In the 65th minute of Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal, England led Croatia, 1-0. The narrative tantalized: England would face France in the World Cup final on Sunday. All kinds of current and historical connotations propped up this narrative: Brexit versus the Continent; St. George’s Cross versus the Tricolour; London versus Paris; A Tale of Two Cities; Trafalgar, Waterloo; colonial wars; Protestant versus Catholic; the Hundred Years War, etc.
England versus France was the final everybody seemed to want.
But soccer is not “coming home.” In the 68th minute, Ivan Perisic equalized for Croatia, sending the match to extra time eventually. And we all know what happened next: The grizzled Mario Mandzukic—of Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Juventus fame—fired a short-range laser beam past England’s keeper Jordan Pickford, giving Croatia a 2-1 lead, which England never overcame.
The France versus Croatia matchup is fascinating for a variety of reasons.
Before the tournament, I loathed England and the media machine that injects hysterics into everything the Three Lions do. But, like many others, I was won over by the likability of England’s boys, especially the core from Tottenham Hotspur (Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose), one of my favorite clubs. I, too, fell for the we-can-will-England-to-the-trophy narrative. Even my non-soccer-watching wife was all in on England. “England needs something to cheer about,” she chirped.
Alas, Croatia’s win robbed us of a chance to see England redeem their track record of failure in the final. France and Croatia will compete for the World Cup championship, after a tournament that has surprised us at every turn.
None of the pre-tournament top three favorites (Spain, Brazil and Germany) made the final. The defending champs didn’t even make it out of the group stage! By the quarterfinals, both Messi’s Argentina and Ronaldo’s Portugal were gone. And a round later, Neymar’s Brazil crashed out. Meanwhile, England and Russia grabbed the headlines despite their shortcomings, and Croatia and France crawled along. Valiant Croatia won a record three consecutive matches in extra time, while France seemingly stayed in second gear but played effective defensive—and “trolling”!—soccer.
The France versus Croatia matchup is fascinating for a variety of reasons. First is the demographic contrast: the multiethnic pluralities of Les Bleus versus the relatively ethnically homogenous Croatians.
France is a team of the Banlieues, with its biggest stars, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé, both calling them home.
In the spirit of France’s groundbreakingly multiethnic World Cup-winning 1998 squad of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and others, this 2018 squad is equally as diverse and arguably even more skilled. Moreover, the current squad’s makeup asserts the role that Paris’ long-overlooked Banlieues are playing in contributing to French national identity. Essentially, France is a team of the Banlieues, with its biggest stars, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé, both calling them home.
Speaking of Mbappé, the 19-year-old phenom is himself a compelling reason to tune in on Sunday. Parallels between Mbappé and the legendary Pelé have already been made, and Mbappé seems poised to replace Ronaldo and Messi as Neymar’s fellow megastar in the soccer world. Talk about a possible narrative moment. Aside from Mbappé, France’s roster glitters with soccer stars at almost every position, so it is fitting they’ve found a way into the final. These stars play with strength, dazzling skill and speed.
On the other side of the ball, the Croatians enter the final as slightly unlikable underdogs. Their star player and Real Madrid midfielder, Luka Modric faces a court trial when the tournament concludes; their key defender, Domagoj Vida, made inflammatory political comments after Croatia beat Russia; and their vaguely nationalist president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, made a polarizing locker room visit after the Russia win, rekindling debates in Croatia about the female president’s political connections and intentions.
Nevertheless, I find the prospect of a Croatian win irresistible. Entering the tournament, I was excited to see what the veteran midfield stars Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic could pull off, given that no other World Cup participant could match this midfield in providing a link between Croatia’s stout defense and attacking force of Mandzukic, Perisic and emerging star Ante Rebic. From the beginning of the tournament, I thought Croatia the most balanced side in the tournament, probably the reason why the country is making its first-ever World Cup final appearance.
I feel blessed to see these relatively old, yet graceful soccer men in the final. Although I am only a spectator, I almost feel like a co-participant with the aging Croatian squad.
Croatia is the smallest country since Uruguay in 1930 and 1950 to advance to the World Cup final and has only been playing in the World Cup as an independent nation since 1998 (when it lost in the semis to eventual winner France). Additionally, the squad is full of players in their 30s. As a man in my mid-30s myself, I find consolation in this fact. Soccer players skew so young these days, peaking in their late 20s, so I feel blessed to see these relatively old, yet graceful soccer men in the final. Although I am only a spectator, I almost feel like a co-participant with the aging Croatian squad. I wonder how my body would hold up, if I could last, if I had what it takes.
Although the quality of Croatia’s play has visibly deteriorated since the team demolished Argentina 3-0 in the group stage, the squad’s collective sense of wisdom has grown, enabled by the lovely principle of association that animates the beautiful game. This wisdom was exemplified by the team's lovely passing network from Wednesday. Only a unit could produce this performance.
In the end, the beautiful game is about more than just the individual; it is about communication and cooperation between other entities resulting in something much more. How inspiring for all of us, then, would be a Croatia win in this 2018 World Cup final?