Combining a sturdy favorite with a resilient outsider, the 2018 FIFA World Cup final epitomizes the tournament’s prevailing narrative. It’s been a month of shocks and surprises that might still end with a traditional powerhouse winning the trophy.
France vs. Croatia kicks off Sunday at 11 a.m.
Oddsmakers have established France as the favorites, though Croatia — as England learned in the semifinal — are not to be underestimated. The Croatians arrive in the final (their first) after playing three straight extra-time games, two of which were won on penalty kicks.
For France, it’s Les Bleus’ third World Cup final after winning the tournament on home soil in 1998 and losing to Italy in 2006.
France and Croatia have clashed on the World Cup stage before. In 1998, with France hosting, the two met in the semifinal. On that day, French defender Lilian Thuram redeemed himself from an early mistake by scoring both goals as the home nation secured a 2-1 comeback win.
Before Sunday’s drama unfolds, here are a few things to know about the culminating matchup:
Affirmation vs. redemption
While much has been made about Croatia’s comparatively small population against some of its World Cup opponents, no one doubts the team’s talent.
The latest “golden generation” produced by the Balkan nation is reaching the end of its window of opportunity. Of the semifinal’s starting lineup, eight are 29 or older. Crucial players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandžukić are all north of 30, and might be playing in their last World Cup.
This means that simply reaching the final helps to make up for prior missed opportunities in major tournaments. Winning would be affirmation for a country that has produced a string of world-class players.
For France, the memory of a missed opportunity drives them forward. Two summers ago, the French hosted the 2016 UEFA European Championship, advancing to the final against Portugal. Yet despite Cristiano Ronaldo exiting the game early due to an injury, France’s star-studded team was unable to muster a goal. Portugal won, 1-0.
French coach Didier Deschamps recently admitted that the team have “still not gotten over the [Euro] final.”
Victory against Croatia would be redemption for a team seeking its second World Cup win 20 years after the original breakthrough.
The decisive matchups
In a constellation of talent taking the field, a few players stand out. For France, one of them is forward Kylian Mbappé. The 19-year-old became the first teenager since Brazilian legend Pelé to score multiple goals in a World Cup game.
Mbappé’s explosiveness will put Croatian left back Ivan Strinić to the test. The 30-year-old, who recently signed with Italian club AC Milan, has frequently been left on his own defensively. Though Strinić will likely receive additional help from teammates in attempting to keep Mbappé shackled, any mistakes on his part could loom large.
The man who is arguably France’s most important player is N’Golo Kante. Despite not possessing the prototypical size of a powerful midfielder (such as teammate Paul Pogba), Kante is one of the most dominant players in the world at his position. He’s a tireless worker, and his defensive ability in constantly winning back possession is complemented by underrated passing.
Lining up across from Kante is Croatia’s best player, Luka Modric. The Real Madrid midfielder is one of the finest passers in the world, and has helped his club side win three consecutive Champions League trophies. Along with Ivan Rakitic, who plies his trade with Madrid rival Barcelona, Modric’s ability to impose his will on the game will potentially be decisive for Croatia.
Kante vs. Modric — amid a larger midfield battle — will potentially be the most important matchup of the 2018 final.
Amid Croatia’s dizzying and unprecedented run to the final, all is not well. A national scandal with ties to its top leadership threatens to envelope two of the team’s players.
The charges erupted in 2015 against the former executive director of Croatia’s largest club, Dinamo Zagreb. Zdravko Mamić, who was also the vice president of the Croatian Football Federation, was arrested with his brother, Zoran (Dinamo’s head coach), on charges of illegally diverting funds and tax evasion.
Mamić, who donated money to current Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović’s campaign (and was reportedly a friend), was tied to some of the nation’s most prominent players due to their almost inevitable time at Dinamo.
Modric and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, who rose to prominence at Dinamo, were part of a group of players who signed illegal contracts to pay Mamić portions of their transfer fees when switching to other clubs.
Mamić was convicted in June and handed a six-and-a-half year prison sentence. He fled the country to escape imprisonment. Modric and Lovren remain entangled in the scandal due to possible cases of perjury. Modric could face six months to five years in prison.
A footnote in the much more prominent scandal was another that’s still far from commonplace. After refusing to go on as a substitute in Croatia’s World Cup opener against Nigeria, forward Nikola Kalinić was sent home by the team. He allegedly complained of a back injury, refusing to take the field, though trainers denied its existence.
Politics as usual
Despite FIFA’s best efforts to keep politics out of the World Cup, it was always going to be an impossible task. For starters, the host nation is far from neutral in the eyes of the world, even merely in the category of sports.
Earlier this year, Russia’s Olympic team was formally banned from the Winter Olympics due to the state-run doping scheme exposed following the 2014 Sochi Games, the last major sports event hosted in the country.
And while he’s been largely absent from the tournament, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in attendance at the final. He’s expected to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron the day of the game.
Players have also expressed political opinions at different junctures. Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri — born in Kosovo — showed anti-Serbian sentiment with hand gestures that could have resulted in suspensions during a group stage game. They were ultimately fined.
And Croatian central defender Domagoj Vida recently apologized after shouting “Glory Ukraine!” in a Facebook video (a decision that did not win popularity from the Russian hosts).
With the end of the 2018 World Cup approaching, the world can begin to look ahead to future tournaments. Regional competitions like Copa América and the European Championship (as well as, to a lesser extent, the CONCACAF Gold Cup) will allow new talents to emerge.
The next World Cup is already FIFA’s most controversial decision. Qatar, chosen in spite of a flurry of scandalous reports, “systematically exploited” migrant workers, and a lack of an existing sports infrastructure, are still on course to host in 2022.
Even with initial assurances that the tournament could be hosted in the customary summer months, the date has subsequently been changed to November and December (the final being set for Dec. 18). Many variables are still uncertain about the tournament, including recent reports that FIFA might accelerate its intention to expand the number of teams from 32 to 48.
For the United States, the obvious goal for the men’s team will be clearing the hurdle of qualification in 2022, a task they failed in ignominious circumstances for 2018. For the US women’s team, the defending World Cup champions, they will seek to repeat next summer in France.
By 2026, the US men’s team (along with Canada and Mexico) could gain automatic berths to the tournament, as it will be a jointly hosted North American World Cup.Hayden Bird can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @haydenhbird.