MOSCOW – View Sunday’s World Cup final the way most folks under the age of 30 consume sports — or so we’re told — and it’s entirely one-sided. When it comes to social media, viral highlight videos, cross-pollination with other celebrities, commercial endorsements and overall eyeball-catching power, it’s over before it has even begun.
The entire Croatia starting XI has only a few million Instagram followers more than France midfielder Paul Pogba alone. Some of them don’t even have blue check marks (gasp!), while others don’t have accounts at all (double gasp!).
View the match from a different vantage point — pedigree — and it’s thoroughbreds versus wild horses who escaped to the hills. From Pogba to Antoine Griezmann to Raphael Varane to Kylian Mbappe, most of these French players have been under the spotlight since they were pre-teens. This World Cup final, for them, is destiny, part of their road map.
France are probably the deepest, most talented squad at Russia 2018 and there is a sense of both entitlement and expectation about their run to the final. They pretty much did it without breaking a sweat, at each turn doing just enough to dispatch the opposition, knowing they could raise their game at any moment. In many games, it felt like playing one-on-one basketball with a big brother who let you keep the score close but who — you just knew — could turn it on at will if he so chose.
Croatia? Talk about ugly ducklings. Mario Mandzukic has the distinction of being rejected by both Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone. Dejan Lovren, despite reaching the Champions League final with Liverpool in May, is routinely derided (often unfairly) as an accident waiting to happen. In February, Domagoj Vida was sent off after just 16 minutes of his Champions League debut for new club Besiktas.
Captain Luka Modric is a legitimate superstar, who might be a Ballon d’Or candidate, but is also a guy who is hated by large chunks of the country for his role in an ugly affair of perjury, corruption and embezzlement. Two years ago, at Euro 2016, some Croatian fans, so incensed with their federation and some of their players, fired flares onto the pitch in an effort to get their own team kicked out of the competition.
France and Croatia meet in the World Cup final on Sunday. ESPN Illustration
Little has come easy for Croatia in Russia, either. Nikola Kalinic was sent home after he refused to come on as a substitute late in the opening group-stage match against Nigeria.
They also fell behind in each of their three knockout games and somehow clawed their way back, twice needing penalties and once extra time — Wednesday’s 2-1 victory against England — to advance.
The difference is just as stark when it comes to the two managers. Both Didier Deschamps and Zlatko Dalic were hard-tackling defensive midfielders who were at the 1998 World Cup. Except Deschamps, one of the best ever in his position, was on the pitch and helped France lift the trophy for the first time in their history. Dalic was in the stands as a spectator, having paid his own way.
Upon retirement, Deschamps immediately went on to manage wealthy clubs like Monaco, Juventus and Marseille before getting the France gig in 2012. Dalic, meanwhile, held assistant- and youth-coach jobs before working in Croatia, Albania and Saudi Arabia (at a newly created club), before finally getting some recognition in the United Arab Emirates. He became Croatia boss only last October and only with the proviso that he would be gone if he failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Look, Croatia are a talented side. It’s just that a country with a population smaller than metro Detroit will, out of necessity, field a team where A-list stars like Modric and Ivan Rakitic share a place in the starting lineup with lesser-known players, to put it kindly. Guys like Ivan Strinic, who was released by his club last month and has made only 31 league starts in the previous three seasons, and Ante Rebic, who has bounced around five clubs over the past five years.
France, on the other hand, have three of the five most expensive players in history and one of them, Ousmane Dembele, is likely to be on the bench. They also boast the Premier League Player of the Year from two seasons back, N’Golo Kante, and the most expensive signing in the history of Bayern Munich, Corentin Tolisso; he is also likely to start on the bench.
They also get the luxury of an extra day’s rest since their semifinal, a 1-0 win vs. Belgium, was on Tuesday. And they face a team that, if you add up the three extra-time exertions Croatia had to battle through, has effectively played an additional 90 minutes of football.
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At first glance, this might appear as one-sided on the pitch as it is in terms of hype, pedigree and name recognition. But lean in and look a bit closer.
For all their talent, France have played conservative, no-frills football throughout the tournament, in keeping with Deschamps’ mantra. Most of their goals have come on set pieces or counterattacks. They are a big team who have played with the humility of a small team, and that’s not a bad thing. However, if they go a goal down, it does make you wonder whether they can kick their performance into a higher gear.
Plus, there’s a psychological angle: Two years ago, at Euro 2016, France were heavily favored over Portugal in the final, yet they somehow contrived to throw it away on home soil. Sometimes demons from our past come back to haunt us.
Croatia, to quote England manager Gareth Southgate, are “hardened warriors” who “make the right decisions.” That matters. As does the fact that while they might have fewer individual superstars than France, Croatia have enough guys who can create something out of nothing. In a low-scoring sport, that also matters.
Perhaps these teams are best summed up by the welcome message on the Instagram accounts of their two midfield generals. Pogba’s reads “Born Ready” and, indeed, his whole life has been prelude to this: big games, big stage, big hype.
And Modric? “The Best Things Never Come Easy”.
Which, if Croatia win at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, will be one of the most prophetic statements ever recorded on social media. It might also serve as a warning to France, who have rarely found the need to get out of cruise control in this tournament.