In a World Cup of surprises, it is only fitting that we have a team in the final that nobody expected to get this far. Twenty years after Croatia first made the football world take notice of their bounteous talent, manager Zlatko Dalic’s side has gone one step further. France await in the final, the same country which denied Croatia a spot in the 1998 World Cup.
In the two decades since, the Vatreni (‘The Blazers’, as the Croatian side is fondly known) have been a team that would often come up short in knockout football. But not in Russia. Thrice Croatia fell behind in each of their knockout games, but they came back to outlast the opposition. In the round of 16 and quarterfinals, penalties were required to edge past Denmark and host Russia. On Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium, an Ivan Perisic-led charge overturned England in the semis. There is no reason why the French side should not hold any fear for the Croats.
The confidence within the side runs from the assurance provided by their leaders in the midfield, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Modric has finished another exceptional season with Real Madrid and his ability to dictate the pace of the match has marked him out from most players in this World Cup. The skipper’s controlling influence is augmented by Ivan Rakitic’s box-to-box running, ensuring that Croatia never really loses its way.
But it is not just the calmness which has carried the Croats this far. Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic — Dalic has two players who drive his side to insanity — a crazy passion to run oneself into the ground and to fight insistently until the opposition gives in. This insanity prefigures the entire team, but nobody represents it better than Perisic and Mandzukic. The pace of the former and the relentless pursuit of damage by the latter have already proved decisive in the World Cup. France will not be allowed to sit easy.
Croatia’s ability to cause a surprise, though, will no longer be unexpected and the French go into the final as favourites. France have repeatedly shown a capability to deal with different challenges. After a somewhat underwhelming group stage, Les Bleus have grown impressively into the competition.
In the knockout stage, Argentina’s stop-start endeavours were negotiated with pace, Uruguay’s iron-clad defence unlocked with consummate precision and Belgium’s thriving attack deprived of its edge by a defensive display which will certainly have Croatia worried.
Two years ago, at home, France overcame a similarly tough challenge to reach the Euro final but Portugal’s resolute display brought a morale-leaching defeat in Paris. However, there is a suggestion that Didier Deschamps has added more sheen to the team’s psychology.
In Benjamin Pavard, France have a rising young talent who has jumped leaps and bounds in his development over the past few months. But the story of the French advance is told the best by Kylian Mbappe. The teenager was nowhere around the national team setup when France hosted the Euros in 2016.
Since then, Mbappe has grown to be the most inventive mind within Deschamps’ camp. His display against Argentina announces his arrival to those who had not experienced his genius already. Mbappe’s performances against Uruguay and Belgium only went on to prove that he has a head over his shoulder which is way more mature than his years.
In the final, even though France can call upon the best talents in every position, it will be the PSG forward who will attract most attention. If Mbappe, at 19, can lead his country to the World Cup glory, he will certainly earn a mention in the same breath as Zinedine Zidane – the architect of France’s only title in 1998.
But if there’s anything this tournament has shown, it is that the most predictable narrative can be overturned. Croatia’s place in the final is perhaps the biggest shock, but the runs of Russia and Sweden to the quarters were no less astounding. In the 21st century, we have already had a first-time World Cup champion in Spain. However, its credentials in the international football were well established. Croatia do not enjoy the same reputation, and it is the smallest nation to play the World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950 (on the basis of population).
If Zlatko Dalic and his players achieve the unlikely feat at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, they will be the biggest shock winners of the tournament for over 60 years. West Germany’s victory over Hungary in 1954, nearly a decade after the Second World War had crippled the Germans, represented a win for the unheralded underdog over the most talented side of that generation. France are certainly worthy of that tag but it will be wary of history.
But the French will gain confidence from the past too. Twenty years ago, Les Bleus put a halt to the march of magnificent Croatia in the semifinals. Now France have a chance to do it again, on an even grander stage.
Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi, currently in Russia for the World Cup.