To fully understand what an enormous task Croatia faces in Sunday’s World Cup final against France, one needs to understand something very basic about its history.
Croatian football, at least the modern version the world has come to respect the last month, is just 28 years old. It wasn’t formed until the nation won its independence from Yugoslavia in 1990.
It wasn’t until three years later that FIFA embraced it and not until 1996 that it played it first consequential matches in Euro 1996.
But by 1998, the Croatians were already up to speed, talented enough to finish third in that quadrennial’s World Cup.
Now comes their opportunity to win a championship, representing the second-smallest nation (population 4.6 million) ever to appear in this momentous match. Not since Uruguay won the Cup in 1950 by defeating Brazil has a nation this tiny played for the championship.
Meanwhile, France has played in World Cups dating to 1930, the year it was first held. This is its 14th appearance, tied for sixth in the world. They won the World Cup in 1998, when the tournament was held in France. The captain of that side, Didier Deschamps, is now the French coach. And in 2006, the French finished second to Italy, a match decided on penalty kicks (and a head-butt).
“We love to be the underdogs,” Croatian defender Dejan Lovren told the Associated Press after Croatia’s 2-1 win over England in the semifinals. “War, all these things and even now the situation is not the best. It’s unbelievable how many talents we have in sports. This feels incredible, especially after everything that was said about us before the game. We showed our character, we showed that we deserved to be in the final and people should respect us.”
Croatia’s history in international championships has been fraught with political and societal controversy. During the 2016 European Championship, their fans tossed flares onto the pitch, exacerbating a situation from a year earlier when a swastika appeared on the field before a national-team game.
According to NewsStraitsTimes.com, the mood in the nation was quite different before this World Cup began since the country has been punished by FIFA because of its unruly fans, known for chanting fascist slogans. Lovren has been under intense scrutiny because of his connection to a team owner and businessman sentenced in June to 6½ years in prison in a multi-million-euro corruption case.
But in terms of talent, France likely holds the advantage with strikers Kylian Mbappe, 19, and Antoine Griezman playing in front of midfielders such as Paul Pogba. Goaltender Hugo Lloris, who plays for Tottenham in the English Premier League, is one of the world’s best, as well.
For Croatia, its captain, Luka Modric, is likely its most prominent star, but it also has an elite keeper in Danijel Subasic. He helped the team survive two penalty shootouts and three matches that went extra time, including Wednesday’s 2-1 win over England in the semifinals. Croatia is just the second team in World Cup history to win consecutive shootouts (Denmark and Russia) and it has Subašić to thank for that.
Long before Sunday, it had already been determined that another European side would win the championship – all four semifinalists were from the continent. Brazil’s wins in 1994 and 2002 are the only two from nations not from Europe in the last eight competitions.
And if things like this interest you, he aware that Pamela Anderson, the former Baywatch star, will be in Moscow Sunday rooting for France because she is dating French defender Adil Rami, who plays professionally for Marseille of the French League.