Ask anyone and they’ll say France is the favourite to win this World Cup final. But what does anyone know, anyway? In the matter of Croatia’s semi-final against England, along came Ivan Perisic, with muscular skill and keen awareness, rampaging forward to score, and thus demolish not just England but a mass of punditry and predictions.
France, they said, would be severely tested by a Belgian team hitting its stride, swift in counter-attack and defending solidly. It took 10 minutes of cocky attacking play, at the start of the second half, for France to win, without ever looking bothered.
Put the usual punditry about team selection and tactics aside in order to savour this World Cup final. It’s also about pride and wiping away shame. It’s about years of history being brought to bear on one game, two teams and two countries with lots to prove. It’s collective guilt playing against collective nation-building willpower.
France has been trying to recover glory for 18 years. It won the World Cup in 1998 at home and swept through Euro 2000 to win that. And then, it all unravelled only to become tangled up in egotism, hubris and, sometimes, theatrical madness.
A departure from the 2002 World Cup at the group stage without scoring a goal. At Euro 2004, a good start and then an exit in the first knockout game, a 1-0 loss to Greece. Than came the World Cup in 2006. After a shaky start, France made it to the final against Italy, a game that became the most operatic and puzzling of encounters. It was tied 1-1 and into extra-time when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi and the world watched in disbelief as Zidane received a red card and France was reduced to 10 players, losing on penalties to conclude a game that beggared logic.
At Euro 2008, France went home after the group stage, bottom of the group with a single point, after a 0-0 tie with Romania and losses to the Netherlands and Italy. France then struggled to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, forced to play a two-legged playoff against the Republic of Ireland. The whole world knows how that ended, France winning through Thierry Henry twice using his hand to secure the vital goal. The result stood, though. And then, as if the team was tainted in spirit by the cheating route it took, the team imploded in bitter feuding, and went home in disgrace. At Euro 2012, another retreat after losing the first knockout match to Spain.
Fast-forward to 2014 and a young France team went to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil. Things were looking up. Surely this new generation would win Euro 2016 when France was host of the tournament, and no longer looking like a team of suckered tourists traipsing the globe. All went well until Portugal beat France in the final.
The motivation to erase a long history of disappointment and defeats is strong. There is swagger in this team. There is the prodigy Kylian Mbappé and the strikers Antoine Griezmann and Oliver Giroud. There is more talent than at any time since 1998.
Croatia’s presence in the final makes a mockery of soccer prophecies. But Croatia has a habit of doing that. It also has 1998 on its mind. That’s when the country, only just created, made it to the World Cup semi-final and was defeated by France.
Then, as now, there was international amazement. But in truth there is a long history of countries emerging from central and eastern Europe to stun the old powers. It has struck many new observers as odd that Croatia plays like a team from South America. But distinct styles and tactical sophistication emerges, now and then, from Eastern Europe to create near seismic shifts.
It was Hungary that stunned England and the rest of Europe in the 1950s, with a revolutionary, collective approach. The fluid movement of midfield players was how they did it, with a 3–2–3–2 formation. That was unheard-of, and Hungary used a “false 9” to bamboozle England. The player was not a traditional 9, a striker, but a 10, in the way South American teams use a 10 to co-ordinate from the middle. Luka Modric is that player in the here and now.
Probably there is scholarship in connections between Croatia and the South American style and with Hungary of the 1950s, but in languages most pundits don’t read. What is real and evident, though, is how Croatia has been underestimated. And being patronized and underrated is great motivation.
The core members of the Croatia team play for Real Mardid (Modric and Mateo Kovacic), Barcelona (Ivan Rakitic), Atletico Madrid (Sime Vrsaljko), Liverpool (Dejan Lovren) and Juventus (Mario Mandzukic). They’re not nobodies and they know it. Their country was defined by what happened at the 1998 World Cup. They have good reason and incentive to believe they can beat France this time.