A World Cup marked by high drama and the early exits of several powerhouse teams will climax Sunday with a fitting matchup: Heavy favorite France will seek the second World Cup title in its history against first-time finalist Croatia, the smallest nation by population to advance this far since Uruguay won it all in 1950. There will be numerous plotlines to follow and players to watch.
Croatia, which broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, has shown its mettle in reaching the final. It won after trailing in the second half of each of its do-or-die knockout games, against Denmark, host Russia and England. Now the Croatians’ legs will become the question. They’ve played a total of 90 minutes of extra time over the past three games, the equivalent of an entire match, and had a three-day turnaround before the biggest match of their lives against a deep squad adept at squeezing the life out of a surging offense.
For all the hullabaloo surrounding their offensive talent, featuring global superstars across the field, Les Bleus have reached the final on the strength of their defense. The French back four of Benjamin Pavard, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane and Lucas Hernández has been instrumental, most recently in becoming the first team in the tournament to shut out Belgium, one of the world’s most talented offenses. Now, Croatia’s elite midfield will test French Coach Didier Deschamps, one of the greatest defensive midfielders in his playing days.
The 19-year-old has been a sensation at the World Cup, and some are wondering if they might be watching the heir apparent to the title of best player in the world. In the round-of-16 victory over Argentina, Mbappe became the youngest player since Pele in 1958 to record a multigoal game at the World Cup, and he drew another foul in the box to give teammate Antoine Griezmann a penalty-kick goal. Flanked by Olivier Giroud and Griezmann on attack, they comprise a dangerous French attack but neither of Mbappe’s compatriots have shone this World Cup quite like him.
In Croatia’s last game of group play, against Iceland, Coach Zlatko Dalic left two regular starters in the starting lineup, and one of them was Modric, his midfielder and captain. It was as if he knew his team might be lost without its leader and tactical linchpin. Modric is a top contender for the Golden Ball Award given to the tournament’s best player. ESPN described it best: “In a modern football world defined by moments, brief snatches of thrilling action that can be turned into GIFs, Modric is a sprawling, three-hour masterpiece of a movie.” Keep an eye out on Sunday.
France is the overwhelming favorite to win Sunday, currently at -210 in the Westgate SuperBook. Of course, it was a similarly heavy favorite in its last major tournament final, against Portugal in the 2016 European Championship, before losing, 1-0. After that, many discredited Les Bleus, until their dominance and depth became clear during the current run. Now France has a chance to cement its place as a true world soccer power, with multiple World Cup titles.