When it comes to the FIFA World Cup, there is always a certain mystique. That only gets ratcheted up more and more as the rounds go by. That was certainly the case on a magical night on Wednesday when Croatia met England. On one hand, you had the self-professed inventors of the game, the “home of football”. On the other, you had a team that were vying to be the second smallest nation to ever make it to the final. Those two things alone were always likely to make it a night to remember.
And that it was. The match started with a bang. Experienced midfielder Luka Modric made a bad decision and committed a foul close to goal, and it set up an early England goal via a Kieran Tripper free kick in Moscow. England would hold on to the lead for just over an hour before the Croats finally got themselves back into the game via Ivan Perisic. With just over 20 minutes left to play, it was he that continually tormented England’s defense, nearly scoring a couple of other times. However, it was off to extra time for the third time running for Croatia, and they once again held their nerve. Veteran striker Mario Mandzukic, running on fumes, scored after 109 minutes to give his country an incredible place in the Final.
This is simply remarkable for a number of reasons. Croatia are a country of just about 4 million people. They were formerly a part of Yugoslavia, and they only played in their first World Cup as an independent country in 1998. This was already their second semi-final, and they have now gotten themselves into the final of this 2018 World Cup. While it is a small country, they are far from lucky or just scrappy. They have real talent to them, and though they will not be favored against France, they will certainly be more than capable of winning and causing major problems.
France, of course, had advanced on Tuesday after a very hard fought win over Belgium. Their neighbors looked to have gotten the better of the opening exchanges, but Les Bleus held their nerve during the tough times and they nicked a goal in the second half through Samuel Umtiti on a corner to go through to a third final since 1998. So who will it be hoisting the trophy in the end? Will it be France, a team tied for the second youngest squad brought to Russia, who dwarf over Croatia in population, or will it be Croatia, a country where the stadium capacity in Moscow (78,000) would equate to their fourth largest city? What a fascinating dichotomy that should set up a tremendous final.