Odd couple to battle it out
Little in common for Cup finalists France, Croatia
MOSCOW — Never has there been a World Cup final between such widely disparate teams as the France- Croatia matchup on Sunday.
France is an established soccer power, playing in its third title game in 20 years. With a population of 67 million, it has sent 204 players to the World Cup since 2002, the most of any country. And its national team players’ transfer fees are worth more than $1.2 billion collectively.
Croatia wasn’t even an established country, much less a soccer power, a generation ago. With a population of just more than 4 million, it is the secondsmallest nation to make a World Cup final, and the players on its team are worth $339 million.
All of which gives Croatia the advantage, said defender Dejan Lovren.
“We love to be the underdogs,” he said. Croatia is decidedly that. That character has been on great display here, because if France has yet to be beaten in Russia, Croatia has refused to lose.
Both teams won their groups, but in the knockout stages France rallied to beat Argentina, then shut out both Uruguay and Belgium. Croatia, meanwhile, trailed in all three of its knockout games before winning each in either extra time or in a penalty- kick shootout, making it the first team in World Cup history to win three straight extra-time games and the first to overcome three deficits en route to the final.
That also means Croatia has played 360 minutes in the knockout rounds, the equivalent of one more full game than France, which also had an extra day of rest between its semifinal and “No matter what happens in the final, this is the greatest success story in Croatian sport,” said captain Luka Modric, left. the final.
Given the speed and physicality of a French attack led by Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, fatigue could be a problem for Croatia.
France’s defense has proved difficult to break down. It gave up one goal in the group stage then struggled a bit with Argentina in the final 16, giving up goals just before and after the intermission to trail for the only time in the tournament.
The deficit lasted only nine minutes, with two goals by Mbappe four minutes apart restoring order. France then shut out its last two opponents, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris making seven saves. And the French did all of that against tougher competition than the Croatians faced.
“They have upped their game over the past several games,” Croatia’s Ivan Perisic said.
Croatia can’t really point to any compelling statistics other than its win-loss record. The team has gotten goals from seven players, only two of whom — captain Luka Modric and Perisic — have scored twice. Perhaps the most impressive number for Croatia is 39, the number of miles that Modric, a midfielder, has covered in this World Cup, more than six miles a game and by far the most of any player in the tournament.
Members of the two teams know each other well since many play with or against one another in Spain’s La Liga. Griezmann, for example, is a teammate of Croatian defender Sime Vrsaljko at Atletico Madrid, Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic plays with France’s Samuel Umtiti at Barcelona, and Modric has won four Champions League finals alongside France’s Raphael Varane at Real Madrid.
“I would trade all four titles for this one,” Modric told reporters. “No matter what happens in the final, this is the greatest success story in Croatian sport. But we all have the desire to be the champions. We are full of confidence, we have character and we have everything a team needs to be world champions.”
Croatia has skilled players at virtually every position, allowing it to adapt to different scenarios. In the first two games it trailed, it scored an equalizer in less than 10 minutes. After a brutal first half in its semifinal against England, Croatia regrouped at halftime and controlled the game the rest of the way.
Croatia, though, has never beaten France, going 0-3-2 in five meetings dat-
France vs. Croatia 11 a.m. Sunday Games on FOX ing to the World Cup semifinals in 1998, Croatia’s first appearance in the tournament as an independent nation.
No one on the Croatian side has forgotten that 2-1 loss, a game in which current French coach Didier Deschamps played. France went on to win the title, its only World Cup crown.
“I was only 9. I remember my mom was screaming, she was crying after the French game,” Lovren said. “After 20 years, people will remember us, not ’98. And this is what I wanted.”
France has its own painful memories to erase. Two years ago, in the European Championship they hosted, Les Bleus lost the final to Portugal 1-0 on a goal four minutes into the second extra-time period. It was France’s second loss in three major tournament finals and it made this generation the first in 18 years without a trophy.
“Two years ago it was tough,” said Lloris. “We don’t want it to happen again. We want it to end in the best way.”
England coach Gareth Southgate said he wants to make only a few changes for his team’s third-place match against Belgium.
Southgate said “It won’t be exactly the same starting 11, but we want ideally to make as few changes as possible. One or two injuries, one or two with a little illness.”
Southgate says despite losing to Croatia, England remains motivated by the thought of achieving the nation’s best World Cup finish since victory in 1966.
Belgium vs. England 10 a.m. today