France and Croatia are a few days out from meeting to determine the World Cup champion, 20 years after they met in the 1998 semifinals en route to France's first title. Both of their teams resemble those past editions in some ways, and we discuss it all on our World Cup Daily podcast as we begin to look ahead to Sunday's bout in Moscow.
Listen to the full episode below, which also includes an interview with The Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear each episode throughout the 2018 World Cup.
Here's a snippet of the latest episode:
GRANT WAHL: France-Croatia. A rematch of the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and actually some similarities between both of these teams and their predecessors from 20 years ago.
BRIAN STRAUS: What reminds you about Croatia?
GW: It's a good question. I was going to start with France and get to Croatia. I look at a very multicultural team and the same conversation that was being had 20 years ago. I went back and reread my SI story from 1998 about that team and how at a time of rising unfortunately right-wing politics, this was sort of a rebuke to those politics, and I think there's a lot of similiarities there.
I think you look at a guy like Paul Pogba. He's 25, entering the prime of his career. Zinedine Zidane was 25, entering the prime of his career. Didier Deschamps is a common figure in both teams. One as a defensive midfielder and one as a manager, but with a similar outlook now as he had then to playing the game very conservatively.
You have a starting center forward with no goals in the tournament. In this case it's Olivier Giroud, then it was Stephane Guivarc'h, who I think Giroud has had a more positive impact on this touranment than Guivarc'h did on that one. A very good defensive performance from this France team, just as they had in 1998. And we'll see what happens in the final, obviously. That France team had a remarkable performance in the final, winning 3-0 against Brazil, but it's not like that France team cruised through the knockout rounds, and this France team has not either. In fact it's been kind of a grind, the last two knockout games after the 4-3 against Argentina.
BS: It's funny, because I do kind of see it as a cruise in a way, in the sense that ... they've never really been in that much trouble. Belgium had most of the ball, but they didn't have the better chances against France. They've never really been challenged ... since Argentina. That game was crazy. That game was back-and-forth bonkers, like a complete exception. I thought you meant since Argentina that they've sort of boa-constrictered each of those games. Sort of played them at their pace, did what they wanted to do, scored the goals they needed and never really got out of second gear. And I don't think they've been challenged that much.
And I wonder, since you brought up Argentina, my favorite game of the tournament, I wonder even if when they were down they really felt like they were in trouble. They really felt like they were panicked. Argentina was so open, and so undisciplined, and had so many flaws in the structure and the speed of their team. I'll never able to get inside their heads, in terms of France's, but I wonder if they even then felt, 'We'll get the goal we need, we'll be fine. Worst-case scenario we'll go to overtime, not a huge deal." I just don't think they've been under that much stress in the tournament. And the contrast is that Croatia has been nothing but stress, essentially since qualifying.
GW: That's a good point. And if you're asking about comparisons between Croatia in 2018 and Croatia in 1998, I think it's just a tremendous generation of players. This current tournament you've got (Luka) Modric, (Ivan) Rakitic, (Ivan) Perisic–was so good in the semifinal–(Mario) Mandzukic. And them some really good performances from guys who weren't as well known like (Danijel) Subasic and (Sime) Vrsaljko in the semifinal. I thought Vrsaljko was kind of poor at times in this tournament, but he had the cross on Perisic's opener, and I think was kind of a handful, actually. Then you look back at the 98 Croatia team and it was guys like Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, ... You had a good generation of players. Alen Boksic was on that team.
I guess one question I've got, is when you look at Croatia, and this gets back to my story on Iceland ahead of the tournament, is there a virtue in smallness? This is the second smallest country population-wise ever to get to a World Cup final after Uruguay. Is there an actual virtue in smallness?
BS: Yeah, there can be. I think that's clear. We've talked about the way either small in population or countries that are small in landmass like Belgium, the Netherlands, etc., they're able to get players together, train together, become comfortable, develop chemistry. They're able to sort of–no one falls through the cracks in a country of that size. Anything is a virtue if you are smart and use it the right way. Having 300 million people can be a virtue too. We just haven't figured out how to use it as a virtue.
It's hard to give Croatia credit in a way, because they haven't gotten this far in spite of the way things are organized in that country. But clearly they've now twice in two decades developed a generation of players that can come this far. I made this note in the little preview we did late last night, but not 'golden generation' has ever won a World Cup. So what they're really after here is a new history for global football. For the biggest tournament in this sport. This hasn't been done.
The teams that win World Cups are from countries that produce consistent talent. The big five in Europe, with the big five leagues that are always competitive, always contending, and then Uruguay, which was a power back in the day, and then Brazil and Argentina. These are teams that are–they may not have a good World Cup, or they may not even qualify, like Italy did this time or England and France did in 94, but they're always there. They don't disappear for 20 years. Croatia hadn't gotten out of a group at the World Cup in 20 years, and they didn't qualify once or twice. So we have never seen a team that is one of these up-and-down second-tier countries actually go all the way and win the thing. So that would be a massive accomplishment, a massive piece of unprecedented history that they're 90 minutes away from achieving.
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