It’s been a feature that’s become clearer and clearer as this World Cup has gone on. In fact, it started long before it began. First there were the big names that fell in qualifying, with Chile’s wonderful era of attacking, successful football burning out somewhat prematurely after four straight years contending in tournaments, and then Italy and the Netherlands paying a humiliating price for conversely not having much of a long-term plan and identity to begin with. In Russia, we saw an even bigger shock as early as the group stage as Germany followed a decade of mostly vibrant semi-final-or-better tournament campaigns with an incredibly lethargic elimination to (and behind) South Korea. The other big European success story of long-term progressive management in Spain then fell victim to unstable management in the next round against the unfancied hosts, with Argentina doing the same against France after much longer mismanagement both in coaching and administration.
From there, Tite’s revitalised Brazil ‒ the best candidate in this tournament for the triumph of steady, forward-thinking management ‒ perhaps, with some bad luck, paid the price in the quarter-finals for only steering the ship back in the right direction for two years after so many backward-thinking years. The luck that Belgium had against them then somewhat turned in the semi-finals, where there were also clear signs that their management had some way to go after so long being behind the pace of the enticing talent that has come through over the last decade. And for England, along with some luck-of-the-draw over-achievement, it’s even more obvious that they weren’t quite up to going any further, at least not yet.
That leaves us with France and Croatia. There is still so much talent to be impressed by, but one of the big features here is the absence of an impressive long-term approach that we’ve had from the victors of the big international finals for much of the last decade…Spain with their three-straight 2008-2012 titles, Chile in their back-to-back Copa Américas, Germany in the 2014 World Cup and Óscar Tabárez getting Uruguay back on track for the 2011 Copa América. Portugal’s Euro 2016 win a couple of weeks after Chile’s second Copa triumph changed that trend, and while I would regard these two current finalists as stronger outfits, this match-up does seem like a continuation of that just-get-it-right-at-the-tournament situation.
Instead, if there is a long-term story to be told, beyond the intriguing enough tales of where so many of these players came from as youths, it is the legacy from the shared previous pinnacle of both teams 20 years ago and things since.
The paths both France and Croatia have taken to the final have first involved some redemption for where they have come up short in the years since that last World Cup of the 20th century. For the French, it seems some lessons have been taken from their bitter defeat at home to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. But given the inherent conservatism of Didier Deschamps, it has been some emulation of the defence-based approach of that Portuguese team rather than an increase in attacking solutions to overcome such obstacles. Against defensively well-organised teams, set pieces and some luck (Aziz Behich’s own goal in the Australia game, Fernando Muslera’s mistake for Uruguay) have been enough to get by.
Additionally, for all the many (fair) criticisms that can be levelled at Deschamps for not allowing or managing to get this side to go beyond third gear more often, there is at least the merit of him finally settling on a stable line-up and structure after struggling to for so long as he looked to have too many options for his coaching mind to constructively handle. Again, Euro 2016 was the biggest case in point of learning here; it was an obvious error at the time, but it’s even more starling now to think N’Golo Kanté, potential player of this tournament, was left on the bench as Portugal’s Eder struck a long-range winner from the type of area Kanté patrols in his sleep, or that Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna were the fullbacks then at 35 and 33-years-old respectively where youngsters Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández do so far more energetically now.
For Croatia, getting things right where they have gone wrong since 1998 goes back much longer. Not only did the statement win over Argentina allow the Vatreni to avoid this French team right at the start of the knockout stage, it was their first ever win against a Latin American team in the World Cup and a crucial success where Croatia’s group stage fortunes have floundered this century; defeats to Mexico and Ecuador in 2002 rendered a win over Italy immaterial, a 1-0 loss to Brazil in 2006 preceded a third-place finish, and frustrating 3-1 defeats to Brazil and Mexico lead to the same in 2014 for many of the players now present in Russia.
Then there was the start of the knockout stage, where a devastating failure to put away Denmark late in extra-time brought back nightmares of remarkably similar trauma in the Euro 2008 quarter-final loss to Turkey. But where a shattered Croatia failed to convert three of their four taken penalties 10 years ago in Vienna, they…well, Luka Modrić’s attempt down the middle barely escaped being blocked by Kasper Schmeichel’s foot as Croatia converted three of their five attempts, and Denmark’s worse luck with their attempts meant in was enough. Another penalty shootout win in the quarter-finals against Russia, after further extra-time ecstasy and agony, showed the penalty catharsis was not just a one-off.
But it’s the semi-final that perhaps had an even bigger tale of redemption, if not as obvious. Coming from behind to beat England means Croatia are the first team to do such a thing in a World Cup semi-final since…the current finalists last met in the World Cup, in 1998.
