Croatia tangles with France on Sunday in what should be a crackerjack World Cup final. They are both balanced, imaginative teams that have clearly separated themselves from the pack.
Before I explain why France will win here are some odds and ends from the 2018 tournament.
France to the fore
One could argue that France is now the most dominant national side. Here is my thesis: Taking the past 20 years into consideration, from 1998 through 2018, there have been 12 finalist spots. France, counting this year, has 3 of them. Brazil and Germany have 2 and Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Argentina and Croatia have one each. France, Brazil and Germany all have one title in the stretch, with France getting a shot at adding to that total Sunday.
Please note that in the above item European teams held 9 of the 12 slots. Euro teams have won the past 3 World Cups, with a fourth in a row guaranteed. This year’s semifinals were all-Euro, as were the 2006, 1982 and 1966 tournaments. Ten of the 14 Euro sides advanced to the knockout stage this year.
What makes the Europeans so good? They have the best domestic leagues, but those teams sign players from all over, so South American and African players, etc., get just as much of a chance to improve by facing great competition.
One story I love is that Germany spent $40 million on its training facility for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And Germany won. Very few nations can match that kind of spending. There are always stories about corrupt federations and players threatening walkouts over pay or other issues. And those things tend to happen more in non-European countries (an exception is the French “mutiny” in 2010).
Franklin Foer’s absorbing book “How Football Explains the World” systematically looks at issues such as population base and standard of living. Euro sides tend to win out there, too.
I see no reason for this trend not to continue. And it’s interesting to note that three of the Euro teams that advanced to the knockout stage, Croatia, Sweden and Denmark, all advanced via the Euro playoffs, those cutthroat home-and-home battles matching up teams that finished second in their qualifying groups. Sweden eliminated four-time champion Italy to earn its slot.
All that said it is hard to ignore the fact that far and away the biggest disappointment of this year’s tourney was Germany. The defending champs roared through their Euro group, going 10-0 and outscoring opponents 43-4. Yes, two of those foes were Azerbaijan and San Marino (outscored a combined 24-2), but the Germans looked listless in 1-0 opening loss against Mexico, needed a stoppage time Toni Kroos miracle to beat Sweden 2-1 and then flatlined in a 2-0 loss to South Korea that eliminated them.
Things got so bad for the Germans that Thomas Muller, who scored a total of 10 goals in his first 2 World Cups, was benched for the South Korea match.
What about the U.S.?
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Yes, we weren’t there. Hard cheese. But an absence like that is real setback for a wanna-be like the U.S. — much more so than for a non-qualifying nation such as Italy. Not participating means Christian Pulisic and the other young U.S. players lose out on that experience. Assuming the U.S. qualifies for the 2022 Qatar tournament, its players will have gone more than 8 years between World Cup matches. That’s a long time in soccer. You can't duplicate the experience of thriving in the pressure-cooker of the world championships.
And this year’s results make it clear the U.S. did not belong. Fourth-place CONCACAF finisher Honduras lost to Australia in a bid for a slot in Russia. Costa Rica and Panama, which finished second and third in regional qualifying, both went out meekly in Russia, combining for one draw between them and being outscored a combined 16-4 (the U.S. was blanked twice by Costa Rica qualifying, 4-0 and 2-0). Mexico … was Mexico. El Tri played what looked like inspiring soccer in their opener vs. Germany but went out in the round of 16 for the seventh consecutive World Cup.
I liked the use of the video replay assistance. I did not find it intrusive and they by and large got the calls right. Adding a sub for extra time was long overdue, but it doesn’t go far enough. I would allow another sub for the second 15-minute period and use the “golden goal.” Otherwise teams such as Croatia can get burned out (more on this below). Advancing Japan past Senegal on fewer yellow cards was kind of odd. Yellow cards are such a judgment thing. I would have argued in favor of shots on goal or corner kicks. Or maybe a combination of all 3 concepts. But let’s face it, this just isn’t going to come up that often.
This year’s tournament has had four penalty kick shootouts, which ties the record set in 2010 and 1986. Shootouts are dramatic, but I hate them. Just a terrible way to decide a match. Golden goal would help because it would be harder for a team to play for penalties.
I wasn’t on the radio constantly during the tournament, but when I was ... almost no one was talking about it. Heard some regular reports on FOX stations, but that makes sense since the network has the TV contract for the event. Heard one talk show host note that no matter what he wasn’t going to talk about soccer. It’s their program, they can do what they want. But I have long felt that one of the key challenges soccer has faced in rising in the pantheon of U.S. sports is that sports media tends to disparage it. I remember Craig Kilborn repeatedly, intentionally mispronouncing the names of players during the 1994 World Cup (which his then-network, ESPN, was televising).
During that same 94 World Cup I was working at a paper in the Bay Area and saw matches at Stanford and Pasadena. About a half dozen other newsroom employees did the same and we were abuzz for a month talking about the matches. Participation from the newspaper’s sports department? Zip. Not a single member went out to see a match. Instead they kept talking about the U.S. not deserving to host it and that no one would show up, a prediction that proved to be spectacularly wrong.
This year’s tournament shows the cynical greed that is driving the move to 48 teams. The knockout phase featured 10 Euros, 4 from South America plus 1 from Asia (Japan) and 1 from CONCACAF (Mexico). Only South American and Euro sides participated from the quarterfinals on. And it remains a travesty that Asia and Africa will get a combined 17 teams in 2026 and Europe just 16. Asia and Africa have a combined 0 finals slots. Europe has 28 of the 42. End of discussion.
The championship match will be a lively affair, but I see France winning 3-1. They are younger, stronger and fresher. Croatia played 360 minutes and participated in two shootouts during the knockout phase. The penalty kick experience, with Ivan Rakitic railing the match-winner both times, might come in handy, but France played just 270 minutes in knockout games. Croatia has played the equivalent of an extra match, plus the squad has one less day off than the French.
I love the playmaking and leadership of Croatia’s Luka Modric, and the Croats are physical and tough. But this one belongs to Les Bleus as Didier Deschamps joins Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo as the lone individual to play on and coach a World Cup titlist. Look for teen wonder Kylian Mbappe to score at least once.
Vive le France!