There has never been a World Cup final between such widely disparate teams as France and Croatia, who play for the title on Sunday.
France is an established soccer power, playing in its third title game in 20 years. With a population of 67 million, France has sent 204 players to the World Cup since 2002, the most of any country. And its national team players are worth more than $1.2 billion in annual salary, collectively.
Croatia wasn’t even an established country, much less a soccer power, a generation ago. With a population of more than 4 million, it is the second-smallest nation to make a World Cup final, and the players on its team are worth $339 million.
All of which gives Croatia the advantage, defender Dejan Lovren said.
“We love to be the underdogs,” he said.
Croatia is decidedly that. It does have a huge advantage in one area.
“Our mentality,” Lovren said of a mind-set and toughness forged in a civil war many of the players lived through.
“War, all these things, and even now the situation is not the best,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how many talents we have in sports.”
That character has been on great display here, because if France has yet to be beaten in Russia, Croatia has refused to lose.
Both teams won their groups, but in the knockout stages France rallied to beat Argentina, then shut out both Uruguay and Belgium. Croatia, meanwhile, trailed in all three of its knockout games before winning each in either extra time or in a penalty-kick shootout, making it the first team in World Cup history to win three straight extra-time games and the first to overcome three deficits en route to the final.
That also means Croatia has played 360 minutes in the knockout rounds, the equivalent of one more full game than France, which also had an extra day of rest between its semifinal and the final.
Given the speed and physicality of a French attack led by Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, fatigue could be a problem for Croatia.
France’s defense has proved difficult to break down. It gave up one goal in the group stage then struggled a bit with Argentina in the final 16, giving up goals just before and after the intermission to trail for the only time in the tournament.
The deficit lasted only nine minutes, with two goals by Mbappe four minutes apart restoring order. France then shut out its last two opponents, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris making seven saves. And the French did all of that against tougher competition than the Croatians faced.
“They have upped their game over the past several games,” Croatia’s Ivan Perisic said.
Croatia can’t really point to any compelling statistics other than its won-loss record. The team has gotten goals from seven players, only two of whom have scored twice: captain Luka Modric and Perisic. Perhaps the most impressive number for Croatia is 63, the number of kilometers (39 miles) that Modric, a midfielder, has covered in this World Cup, more than 10 kilometers a game and among the most by any player in the tournament.
The two teams know each other well since many of their members play in Spain’s La Liga. Griezmann, for example, is a teammate of Croatian defender Sime Vrsaljko at Atletico Madrid, Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic plays with France’s Samuel Umtiti at Barcelona, and Modric has won four Champions League finals alongside France’s Raphael Varane at Real Madrid.
“I would trade all four titles for this one,” Modric told reporters. “No matter what happens in the final, this is the greatest success story in Croatian sport. But we all have the desire to be the champions. We are full of confidence, we have character and we have everything a team needs to be world champions.”
Croatia has skilled players at virtually every position, allowing it to adapt to different scenarios. In the first two games it trailed, it scored an equalizer in less than 10 minutes. After a brutal first half in its semifinal against England, Croatia regrouped at halftime and controlled the game the rest of the way.
Croatia, though, never has beaten France, going 0-3-2 dating to the World Cup semifinals in 1998, Croatia’s first appearance in the tournament as an independent nation.
No one on the Croatian side has forgotten that 2-1 loss, a game in which current French coach Didier Deschamps played. France went on to win the title, its only World Cup crown.
“I was only 9. I remember my mom was screaming, she was crying after the French game,” Lovren said. “After 20 years, people will remember us, not ’98. And this is what I wanted.”
France has its own painful memories to erase. Two years ago, in the European Championship they hosted, Les Bleus rolled into the final only to lose to Portugal 1-0 on a goal four minutes into the second extra-time period. It was France’s second loss in three major tournament finals and it made this generation the first in 18 years without a trophy to call its own.