England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra-time in 1966 and the highest in normal time since Brazil’s 5-2 victory over Sweden 60 years ago.
Croatia had started full of energy but fell behind when Mandzukic, who scored the extra-time winner against England in the semi-final, became the first man to score an own goal in a World Cup final when a Griezmann free kick skidded in off his head in the 18th minute. It was the 12th own goal of the tournament.
Perisic, who bagged the equaliser against England, was on hand again to level the scores 10 minutes later, smashing in a low shot.
But it was then Perisic’s turn go from hero to zero when he flapped an arm at a corner and, after a VAR review, the referee awarded the 28th penalty of the tournament, another record, which Griezmann stroked home in the 38th minute for his fourth goal of Russia 2018.
France went 3-1 up on the hour as Mbappe and Griezmann combined to set up Pogba on the edge of the box.
Six minutes later, Lucas Hernandez tore down the left to set up Mbappe who drilled a low shot beyond keeper Danijel Subasic for the 19-year-old’s fourth goal of the tournament.
An awful blunder by Lloris revived Croatia, as the French keeper tried to dribble around Mandzukic, only for the striker to tap the ball straight into an unguarded net.
Croatia, beaten by the French in the semi-finals in their first World Cup appearance in 1998, continued to press, but their energy was sapped and France safely held out for the victory.
But the football fans in Croatia’s capital Zagreb were happy just to have seen their team reach the final.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Zagreb city centre, said the crowd started singing Croatian songs after the final whistle despite the loss.
“We saw a whole load of emotions over 90 minutes but mainly pride,” he said.
“It meant so much for the fans for the team to reach the final. Many of them told me ahead of the game they will be celebrating whatever the result.”