We can’t make you fluent in The Beautiful Game, but we can school you with enough info for Sunday’s final
You aren’t what anybody would refer to as a soccer fan. That’s fine. Even if it’s the most popular sport in the world, it’s not nearly as massive an entity in the United States, particularly this year with the. Still, for the last month, you’ve heard a lot about the World Cup, and it’s piqued your interest. Now, with the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium between France and Croatia only days away, you’ve decided you want to watch the match, but you don’t want to go in blind.
Consider me your guide. I can’t make you fluent in The Beautiful Game, but I can give you enough information to work with so that you’ll know what to look for, and maybe even surprise somebody with your knowledge.
We’ll start with the basics:
What: World Cup final
When: Sunday, July 15, 11 a.m. ET, stream on fuboTV (Try for free)
Who: France vs. Croatia
Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia
How did France get here?
France’s path to the World Cup final didn’t come as much of a surprise, as it was considered one of the favorites before the tournament started. It landed in Group C with Denmark, Peru and Australia, and was a heavy favorite to win the group, which it did. After two wins against Australia and Peru to begin group play the French already clinched a berth in the round of 16, and a draw with Denmark gave them first place in the group. It then met Argentina in the first round of the knockout stage (think of it as the World Cup’s equivalent of the NCAA Tournament: Win or go home) and won in an exciting 4-3 match. The next round brought Uruguay, another strong team, but one without a key player as striker Edinson Cavani missed the match with an injured calf. France won that match 2-0 before moving on to the semifinals where it took out another strong team in Belgium, winning 1-0.
|Group C||Australia||2-1 win||Antoine Griezmann, Aziz Behich (o.g.)|
|Group C||Peru||1-0 win||Kylian Mbappe|
|Group C||Denmark||0-0 draw||—|
|Round of 16||Argentina||4-3 win||Griezmann, Benjamin Pavard, Mbappe (2)|
|Quarterfinals||Uruguay||2-0 win||Raphael Varane, Griezmann|
|Semifinals||Belgium||1-0 win||Samuel Umtiti|
How did Croatia get here?
Croatia’s path wasn’t quite what anybody saw coming. In Group D with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, many expected Croatia to move to the knockout stage, but few pegged it to win the group over Argentina. That’s precisely what it did, however, thanks in large part to a 3-0 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in its second match of the tournament. Perhaps then is when everybody should have taken notice of how good this team could be. Croatia won all three of its group play matches by a combined score of 7-1. Things became more difficult in knockout play, with Croatia advancing past Denmark on penalty kicks. The score was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, and after an additional 30 minutes of extra time (overtime), the score remained 1-1. Croatia’s quarterfinal match against the home team, Russia, followed the same script. It was 1-1 after 90 minutes, but both sides managed to score a goal in extra time to finish 2-2. Croatia would win again on penalties (4-3) despite its goalkeeper Danijel Subasic dealing with a balky hamstring he suffered late in the match. Then, somehow, despite playing so many minutes in their previous two games, Croatia overcame an early 1-0 deficit in the semis to crush England’s dreams and reach its first World Cup final in history.
|Group D||Nigeria||2-0 win||Oghenekaro Etebo (o.g.), Luka Modric|
|Group D||Argentina||3-0 win||Ante Rebic, Modric, Ivan Rakitic|
|Group D||Iceland||2-1 win||Milan Badelj, Ivan Perisic|
|Round of 16||Denmark||1-1 (3-2 win in PKs)||Mario Mandzukic|
|Quarterfinals||Russia||2-2 (3-2 win in PKs)||Andrej Kramaric, Domagoj Vida|
|Semifinals||England||2-1 win (a.e.t.)||Perisic, Mandzukic|
Who is going to win?
Well, I can’t see the future, but France is the favorite. As I write this France’s odds sit at -106, while Croatia is a +387 underdog. The odds of a draw sit at +233. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and no, the World Cup can’t end in a tie. A draw means the match was tied after 90 minutes before 30 minutes of extra time and possible penalty kicks. As far as odds to win the match, be it in regulation, extra time, or penalties, France is at -220 and Croatia is +180.
So Croatia is like a Cinderella?
Yes, if you want to use another NCAA Tournament analogy, you can certainly say that. While they aren’t entirely on the level of what we saw with Loyola at this year’s Final Four, they’re still a surprise. This is a team that’s yet to lose one in this World Cup. And while Croatia has a few big names known to soccer fans like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic, those guys aren’t household names for the most part.
Which team is more fun to watch?
Well, different strokes for different folks and all that, but I would wager that France is the more entertaining side for the casual soccer fan. If either one of these teams is going to score three to four goals in a match, France is the more likely option. The team has so much offensive firepower with players like Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe (mmm-bap-eh) up front, and N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba in the midfield. It’s a terrific blend of youth, experience, speed and strength.
Who is the one French player I should keep my eyes on?
There are many, but right now the hottest name is France’s Kylian Mbappe. He’s only 19 years old, but he’s scored three goals in the World Cup (Antoine Griezmann also has three goals for France). He can essentially serve as a one-person fast break for the French. Think of him as a bit like the NBA’s Russell Westbrook. He’s very dangerous in transition, as he can fly down the field quickly.
How about Croatia’s best player?
That would be Luka Modric. Although he’s more than capable of scoring goals (he has two in the tournament), that’s not ultimately his purpose. He’s not a goal scorer as much as he’s a goal creator. He’s the guy who has the ball at his feet most of the time when Croatia’s looking to create a scoring chance because he’s the best at creating the space for his teammates to operate by dribbling the ball into dangerous areas. If Kylian Mbappe is Russell Westbrook, Luka Modric is Chris Paul.
Which NFL teams would you compare them too?
If I’m comparing France to anybody right now, I will go with the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike the Eagles, France had already won a World Cup before this year, back in 1998. Where the comparison comes in, though, is that the Eagles have never been a premier NFL franchise, but they’ve never really had a prolonged period of struggles. It’s a team that’s typically been good, but seldom great. That being said, the Eagles just won a Super Bowl with a team that had a nice blend of youth, talent and experience, and they could be in a position to become a real power in the NFL over the next few years. Well, there are some wondering if this World Cup final is just the beginning of a dominant run from France on the international soccer stage over the next decade.
As for Croatia, I’d compare it to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Croatia didn’t become an independent country until 1991 and didn’t play in its first World Cup until 1998. Jacksonville didn’t become an NFL franchise until 1995. Also, like Croatia, while Jacksonville has won three division titles since, it’s never won the AFC or reached the Super Bowl before. So it’s in uncharted territory right now, and like Jacksonville, Croatia has a strong enough defense to keep it in the game with France. The only question is if it’ll be able to score enough to win.