Croatia and France’s matchup in the 2018 World Cup Final will be a rematch of the 1998 World Cup semifinal, where, 20 years ago, the French buried the Croatians 2-1 before winning their first Cup against powerhouse Brazil. Things may be different this year, though – both of their tournament runs are illustrative of international football’s entropy at work. Although talent is monumental, scoring chances must be seized upon, as, at this level, scoring alleys close quickly and appear sparingly. France’s place was never in doubt, but Croatia’s last three matches either went to penalties or extra time.
Yet, these two national teams are only a taste of what's been a scintillating month of international football from the group stage to the knockout rounds. Before a nation claims the football world kingdom, let's observe some of the themes, teams, individuals and events that got us here.
Luka Modric’s Redemptive Run
Entering this tournament, Croatian talisman Luka Modric was a national villain as a result of his false testimony during the recent corruption trial for former Croatian Football Federation vice president Zdravko Mamic. (Here's the low-down: Given the chance to cut down corruption in Croatian football by confirming his original statement – about an illegal deal Mamic had struck with him early in his career – Modric shanked it. Instead, he recanted previous statements and claimed to have no knowledge of any illegal activity.) Madric is still expected to stand trial for perjury, but his World Cup performance may have mitigated some blowback.
On the pitch, Modric leads all players in distance covered and has been Croatia’s fulcrum. Modric is one of a slew of 30-and-over footballers who have been the centerpiece of their national teams: for Modric, 32, Ronaldo, 33, Messi, 30 and Luis Suarez, 31, 2018 was probably their final shot at national glory.
Ronaldo v. Messi, Vol. 11
Eleven years after they both finished as runner-ups for the Ballon d’Or award, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still compared side-by-side. After Portugal was crowned the champions of Europe two years ago, there was less pressure on Ronaldo than Messi to achieve internal glory. Yet, the now Juventus striker arrived in peak form and willed Portugal to a draw against Spain by reeling off a trifecta of goals in their opening group stage match. His direct free kick in the 87th minute to complete the hat trick will be memorialized as one of his most monumental goals ever.
Ronaldo’s pure athleticism is one of his advantages over Messi, displayed during the opener when he reached a World Cup-high 34 kilometers per hour (21.126 mph) in the open field.
And, per usual, Messi’s performance in international play was polarizing, as Messi carries Ronaldo and Maradona comps on his back. He was skewered for failing to convert a penalty against Iceland – and, throughout the tournament, he sauntered up and down the pitch at a sluggish pace.
These boots are made for walkin', but maybe that was purposeful: In contrast to Ronaldo’s turbo-charged attacking style, Messi meticulously picked his spots to create chances. Following a miserable opening pair of matches, Messi redeemed himself in a de facto elimination group stage match. In the 13th minute, he sprinted into the box, gathered a pinpoint cross from Éver Banega and whipped a sublime goal into the back of the net. Ultimately, the 2014 runner-up bowed out in the round of 16 against France, and this tournament may have been a drag on Messi’s legacy.
As our aging favorites fight for legacy, France’s Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Ousman Dembele, Kanté, Antoine Griezmann are the jet propulsion engine for the second-youngest squad in the World Cup. Keep an eye on them, because...
Mbappé and Neymar Aren't Waiting Their Turn
Mbappé is an avatar for France’s youthful roster. The 19-year-old's role in Les Bleus' dismantling of Argentina marked his arrival in earnest: Mbappé was responsible for three of France’s four goals and earned a penalty, which Griezmann converted and became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score multiple goals in a knockout game.
Later on in the semis, Mbappé’s back-heel pass to Olivier Giroud against Belgium in the semifinals would have been the highlight assist of the tournament if his teammate had finished against Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Mbappé was already the most coveted under-21 player in the world, but this World Cup has only affirmed that he’s ready to thrive in La Liga or the Premier League.
Let's backtrack to Neymar: the former wunderkind is now realized potential at 27. No player spent more time on the pitch than Neymar, even though his team's dreams were squashed by Belgium’s extremely talented, youthful core referred to as the "greatest generation". Brazil won’t have any ignominious 7-1 defeats seared into their memories like the devastating Germany loss four years ago, but Neymar will spend the next four years being roundly criticized for his showing in Brazil. However, while his excessive flopping made him the butt of jokes, he was targeted for a tournament-high 26 fouls.
Neymar certainly acquitted himself well, but expectations are high for Brazil. He didn’t clear the lofty bar that would have situated his name beside some of the most accomplished players in his country’s illustrious history.
Germany Left Russia’s House Party Early
Germany and Russia pulled a Freaky Friday, with the Russians advancing to the quarters, whereas Germany would have been winless were it not for a Toni Kroos set piece goal in extra time against Sweden.
Whether it was the inspiration provided by representing Mother Russia on their home soil or some other motivation, Russia’s run to the final eight was one of the most surprising results ever seen in a Cup. They covered more ground than any team at the World Cup; absent great, offensive attacking players, they swarmed on defense; they beat opponents to loose balls; they prevented the final third from getting clear shots on their goal. Russia's endurance for 90+ minute matches was incredible, and the team will be remembered for elevating their performance more than any side in modern history.
Regardless of the outcome, Russia won’t be the only takeaway from this edition of the World Cup. The emergence of Mexico’s Chucky Lozano on a European stage, the volume of extra time thrillers and the controversial VAR’s (Video Assistant Referee) role will be the ancillary legacy.
More importantly, history is written by the victors. France and Croatia will have their opportunity to author the final pages in Sunday’s final. Join the fandom for the World Cup Final on FOX this Sunday, July 15th at 11am ET/10am CT.
Don't miss the 2018 World Cup Final
Sunday, July 15, 11am ET/10am CT on FOX