France, Croatia vie for title
Stars Mbappe, Modric will play a bigger role in World Cup final
MOSCOW — Kylian Mbappe has electrified the World Cup with his speed and youthful exuberance. Luka Modric has coolly controlled matches in Russia with his graceful play in the middle.
Whether France wins its second title in 20 years or Croatia raises the trophy for the first time Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and nearly a billion television viewers could turn on the play of the two stars.
The 19-year-old Mbappe has been the biggest sensation at the tournament in Russia, scoring three goals — including two against Argentina in the round of 16 — and creating havoc for opposing defenses with his pace and his agility.
“It’s going to be the biggest match of my life, for sure,” the Paris SaintGermain forward said Friday.
Although Mbappe has impressed for France at the
month-long tournament, Modric has been the rock and the spark for Croatia. When the Real Madrid midfielder has the ball at feet, good things seem to happen for Croatia.
“Even when you think they’re going to lose, or going to crack, they always have the mentality to come back,” Mbappe said of the Croatian team. “It’s a team that plays with a lot of intensity.”
France last won the World Cup title in 1998, at home. The French defeated Croatia in the semifinals that year, which until now had been the country’s best showing at the tournament.
The heads of state from both countries are expected to sit with Putin. Will Smith is set to headline the closing ceremony.
Croatia, a country of 4.5 million people which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia only 27 years ago, enters the final after playing three straight extratime matches, including two nerve-racking penalty shootouts.
In all three of those matches, Croatia has had to recover from being a goal down. The players never gave up.
“When you put the sacred Croatia shirt on you become a different person,” Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic said through a translator. “I’m not trying to say it’s a superior feeling that the French have for France, or Russians for Russia.
“The best feeling is to be Croat these days and this is the source of all our strength.”
THIRD-PLACE GAME: How do you stay motivated for the game no one wants to play? England and Belgium have different answers.
After both were eliminated in the World Cup semifinals, a once-in-a-lifetime chance gone, the teams have to play again in today’s third-place game in St. Petersburg.
As always in English football, coach Gareth Southgate and his men are looking back to the England team which won the World Cup in 1966. Beating Belgium today would give England its best World Cup finish since then, surpassing fourth place in Italy in 1990.
“We have a chance to win a medal at a World Cup, which only one English team has ever done, so there’s a lot of motivation for us,” Southgate said Friday. After exceeding expectations by reaching the semifinal, only to lose 2-1 to Croatia in extra time, England wants to keep its positive buzz.
“None of us knows if that’s as good as it gets,” Southgate said. “We’ve raised expectation and I don’t see a problem with that because we’ve also raised belief. We’ve raised their enjoyment of playing. They now associated playing for England with enjoyment, fun, and not being under siege.”
For Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, it’s about leaving Russia with a warm feeling and playing attractive football to inspire the next generation.
“We want to win. When you finish a tournament you carry the feeling of the last game … Every Belgian fan deserves that winning feeling,” he said. “For us the way you play is essential, not just for this tournament but for future generations.”
Third would be Belgium’s best-ever World Cup performance. It finished fourth in 1986 after losing the playoff to France.
Both coaches have one eye on fitness for what will be each team’s seventh game in 26 days.
Southgate said he wants to make “as few changes as possible,” but may need to switch some players due to injury and illness. He wouldn’t confirm whether he’d give either of his reserve goalkeepers, Jack Butland and Nick Pope, their first game of the tournament in place of Jordan Pickford.
“We need to have everyone fully fit on the pitch. There are players who have played a lot of minutes and we need to have that in mind,” Martinez said. “We’re going to have the strongest team on the pitch but maybe changes will need to be made.”
It’s the second meeting of the tournament for the two teams.
Their first game, in the group stage, was treated almost like a friendly since both teams had already qualified and made a total 17 changes to the lineup. Belgium won that encounter in Kaliningrad 1-0 thanks to a curled shot from Adnan Januzaj.
Kylian Mbappe Luka Modric
England’s Harry Kane, right, led his team to the third-place game of the World Cup today against Belgium.