Source: The Hitavada      Date: 15 Jul 2018 10:25:16

WITHIN seven years of becoming an independent state, breaking away from Yugoslavia, the tiny nation of Croatia was within touching distance of its biggest sporting moment -- a World Cup final. Destiny had willed otherwise as the red and white shirts were denied the glory by a tenacious France with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory. Twenty years to the day, the gritty Croatian football team has overcome that hurdle and now await the same opponent in Moscow, in a final show that will conclude with one of them walking away with the most coveted crown in world football -- the World Cup Champions.

It will be yesterday once again for France and Croatia with new set of players and tremendous change in fortunes and reputations. The final on Sunday promises a heady punch where two different styles will clash for the ultimate glory in football. Both have had their highs and lows and both have shown what it takes to be in the World Cup final. France convoked their top game when confronted with tough challenges and Croatia have showed amazing fortitude in face of energy-sapping encounters that went into extra-time in all their three knock-out matches. In the last throw of dice on Sunday, two different mindsets, two different working patterns will construct a way forward for the common goal -- the World Cup crown.

This edition of the World Cup has thrown some spectacular surprises with teams like Belgium, England, Uruguay, Croatia and even hosts Russia punching way above their weight. Players with little known exploits have towered much above some established stars carrying baggage of history and fame. The final is one such story of an underdog and a champion coming face to face by the dint of their steel.

As Croatia live a collective dream of their four million people they also realise the fact that between them and podium stands a team that does not cower down on the big stage. Under Didier Deschamps, France have only hardened into a unit that runs like a well-oiled machine. The flair of Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba has been intelligently woven with pragmatic game plans, engineered by eschewing adventure. Their 4-3 victory over Argentina followed by 2-0 drubbing of a highly impressive Uruguay reflected the calculated strategy France has banked upon while changing gears from group phase to the knock-outs. If the semi-final was a heartbreak for Belgium, whose electric entertainment wowed the world, it was also a lesson from France -- how to turn up as champions when it matters the most.

Croatia will be spurred by the thought of avenging the 1998 semi-final defeat. They have made a staggering progress since that game and though the two countries did meet in the Euro 2004, given the higher stakes of the final Croatia will do well to remind themselves of the revenge on the biggest stage. Zlatko Dalic’s team has the fire and a vibrant energy that can test France.

Croatia’s inspiration runs in the form of the tireless Luka Modric, who has orchestrated wonderful comebacks to put the team in the dream final. Modric manifests the tiny nation’s dream of being the world champions. Still a dominant force, Modric has rallied the team full of dedicated fighters. He has galvanised a unit with his contagious energy. They would certainly not make it easy for France. The crown awaits.