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  • There’s arguably never been a World Cup final between two countries with such divergent soccer pedigrees, and there's no telling what Sunday's title bout will hold when France and Croatia end this supremely entertaining and unpredictable competition.
By Brian Straus
July 14, 2018

MOSCOW — One team spoke Saturday about a protective “bubble,” the other of a “seismic event.”

If you’ve been following this white-knuckle World Cup (or international soccer in general over the past few years), you’ll likely have no trouble guessing which side said which.

One of Sunday’s World Cup finalists resembles an acclaimed and well-drilled orchestra, polished and patrician, used to playing at the finest venues and expected to hit every note. When you attend a symphony, you demand familiar and satisfying perfection.

The other is a small punk rock band, whose screeching and careening chords may seem kind of random. But they’re anchored by technically adept and vigorous artistry, and the musicians are fueled by the commotion of the mosh pit. Prepare to get jostled when you go to a show, and don’t expect it to start or finish on time.

Sunday’s final here at the Luzhniki Stadium between buttoned-up France and hardcore Croatia will either extend or upend soccer’s recognized international order, and it will contribute massively to how this World Cup is remembered. There’s arguably never been a World Cup decider between two countries with such divergent soccer pedigrees.

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A couple favorites struggled early this summer, but one side of the knockout-bracket remained filled with big teams and big names. From there, Les Bleus—one of the pre-tournament favorites—solidly but unspectacularly advanced to their third final in the past six World Cups. France has lifted every significant trophy in the game and is 90 minutes from adding a second star above its iconic Coq Gaulois.

The bracket’s other side was crazy from the start, made more so by Russia’s implausible round-of-16 elimination of Spain. The ultimate survivor was a Croatian side that went to extra time on three occasions and a penalty shootout twice.

Croatia is a country of less than five million people that’s never won anything of note on a soccer field. There’s been upheaval at the federation level. Its players have overcome challenges ranging from injury and World Cup expulsion (forward Nikola Kalinić was sent home during the group stage), to courtroom drama and actual war. Fans have been banned from games for mosh-pit behavior and worse. There’s no obvious developmental program, and the domestic league is weak. Yet that chaos has proven to be a crucible. Two decades ago, Croatia’s first golden generation fell to France in the World Cup semis. The second is poised for the best type of revenge.

One team expects to win. The pressure is on France, the Euro 2016 runner-up that’s been following an archetypal championship blueprint. The other expects only the unexpected, and they’re thrilled to be in Moscow.

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“Despite crisis or problems, Croatians have completely put aside all the hardships and they’ve been proud and joyous over the past month, and win or lose [Sunday], there will be a seismic event in Croatia, and this brings us strength and motivation,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić, who took over as the Vatreni’s qualification campaign hung by a thread last fall.

“Now, there is no pressure,” he continued. “I’m not going to heap pressure on my players before such a game. It’ll be a full house. The whole world is watching. You go out and play your best football. Don’t be cramped. Don’t be inhibited. Don’t let other things lead you astray. Simply, this is the greatest moment in our lives. ... If we win the trophy, nobody can be prouder than us coming from such a small country. If we fail to win, we will congratulate our opponent. That’s life. That’s football. I want to send this message: we’ve come here to enjoy the final.”

And they just may. With nothing to lose, and with the genius (and Golden Ball favorite) Luka Modrić pulling the strings, they’ll present another unique challenge to a French side whose inability to emphatically put away opponents may come back to haunt it against a side that refuses to die. Having played an entire extra 90 minutes over the past two weeks, Croatia will be weary by comparison.

“Even when you think they might lose or crack, they have the mental strength to come back,” France’s 19-year-old phenom, Kylian Mbappé, said this week. “They’re a team you have to be wary of.”

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Speaking Saturday at the Luzhniki, France captain Hugo Lloris said, “Croatia has demonstrated its intangibles, which are quite incredible. … They’ve managed to advance after extra time three times in a row, so it shows there’s something very special in this team.”

He continued, “We’re going to need to perform at a very high level and play a perfect match in order to win tomorrow. And it’s with that mindset that we’re preparing.”

That’s how a world-class orchestra, with each musician in his or her place (and maybe one 19-year-old allowed to improvise a bit), approaches a performance. Start with perfection, and go from there. Two themes emerged Saturday as Lloris and his manager, Didier Deschamps, met the media. One was how they’re managing the stress or anticipation of the last 24 hours before the final. The other was the missed opportunity two years ago, when France lost to undermanned Portugal in the Euro 2016 title game.

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There’s not a whole lot of “we’re just happy to be here” in this team. Thanks to robust player development that’s the envy of most of the planet, and a pipeline running through Ligue 1 and feeding the sport’s top clubs, Les Bleus have been eyeing the Luzhniki for years.

They’re not joyless. That’s important to note. This is a team in which there seems to be genuine chemistry and respect—which isn’t always a given with France—and Lloris noted toward the end of his appearance that “pleasure” is “an important element” to the final experience.

“Smiling, having this positive energy, is important, because that enables us to have enough detachment before stepping into this situation," he said.

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Joy, then, is important because it lightens the load. It’s a means to an end. Deflection is the critical part, as the netminder explained—whatever helps create the room and serenity required to produce the precision that will win the day. Deschamps said here that “the three important words” he and his staff are repeating to the players are “calm,” “confidence” and “concentration.” It’s useful, and it may be the recipe for a world championship, but it’s hardly punk rock.

Croatia’s brilliant midfielder Ivan Rakitić told reporters Friday that he’d “leave my football boots behind on Monday if that was the price I had to pay to win for my country, to win for Croatia.” That’s punk rock.

“I think our team is quite calm,” Lloris said. “Since the beginning of the tournament, I don’t really know if we even realize how far we’ve come and the path we’ve followed. But it’s better that way.

“We have an inner strength inside our team that’s been inside us from the beginning, and that gives us strength to overcome any obstacles, to face any challenge and tomorrow, most certainly, will be the most important match of our career. We have to stay in our bubble and we have to stay focused on our ultimate goal.”

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That focus has carried France to the final. “There is no euphoria here,” Deschamps said Saturday. Les Bleus still may have a dynamic, dominating performance in them, like their 1998 predecessors. That group, captained by Deschamps, lurched through the World Cup before blowing out favored Brazil in the final. But mostly, this tournament has been about France playing games on its terms (apart from the round-of-16 tilt with Argentina, which was chaotic and won by Les Bleus’ superior talent), slowly suffocating the opponent and having one of its big-club, big-money talents step up and deliver the required goal. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s not going to take a crowd by storm.

But it warrants applause, and has been more than adequate for the gilded concert hall that is the World Cup. This is where the elite gathers. In 88 years, no “second-tier” soccer country, no “golden generation,” no one saddled with Croatia’s obstacles, has ever crashed this party. They may fail Sunday. The odds are against them, and they know it. But they’re going to have a blast trying.

“I do not set much thought in statistics, tradition, head-to-heads. Tradition is there to be demolished,” Dalić said at the Luzhniki.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to be happy and proud, because we deserve it,” he added. “Those guys in the squad, who’ve been around for 10 years, they have faced many problems. They played empty stadiums, without those who were suspended, without much support. Without their character and without their fortitude, they wouldn't have reached this final. I’m so proud of them. We’re going to really give our all, play our best football and enjoy it.”

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