The month-long festival of football will end on Sunday with France and Croatia coming to grips for one last battle here at the Luzhniki Stadium to win the biggest prize in the game.
France had entered the tournament as fourth favorites, Croatia as the dark horses; but certainly no one could’ve picked those teams to contest the decisive game. France are competing in a final for the third time in six World Cups while this is the first time Croatia have made it so far. It is by no means a ‘David vs Goliath’ clash, though.
The two teams are quite evenly matched and it promises to be a riveting clash. Just that their paths to the final couldn’t have been more different. Croatia blazed through the group stage while France laboured in a slow start. But as France picked up from there on in, Croatia had to battle. They’ve played 120 minutes in each of their last three matches, the equivalent of another match, and survived two nerve-shredding penalty shootouts.
France, therefore, hold an advantage. They’ve also had an extra day’s rest; they played their semi-final against Belgium 24 hours earlier before Croatia played England, where the former’s midfield engine Ivan Rakitic played a record-setting 70th game of the season.
“There will be excess energy,” Rakitic, who played 55 games for his club and 15 for Croatia, told a news conference at the Luzhniki Stadium on Friday. “This is a historic game for not just us but also for the whole country. We will carry each other, we will give it our all. We will make sure that we leave the pitch with our heads held high.”
Croatia will need to go into the game with that excess energy. The last four World Cup finals have all gone beyond regulation time. The last three have been decided in extra-time; the one before that being decided on penalties, which France lost to Italy. Had France won that game, this current crop would’ve been compared to the side of 2006 rather than the one of 1998 that delivered a memorable triumph on home soil, the only one in French history.
France coach Didier Deschamps was the captain of that side two decades back. “He’s achieved great things as a player, and as a coach too,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi at a news conference on Friday. “He always had that toughness, that way of leading that led him to success. Everything he puts in place pays off. We are very happy to have him as our coach.”
On the road to that victory, France met Croatia in the semi-finals. Then, a double from full back Lilian Thuram saw France to a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Croats. Just like the current French squad, which is trying to build its own legacy, Croatia want to move on from the past. “We need to put history aside,” stressed Rakitic. “The past is past. When they won then, they won the tournament. But we want to win on Sunday. It is now up to us to play and that game will not play any role.”
Croatia’s achievement in reaching the final is remarkable. A nation of just four million people, victory on Sunday will see them become the smallest one to lift football’s ultimate prize after Uruguay, who had a population of 1.7 million when they became world champions in 1950.