What a World Cup win would mean for both Croatia and France

Croatia's Josip Pivaric celebrates after his team advanced to the World Cup final in the semifinal match between Croatia and England in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

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.

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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?

J Cosgrove
1 week ago

Croatia has about 4 million people. Dalmatian coast is beautiful. And very mountainous as one goes quickly inland. Recommend all try and get there some time.

I had a joke bracket pick with a good friend. He had France/England final with prince attending and wearing military garb celebrating victory over Napoleon. I had world fixation event on a Uruguay/Croatia final. Both half right.

Christopher Lochner
1 week ago

Go Croatia. Always root for the little guy/ underdog. Last time it was Costa Rica. Uruguay is out...so... GO CROATIA!!

cyrus miley
1 week ago

In spite of the fact that Mondragon joined the Colombian group without precedent for the 1994 World Cup, he didn't play until 1998 in France. That group at Do My Essay For Me couldn't achieve the disposal organize

rose-ellen caminer
6 days 18 hours ago

Considering how "the French' [ you never hear Americans say "the French people" ; try saying "the Mexicans" or "the Puerto Ricans," and see what the reaction would be, but French people are objectified and otherized as "the French"; so too we hear the objectification of a people when making derogatory claims about China as China is now referred to as " the Chinese" in growing anti China propaganda] are being written out of American history and narratives [notice how Spain is replacing France in US media ], that France are in the finals make them the underdog today. At least if one is in America. Watch how the Francophobic US will down play the whole thing if France wins. One NPR commentator said of Mbappe, that " he was playing for France" as if he was not himself French. Was that racist or was that anti "the French" or both!

Christopher Lochner
6 days 17 hours ago

Awww, no. It's because if the French win they'll become even more insufferable. I mean, Jerry Lewis as a comedic genius???! The Académie française: custodians of the French language??Etc. etc. etc. 😀

rose-ellen caminer
6 days 17 hours ago

Jerry Lewis? Yeah ,yeah, you came out with that cliché about Jerry Lewis on Commonweal.[ or another like minded victim of Francophobic indoctrination did]. I love Jerry Lewis; he WAS a comedic genius! When you bring him up you are just regurgitating stereotypical anti French bigoted tropes. Watch his movies and I guarantee you will laugh and appreciate his depth and brilliance.[ As did Marilyn Monroe]. Then again your judgment may be clouded by anti French indoctrination.[how may French people do you know]? Or maybe you find brilliance in a cursing Eddie Murphy [ though he can be funny too.] Your anti French hatred and bigotry will not erase that beautiful language from the world. Listen to Georges Moustaki or Josephine Baker singing in French, and your garbage hateful bigotry has no power.
PS. This country thanks to the younger generation and newer immigrants will soon adopt very EU[ French] like values of democratic socialism ;like universal health care and free higher education etc. , etc., Your right wing Americanism is on the wrong side of history. We see this in how Spanish speaking newer immigrants did not cow tow to being told to speak English only, and Americans are now acquiescing to the newer immigrant mindset that says we will continue to speak our language. Language preservation is not a bad thing, as the Irish people , and the Native American people know and wish they had been more "insufferable" about preserving their languages, as they now scramble to preserve and codify the remaining words they have using technology in the Library of Congress and other language preservation venues.

Christopher Lochner
6 days 14 hours ago

Gee whiz. Didn't you see my smiley face at the end? Sorry to have bumped such an open and raw nerve. Right wing Americanism? Really? Wayyyyyyy over reaction. I like France. They were THE originators of equality, you know, the Revolution...the guillotine for all. And I DO know people from France and we DO chuckle over our differences. Perhaps this is the modern problem, over sensitivity & gotta win the argument beliefs. (Warning: please don't watch the Simpsons "cheese eating...." episode. Good old Groundskeeper Willie.) I'd be serious but your rant is so over the top...And it is interesting that French is the official language of France but to make English the official U.S. language is a terrible bias. Huh??? The English language is dynamic, fluid and it grows while the French language, uhh, never mind. Now I've heard of a huge difference between Parisians and the French, perhaps my friends are thankfully from the countryside. { End Rant}

rose-ellen caminer
6 days 12 hours ago

That wasn't exactly a smiling face, but ok. It IS a raw nerve [my mother was French] as I noticed the anti French bigotry for years in the US media and among the people; most of whom have never met a French person. But thank you for assuaging my yes, open and raw nerve, regarding pervasive anti French bigotry in the US. Maybe I hear it wrong and am being snow flaky but the anti French comments I hear never sound like mere chuckling at differences.
Yes English is dynamic and fluid in contrast to static French.

PS I have no problem with having an official language; language unifies society. It does appear however that we may be becoming a bilingual society as we now are open to learning the immigrants Spanish language rather then insisting Spanish speaking immigrants give up their native language, as we did in the past. Being a bilingual nation is good, but having an official language is not bad either. I could go either way . Prohibiting or harassing people from or for speaking their language is wrong. [ end reply; nuff said].[ smiling face here]

Christopher Lochner
6 days 11 hours ago

I'm sorry... Truly!...The times we live in are fraught with discord...and I point at myself. So very, very many problems with so few solutions implemented. Sometimes it seems the world is going mad!...So I state, (through teeth gritted so I can hear them cracking), "Vive La France!" Good luck tomorrow. And if you win then gloat gloat gloat in a Christian way of course cause that's part of the fun in sports. Heh, you never apologize to another team for winning.

Mark M
5 days 14 hours ago

Yaawn.
Pass the French whine..

J. Calpezzo
6 days 14 hours ago

Croatia will kick the Frog's butt.

rose-ellen caminer
6 days 12 hours ago

I love Croatian people [ that rock star looking player especially]; J. Calpezzo. Good luck Italy in the World Cup. Oh I forgot, the Guineas are not in it this year!

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