Moscow: We are in 2018 but it feels like the story from 1998 is being taken forward by 20 years as the fairytale of ‘98 deserves a sequel and another climax of its own.
The 1998 FIFA World Cup was hosted by France and they were crowned champions in Paris after beating Brazil 3-0 in the final. It is the only title they have won so far. And, 20 years since they made it to the final when they defeated Croatia in the semi-final, which till last week, remained the only semi-final appearance for Croatia in the World Cup. One of the smallest country to have qualified for the World Cup finals, Croatia had eventually finished third in 1998.
The 1998 French side was captained by Didier Deschamps, who now guides the side from dugout, while Davor Suker, the ‘Golden Boot’ winner of the edition is now the President of Croatian Football Federation. A unique piece of history now awaits the former as the victory in the final would make Deschamps only the third person to win the World Cup as a player and as a coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
On Thursday, after the two semi-finals, FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) addressed the media and they could not stop heaping praise on Croatia captain Luka Modric. The Real Madrid midfielder has been the heartbeat of his side, leading them to the final of the World Cup.
In the semifinal against England, the 32-year-old player showcased why he has been touted as the man to break the duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and win the FIFA Best player award.
At times he was on his hunches, clearly fatigued with third consecutive match gone in the extra time, but then he would spray a 50-yard cross field pass as if he was taking part in relaxed training.
On Sunday, Deschamps would have to come with some plan to stop Modric and his midfield partner Ivan Rakitic and fail to do that, the Croatian duo will punish France. But it won’t be the only worry French coach will have as Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has shown his tactical prowess in tweaking his basic 4-2-3-1 system as and when needed to yield the desired result.
But, again and again, the script comes back to a man who has been instrumental in Real Madrid winning three back to back Champions Leagues, Modric.
The Croatian skipper with a little difficult childhood would certainly love to lift the coveted trophy on Sunday night to add to his already glittering trophy cabinet, as Croatia will look to write their name in the history books by becoming the smallest nation to lift what would be their first World Cup crown.
England manager Gareth Southgate had previously spoken about how this could be the best chance England can have to end the long wait for the World Cup trophy. Although England suffered a heartbreak, the same can be said about this Young French side.
Blended with the youth and experience, they haven’t played the attractive football with a flair all the time, but they have done more than enough every time they have been on the field to emerge the better side.
Starting from a thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina in the Round of 16, a clinical show in quarters to record a 2-0 win over Uruguay and determination to hold onto whatever they have in a 1-0 victory over Belgium in the semi-final make them a slight favourites to win the title on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
But, Deschamps would want to warn his side about the overwhelming favourites France in 2006, before Italy lifted the Cup, in Zinedine Zidane’s last game for ‘Les Blues.’ An extra day that they had for recovery would prove vital, but Croatia would have an extra motivation to settle the score of 1998.
The final between France and Croatia is truly a fitting finale for the World Cup, hailed as the best ever by the FIFA President Gianni Infantino. France, a team which started as pre-tournament favourites and Croatia, an underdog will go head to head for the title.
An abundance of talent will be on display on Sunday, the midfielders maestros of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will come against never tiring N’Golo Kante and creative Paul Pogba.
Kylian Mbappe has practically set the tournament on fire with his blistering pace complimented by Antoine Griezmann, while Mario Mandzukic, with his work rate, showed in the semi-final why they call him ‘Super Mario’, who is flanked by wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic
France’s Lucas Hernandez, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane and Benjamin Pavard or Croatia’s Ivan Strinic, Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko, you pick up any back four and can be sure that the defence will be watertight ahead of either of Hugo Lloris or Danijel Subasic. And then the talent like Ousmane Dembele, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar, Andrej Kramaric, Mateo Kovacic has to warm the bench.
A fitting finale
It is not just the World Cup that has sprung many surprises or has sent World Champions being sent packing at Kazan Arena in Kazan, it has achieved far more.
It has banished the negativity about the country before the start of the World Cup, as Russians have only offered their great hospitality to the fans from across the World. No matter who will win on Sunday evening at the packed Luzhniki Stadium, one thing is sure, that Russia will party all night long, celebrating their first ever World Cup as a host.