Smallest Country to potentially win WC vs. Three-time Finalists
Alright, Its the World Cup final. Woohoo! Actually no, it’s interesting how sad I am even though the World Cup final is tomorrow. Tomorrow marks the end of this month-long marathon of watching soccer games. No more waking up at 5 (PST) and watching epic matches till 12:30 and than having a valid excuse to take an amazing 3-hour nap in the afternoon! Anyway, I digress. Back to tomorrow – France vs. Croatia. Let’s start off with France, a team who exceeded my expectations. Their World Cup warm-up games where they couldn’t beat Colombia and a tenuous US national team proved to be mere flukey incidents, despite my criticism of the team at the time. They started off on the right foot with a win over a surprisingly robust Australian team and continued this form with a win over Peru. After a draw with Denmark, France finished with 7 points in their group and 2 above second-place Denmark. In the Round of 16, they played arguably one of the most entertaining games where they beat Argentina 4-3 and made headlines with sending home Messi, one of the World’s best footballers. Their semifinal game was their most noteworthy. In the “Francophone War,” as I called it, they somehow managed to defeat a formidable and seemingly undefeatable Belgian team who dominated the match in shots and possession.
However, Croatia’s tournament record eclipses France’s, in my opinion. They landed in the toughest group of the World Cup as I articulated by my pre-tournament analysis (“The Group of Death”). In their first two games, they comfortably beat Nigeria and destroyed Messi’s Argentina 3-0 whilst keeping a clean sheet! France’s counterattacking ability was impressive in their matchup with the South Americans, but they let Argentina slip by them thrice. In their last group-stage match, prior to which they already had locked in advancement to the next round, despite the cutthroat nature of the group, they kept a strong Icelandic team at bay 2-1. Into the Round of 16, they managed to score against Denmark, something France couldn’t do, and eventually won on penalties 3-2. In the quarterfinals, they had to beat the hosts who somehow vanquished Spain in the last round and they delivered. And, in the semi-finals, Croatia shattered the desperate “It’s coming home” sentiment by defeating the Brits 2-1. While Croatia has won every game in this tournament unlike France, the French have beaten all of their adversaries in regular time (not a single shootout).
In terms of individual talent, I have to say, both teams are pretty stacked. With France, there is no question. Like I said in my previous article, from goalkeeper to striker, France could literally form three decent teams who would all qualify and do well in a World Cup. Amongst this loaded army is Kylian Mbappé who has been on fire since he entered post-pubescence. Alongside him, there is Atlético Madrid talisman Antoine Griezmann and Manchester United playmaker Paul Pogba, who are the key engineers of France’s acclaimed counterattack. Other notable players include Ousmane Dembélé, Olivier Giroud, Raphaël Varane, and Hugo Lloris, who have well established their positions in the starting lineup. Croatia’s squad isn’t short from big name players either. Rakitić is one FC Barcelona’s starting prestigious midfielders and Mandžukić has proven to be a key asset to Juventus’ attack. Dejan Lovren has also been turning some heads recently, after pretentiously, yet rightfully claiming his defensive superiority after taking his club team, Liverpool to the CL finals and now his national side to the WC finals. Most noteworthy of all, Luka Modrić has been vital to Croatia’s success. He is the backbone of his team’s offensive prowess and has consistently provided crucial passes. He is also the 4th top scorer of this tourney.
Historically speaking, France has a more convincing record at the World Cup than Croatia. In 1998, Zinedine Zidane spearheaded his team to victory over Brazil 3-0, in the finals. In 2006, they reached the final again, except they lost to Italy in penalties. Now, they are in the finals for the third time lead by wonderkid Kylian Mbappé, who is the first player born after the 1998 monumental WC success to feature on the national team. As far as Croatia goes, their success in previous tournaments is a bit ambiguous. The now independent republic of Croatia was originally a state in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1930, the first ever World Cup, they impressively reached the semifinals. Their next notable performance was in the 1962 tournament hosted by Chile, where they finished fourth. After Croatia was declared fully autonomous in 1991, they stupefyingly made it to the semifinals in the 1998 tourney, where they marginally lost to France 2-1. Perhaps France will try to achieve that same score tomorrow. In the last World Cup, France was incomparable to Croatia. Croatia didn’t even get out of their group last time around, while France got all the way to quarters where they lost to eventual winners Germany.
If Croatia wins, they won’t be the smallest country in terms of population to win (that is Uruguay), but they will be the smallest nation in terms of land mass (56,594 km2) to hold the trophy. Personally, my money’s on Croatia. They have a clean record in this tournament, winning every match they’ve played. While France is practically an all-star team, Croatia is laden with individual prowess as well. And to put the cherry on top, they’re lead by the best player in this tournament for me, Luka Modrić. Croatia will reign supreme in this World Cup, 12 hours away. Mark my words.