Mbappe, Mo­dric face off for ti­tle

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - Luka Mo­dric (left) leads Croa­tia against France in the World Cup cham­pi­onship match Sun­day in Moscow.

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.

Mbappe, 19, 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 Saint-Ger­main 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 con­sec­u­tive ex­tra-time 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.”

While Croa­tia had to rally to keep ad­vanc­ing, France won all three of its knock­out games in the reg­u­la­tion 90 min­utes and trailed for only nine of the 540-plus min­utes it has been on the field.

France or Croa­tia will be­come the fourth dif­fer­ent Euro­pean coun­try to be­come world cham­pion in a streak started when Italy beat the French in the 2006 fi­nal.

Spain won the 2010 ti­tle in an­other Europe-only fi­nal against the Nether­lands, and Ger­many de­feated Ar­gentina in 2014 to be­come the first Euro­pean team to win the World Cup in South Amer­ica.

There is $10 mil­lion in ex­tra prize money on the line at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium.

FIFA will give $38 mil­lion to the win­ning team’s na­tional soc­cer fed­er­a­tion. The run­ner-up gets $28 mil­lion.

The to­tal prize fund for the 32 com­pet­ing teams is $400 mil­lion. FIFA gives each team at least $8 mil­lion.

If Rakitic’s soc­cer ca­reer had not led him to the World Cup fi­nal, he might have helped de­sign the Luzh­niki Sta­dium’s re­cent re­con­struc­tion.

Rakitic stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture while grow­ing up in Switzer­land, and trained at the Basel of­fices of Her­zog & de Meu­ron.

AP/ALAS­TAIR GRANT

AP/NAT­ACHA PISARENKO

France’s Kylian Mbappe is ex­pected to play a key role when France meets Croa­tia on Sun­day in the World Cup cham­pi­onship.

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