Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.
After a thrilling World Cup so far, we’re set for an odd finale. In a tournament of shocks, drama and excitement, two consistent sides have reached the last four. Neither have poured forward like their opponents, while France have actively avoided making a big splash with their brilliant forwards.
However, the one thing we are getting in Moscow on Sunday is the pay-off to a 20-year-old grudge. The pair shared their greatest ever World Cup during France ’98, when Les Bleus won the whole thing, after beating Croatia in the semis. They’re now guaranteed to do better than their third place finish, while France are arguably set for a greater achievement with a win on foreign soil, in a tournament which looked packed with heavyweights.
While the pair enjoy their success so far, it’s their clash from 1998 which adds an extra layer of spice to this final. Croatia certainly put France’s nose out of place on home soil in that clash, while they suffered heartbreak after Les Bleus secured a final spot. Here we’re looking back over their meeting in Saint-Denis, and how that plays in to the biggest game in world football.
Croatia’s Incredible Run
Croatia were competing at a World Cup for the first time at France 1998, less than seven years after declaring independence. Despite that, their team managed a legendary run to the last four, which has been talked up by members of their current squad. That success haunted their current generation, who have crumbled in key moments since.
They took to their debut World Cup with ease, beating Jamaica and Japan qualifying from their group. A victory over Romania took them to the quarter-finals, and that’s where the side really took off. A 3-0 victory over Germany took things up a gear, and marked them out as genuine contenders. They arrived in the semi-final in fantastic shape, with Davor Suker impressing on his way to lifting the Golden Boot. That inspired hope of a shock win over the hosts, and a run to the final in their first tournament.
Semi-final Heartbreak for Croatia
Croatia did tee up that shock, as Suker scored their opener. It was a deserved strike, and one which panicked the hosts. A team inspired by Zinedine Zidane struggled to show their class, and it took Lilan Thuram to intervene. The defender scored just twice in 142 caps for France, and both of those strikes came in the semi-final. That gave the French a 2-1 win, and booked their place in the final against Brazil. Meanwhile, Croatia were left with a legacy which they’d struggle to match in the coming years.
Read More: Decade of Hurt Behind Croatia’s Run
French Hit Ahead of Final
However, it wasn’t just Croatia who struggled in the aftermath of this game. It was a close run thing, and the hosts must have been worried after their struggle against the debutants. That narrow win didn’t rise expectations ahead of the final.
Their chances against Brazil weren’t helped by Laurent Blanc’s red card against Croatia. That ruled him out of France’s greatest hour. They had to hold out for the final 15 minutes of their semi-final to progress, but it was far from a convincing win. That probably didn’t matter as they went in to the final days later, but a victory in Moscow this weekend would represent a little bit of revenge for the French too.
Croatia Boss Weaponizing Loss
All too often, this kind of history is dismissed ahead of a major sporting event. However, Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has resisted that urge. He’s banking on the 98 final inspiring his side, now that they’ve surpassed their country’s greatest sporting achievement. Instead of playing down the history between these two, their boss is aiming to fire up the squad ahead of Sunday’s clash.
Dalic’s eagerness to get one over France is likely to be genuine. While Croatia have appointed members of their 98 generation to take charge of the national team, Dalic was in France as a fan. He spent his pre-season break at the early stages of that World Cup, so it’s likely to be a painful memory for him too.
“Of course, everybody in Croatia remembers [Lilian] Thuram, the 2-1. This has been the discussion for the last 20 years,” Dalic said. “Maybe this game has a historic significance. The chance to settle a score. Both teams have shown their qualities and are deserved finalists.”
Dalic can remind his players ahead of the game, but they likely already know all about this clash. Most of their squad are old enough to remember that World Cup, and the rest are bound to have been told. While that’s hampered them for years, that history could now spur them on in a World Cup final.
Read More: Key Battles Which Will Decide the Final
Will it Affect the Final?
It’s certainly adds a little more edge to Sunday’s encounter. As Dalic said, there’s potential significance to this tie. Players probably aren’t going to need extra motivation to win a World Cup final, but there are few sides who they’d rather beat than France. As far as a pay-off to the rivalry goes, there’s no greater pay-off, no bigger stage than this. Having the memories of 98 may be something to focus on, to rid them of any pre-final nerves.
Croatia won’t be able to escape comparisons with that side in the aftermath here, but this time they’ve set a new bar. While they’re aiming to go further than they did in France, there’s one particular similarity which won’t bother them. The last three World Cups held in a year ending in eight have seen a first time winner crowned, following France 98. Should that run continue, then the ghost of Saint-Denis will be well and truly exorcised.
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