A loaded team that’s rarely had to exit second gear (France), and another that expended more energy than anyone in the tournament (Croatia), will meet for the 21st World Cup championship.
The matchup was set Wednesday, as Croatia outlasted England in extra time at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the venue for the title game. France was a favorite before the tournament and will remain so Sunday, in part because of its depth and talent, and in part because it’ll enter the final so much fresher. But the resilient and indefatigable Croats won’t be an easy out.
The strength of both sides is the force and flair of their midfields and flanks, where stars like France’s N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé, and Croatia’s Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić have put their stamp on this World Cup.
This is the third all-European final in the past four World Cups, and Croatia—a debutant at this stage—is the 13th nation to reach a World Cup final. Here's a closer look at Sunday's matchup:
Les Bleus came to Russia facing high expectations, especially after losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil. Nothing less than an appearance at the Luzhniki on Sunday would’ve been acceptable. And they came through, although not in the high-flying fashion that their talent and potential might’ve suggested. Coach Didier Deschamps has opted for a balanced and conservative approach, as France has gradually taken control of games and found a way to score only the goals it has needed. And several have come from more unlikely sources—center backs scored the quarterfinal and semifinal winners.
While the 19-year-old Mbappé has furnished some memorable, highlight-reel moments, for the most part France is more clinical than creative. But it’s been enough to book a trip to Moscow without much trouble, surviving a tough knockout-round road featuring Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium.
France potential starters
GK Hugo Lloris; Ds Lucas Hernández, Samuel Umtiti, Raphaël Varane, Benjamin Pavard; MFs N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi; Fs Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud
France leading World Cup scorers
Antoine Griezmann – 3 goals
Kylian Mbappé – 3 goals
While France has never looked like it was in too much trouble, Croatia seems to be in trouble constantly. The Vatreni were close to missing out on Russia altogether, as former coach Ante Čačić was fired just a couple days before their last scheduled qualifier. But they won, 2-0, at Ukraine to book a playoff place, then eased past Greece last November. The talent is there, starting with the versatile, cerebral and relentless Modrić, who’s been a massive part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive European titles. And Croatia looked fantastic during this World Cup’s group stage. But the knockout round has been an unprecedented grind, with inferior opponents (on paper) taking them to extra time in all three games.
Croatia now has played a full 90 minutes more than France. But it’s also been tested in a way Les Bleus have not. If Croatia can clear one more hurdle, it’ll make history. Only top-tier countries—the ones that develop talent and contend for titles consistently—have won the World Cup. No “golden generation” has ever done it. Croatia’s first such generation made the semis in ’98, but then it failed to qualify or get out of the group stage for 20 years. This is the second, and this is their chance.
Croatia potential starters
GK Danijel Subašić; Ds Ivan Strinić, Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Šime Vrsaljko; MFs Marcelo Brozović, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modrić, Ante Rebić; F Mario Mandžukić
Croatia leading World Cup scorers
Mario Mandžukić – 2 goals
Luka Modrić – 2 goals
Ivan Perišić – 2 goals
France leads 3-0-2 overall
France leads 1-0-0 in World Cups
France leads 1-0-1 in official competition
1998 World Cup: A legendary performance by defender Lilian Thuram, who scored both goals, lifted the hosts into a long-awaited first World Cup final with a 2-1 semifinal victory in Saint-Denis. France overcame a second-half red card to defender Laurent Blanc and went on to win the title.
Euro 2004: David Trezeguet scored the equalizer in the 64th minute to help Les Bleus to a 2-2 draw with Croatia in the second game of the group stage. Croatia never recovered, lost to England in its first-round finale and was eliminated. The French won the group but were upset in the quarterfinals by Greece.
Previous World Cup final appearances
France – 1998 (defeated Brazil), 2006 (lost to Italy)
Croatia – Never
France – 1998 FIFA World Cup; 1984 and 2000 UEFA European Championship; 2001 and 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup; 1984 Olympics; 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup; 2001 FIFA U-17 World Cup
Croatia – None
Road to the final
France: 7-1-2 in UEFA qualifying. Finished first in Group C at 2-0-1. Defeated Argentina, 4-3, in the round of 16. Defeated Uruguay, 2-0, in the quarterfinal. Defeated Belgium, 1-0, in the semifinal.
Croatia: 6-2-2 in UEFA qualifying. Defeated Greece, 4-1, on aggregate in UEFA's playoff round. Finished first in Group D at 3-0-0. Defeated Denmark, 1-1 (3-2 PKs), in the round of 16. Defeated Russia, 2-2 (4-3 PKs), in the quarterfinal. Defeated England, 2-1, in extra time in the semifinal.
There’s not much recent history between the two on the international stage. France and Croatia have met only one this decade, in a 2011 friendly. But players on both sides will be familiar with each other from club play—especially in Spain. The three La Liga powers—Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid—feature key men from both countries.
Barcelona fields France’s Umtiti and Ousmane Dembélé, and Croatia’s Rakitić. Real Madrid has France’s Varane, and Croatia’s Modrić and Kovačić. Atlético has France’s Griezmann and Hernández, and Croatia’s Vrsaljko.
Croatia’s shootout-hero goalkeeper, Subašić, plays for AS Monaco alongside France reserves Djibril Sidibé and Thomas Lemar. And Croatian semifinal hero Mandžukić (as well as reserve forward Marko Pjaca) is at Juventus with France’s Matuidi.