(Persia Digest) - The Guardian writes that the French may be favourites, having found their groove, but Croatia continue to defy the odds and it would be foolish to underestimate them.
Ad finally, on the 31st day, we will get to see it. Fourteen inches tall, weighing 11lb and made of 18-carat gold. For one group of players, the opportunity to hold it, caress it, feel it against their skin. For the team that loses, a lifetime of regret. Kylian Mbappé summed it up best when he was asked a few days ago about winning the Ballon d’Or. “I couldn’t care less about that,” he said. “I want the World Cup. I want to sleep with it.”
At 19, Mbappé was not even born on the one occasion, in 1998, when France’s name was engraved into that malachite base, when Laurent Blanc kissed Fabien Barthez’s head for good luck, when Brazil were beaten and the headline in France-Soir read: “A Tricolour Orgasm.”
Mbappé now has the chance to become the youngest player to score in a World Cup final since Pelé in 1958, while Didier Deschamps can become only the third person in history to hold the trophy as player and manager. He would be in exalted company, alongside Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, and it is easy to understand why France will start as favourites given their assured performances so far, the shrewd management of Deschamps and the considerable evidence that a team featuring Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba consider this their time to follow the likes of Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Emmanuel Petit.
Deschamps was captain in 1998 and reminisced that “when you are a player it’s the most beautiful life”. Especially when that trophy is waiting at the end of the night. “Nothing is more beautiful,” he noted, “nothing can be bigger, if you are a footballer.”
Will it matter that France have never lost to Croatia before? Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s manager, thinks not, pointing out “those records are there to be demolished”. Yet it is going to need another prodigious effort from England’s conquerors now France have shown they can merge individual quality with the coach’s ideology, as Deschamps explained it here on Saturday , that “the best strength is the collective strength”.
Pogba has chosen a good time to remind a global audience of his elite qualities. Mbappé has sprinkled his stardust on the competition and it scarcely seems to matter that Olivier Giroud has not managed a single effort on target during his 465 minutes on the pitch. The 4-3 defeat of Argentina will linger in the memory long after Sunday’s final and, if Les Bleus can join Argentina and Uruguay as two-times winners, presumably the French Duracell bunny otherwise known as N’Golo Kanté will prefer to sprint up the steps of the Luzhniki Stadium to collect his medal. Followed by at least a couple of laps of honour.
Equally, we should know enough about Croatia by now to realise how foolish it would be to underestimate them. A great tournament needs great champions and that would be an understatement in their case bearing in mind it was only last October this team were being held to a plodding 1-1 at home to Finland and in serious danger of not even qualifying.
Luka Modric now remembers that time as a “crisis”. And who could ever have imagined what would happen next? Dalic, to recap, previously managed in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and was working as assistant coach for Croatia’s under-21s when he took an emergency call to replace the sacked Ante Cacic. His opening game was their final qualifying fixture, against Ukraine in Kiev, and a Croatia defeat would have put them out. “Our qualification was in serious doubt,” Modric said. “He came in at a very difficult moment and, in the most important game, he gave us back our self-belief. Despite the crisis, he told us we were still good players and, thank God, we got a result [winning 2-0] and managed to get past Greece in the play-offs. And now we are here.”
It is some story. Every article you will have read about Croatia in the last few days will have pointed out it is a nation of only 4 million. But that does not stop it being relevant. In a list of countries and their populations, Croatia is 129th in the world, sandwiched between Mauritania and Kuwait. It is roughly the same headcount as the cities of Melbourne or Ankara, but smaller than St Petersburg and only a third that of Moscow. And if you want further evidence about why Dalic talked about this being a “seismic event” back in Croatia, consider what happened in their fixture on 28 March 2017. A match played at Le Coq Arena, Tallinn, in front of 4,987 people. Estonia 3 Croatia 0.
At some point Dalic’s players rediscovered the resilience and competitive courage that, as Modric acknowledged, has been shaped in part by the conflicts and hardships the country has encountered. It is the spirit which explains why Gareth Southgate described them as “hardened warriors” after the semi-final against England, why Mario Mandzukic got up from Jordan Pickford’s studs to strike the killer blow, and why they have shown themselves to be the most durable team in this tournament. Thus far, anyway.
Eventually, you have to wonder if it will catch up with them. Croatia have needed extra time in all three of their knockout ties, against Denmark (1-1, winning 3-2 on penalties), Russia (2-2, 4-3 in another shootout) and England (2-1, with a winner in the 109th minute). That means they have played 360 minutes – the equivalent of four matches – in 11 days. They have had a day less than France to prepare and recuperate and nobody should be too surprised that four of the five players who have run the furthest distances in this tournament are Croatian: Modric (39.1 miles), Ivan Rakitic (39), Ivan Perisic (38.8) and Sime Vrsaljko (36.3). The exception is Kanté (38.9) who, in the kindest possible sense, is just a freak. But the point remains: it is not being disrespectful, whatever they might think, to wonder what they have left in the tank.
If the 20th-placed side in Fifa’s world rankings can find a way to stop France, the awkward part comes from the fact Croatia have not yet served their punishment for a swastika being marked on the pitch before a game against Italy in 2015. Croatia have to play two Uefa-affiliated games behind closed doors and that means their first match potentially as world champions would take place against England on 12 October, in the newly created Nations League, without anybody inside the Stadion Rujevica in Rijeka to see it.
Otherwise, there is so much to admire about the team that is hoping to become the ninth different winner of this prize.
“We do not mind who is the other side of the pitch,” Dalic said. “We are here to enjoy ourselves and, whatever happens, we are going to be happy and proud. I want to send this message to my players: enjoy the final, the whole world is watching – go out and play your best football, don’t be cramped, don’t be restricted, don’t let anything affect you. This is the greatest moment in all our lives.”
It was some speech from the man who has led them this far. “We want the world to watch Croatia and root for us,” he continued. “We are ready to concede defeat with dignity if that happens and, if we win, nobody could be prouder, coming from such a small country. Hopefully there will be four million people celebrating on the streets.”