MOSCOW — After a month of wall-to-wall soccer, the World Cup boils down to this – one day, one game, one chance for France or Croatia to lift the biggest prize of all.
Countless factors go into deciding the outcome of the most-watched match in sports, but not all of them are created equal.
Both sides have had different but equally impressive paths to Sunday’s final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and each is desperate to reward its nation with ultimate glory.
Here are some of the most telling points that could sway the fate of the trophy in either direction.
France holds all the cards, in theory, when it comes to feeling fresh and recharged before Sunday’s showdown. First, its semifinal came a day earlier, outlasting Belgium on Tuesday before putting its feet up for an additional 24 hours.
Perhaps more importantly, Croatia went to extra-time in all three of its knockout-round games, including penalty shootouts against Denmark and Russia. Those additional minutes essentially add up to a complete extra game. There will be some tired legs on display.
Luka Modric outperformed Lionel Messi when Croatia went head-to-head with Argentina during the group stage and since then he’s outplayed everyone else too. Simply put, no player in the tournament has been more effective, more creative and more likely to have opposition coaches reaching for the Advil.
Modric is one of soccer’s rarities – a player with the ability to single-handedly change a game. If he does it again in the final, then he would be a worthy winner of the World Footballer of the Year award that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have had a decade-long stranglehold upon.
After Croatia beat England, Dejan Lovren wondered why he isn’t considered one of the world’s best defenders. Okay, Dejan, here’s your chance. Lovren’s chief assignment will be arguably the most daunting one in soccer today – to stop Kylian Mbappe.
The 19-year-old French star is a modern-day monster, a powerhouse with devastating speed, gifted feet and finishing composure. The scary part is that he’s only going to get better. Mbappe will seek to assert himself physically, and Lovren will have his hands full.
With the possible exception of Brazil, these are the two World Cup teams blessed with the most flair – making them appropriate finalists for a tournament that has produced goals aplenty and a steady stream of entertainment.
But you don’t get to the title game without fighting for it, and in N’Golo Kante (France) and Ivan Rakitic (Croatia) the squads have players who serve as the inexhaustible engine for their team. Kante is everywhere, with a popular joke stating that if someone steals a man’s wife, it won’t be long before France’s midfield workhorse wins her back for him. Rakitic is a little flashier but no less resilient. This will be a clash of two understated titans who don’t get the attention they deserve.
Think that elite players who have spent their career at the highest level don’t feel pressure? Think again. In truth, much will depend on who handles the expectation and the gravity of the situation the best.
France’s current crop wants to build its own legacy, having grown up in the shadow of its nation’s 1998 triumph, the only one in French history. Croatia, with four million people and 27 removed from independence, has never made it this far, but has a proud and passionate homeland waiting to explode into a celebration of monumental scope.