This is the game I keep thinking back to. I keep thinking of how differently things could be had Lilian Thuram not extraordinarily but inexplicably found a way to score the only two goals in his 142-game national team career ‒ and half of his total of four in 616 games played for club and country from the 1996‒97 season on ‒ in the space of 22 minutes right after Davor Šuker’s opener at the start of the second half. I keep thinking of what would happened had Miroslav Blažević not futilely and also inexplicably waited until the 89th minute to bring on Robert Prosinečki when Zvonimir Boban came off in the 66th (or even Milan Rapaić, who was overlooked by Blažević completely). I keep thinking that I can’t really accept that as just Croatia paying the price for not making the most of what they had or Slaven Bilić getting Laurent Blanc sent off when Aime Jacquet overlooked David Ginola and a young (and still reasonably placable) Nicolas Anelka, and Zinedine Zidane’s iffy temperament could have worked against a French World Cup eight years before it did had Blanc not won the game in extra-time in his suspended absence against Paraguay…
I’m a neutral in all this and this game still blows my mind in some ways. It might not have had the goals of Brazil 1-7 Germany but it had a similar enough “um, what?” sensation after Thuram’s shock heroics (and Thuram’s own reaction to scoring says as much). In a different world, with perhaps just one of these “um, what?” events not falling France’s way and considering Brazil’s Ronaldo-centred loss of focus in the final, Croatia are perhaps already world champions, and it’s France who are desperately searching for a first world title heading into this World Cup…Would Croatia’s successes and failures this century be different on the back of that? Would France have won Euro 2000 without that been-there-done-that self-assurance from two years ago? Would their style of football be different without that 1998 title setting such a template, perhaps even for the better?
As it is, 1998 serves as a lasting inspiration to Les Blues, especially with the parallels that can be drawn with this current team in the form of Deschamps and Jacquet as coaches, the strong defensive basis with defenders themselves scoring goals in the knockout stage, and the diverse immigrant-based backgrounds of many of the players. On the other hand, this final, on top of the chance to become world champions, additionally serves as the final chapter in this tournament for major redemption for Croatia after that semi-final in Saint-Denis, and with Modrić now looking to do what Boban couldn’t then as captain and midfield lynchpin.
Who will win?
I find myself with not much of a handle on this game. The popular view is that France hold most of the cards, with that defence (and Hugo Lloris in goals) very capable of only needing one goal to protect, and although limited by the style, there is certainly enough going forward (and, again, in set pieces) to get at least one. But this Croatia are likely to be smarter with the ball in midfield than any of France’s opponents to date, and while they’ve not been perfect themselves in these respects, they have a far better idea of what they’re doing both defensively and in the front third than the only team France have really had to turn it on and leave themselves more vulnerable in transition against (Argentina, after trailing).
That said, it’s easy to see how France’s strength in depth could ultimately tip it, with Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fekir, Thomas Lemar and Florian Thauvin all there to call upon off the bench if an attacking answer is needed. On the other hand, you do wonder if Deschamps, perhaps without Jacquet’s luck, might be left to rue not having other attacking options in the form of Alexandre Lacazette in the squad devoid of strikers beyond Olivier Giroud, or the injured Dimitri Payet if Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé or Paul Pogba (or a set piece) can’t break the game open. And there is potentially a key tactical avenue for Croatia to exploit here if their own fullbacks can get forward to create overloads with Mbappé and Griezmann not tracking back in a lopsided formmation…but that, in turn, is rather dependent on sufficient midfield control and their wide men managing to pin back France’s fullbacks.
Either way, as much as I can’t see how it would be an incredible shock like some are making it out to be if Croatia were to win this, it does blow a certain part of my mind that they are here. I’ve lived through an age when only established behemoths get to the World Cup final; even the Dutch in 2010 had the pedigree of two previous World Cup finals and the Euro 1988 title, not to mention a population that is over four times as large as Croatia’s. The other nations to play in the final since 1966 read (West) Germany, Argentina, Spain, Italy, France, Brazil and England. Croatia are only the second finalist with a population under five million after Uruguay in 1930 and 1950, an era when the World Cup was establishing itself and not yet the all-encompassing, best-of-the-best tournament full of professionals that it’s been over the last 50-60 years.
Croatia’s talent, spirit and execution (still not consistent, but at its best so far after half-time against England) says they’re not out of place, and yet they are in the type of World Cup of today. But this hasn’t really been a World Cup of today; it’s been one of the most surprising and topsy-turvy (both in upsets and late goals) World Cups to date, and if there isn’t the top end quality of teams working off a smart long-term vision to admire, it’s at least made up for through drama and now the story of finalists building on ‒ or redeeming ‒ things from 20 years ago in a tournament that laid so much of their groundwork for things since, both good and bad.