IT all comes down to this. It wasn’t a final anyone was hoping for. But this month-long festival of football will end on Sunday with France and Croatia coming to grips for one last battle here at the Luzhniki Stadium to win the biggest prize in the game.

France had entered the tournament as fourth favourites, Croatia as the dark horses; but certainly no one could’ve picked those teams to contest the decisive game. France are competing in a final for the third time in six World Cups while this is the first time Croatia have made it so far. It is by no means a ‘David vs Goliath’ clash, though.

The two teams are quite evenly matched and it promises to be a riveting clash. Just that their paths to the final couldn’t have been more different. Croatia blazed through the group stage while France laboured in a slow start. But as France picked up from there on in, Croatia had to battle. They’ve played 120 minutes in each of their last three matches, the equivalent of another match, and survived two nerve-shredding penalty shootouts.

France, therefore, hold an advantage. They’ve also had an extra day’s rest; they played their semi-final against Belgium 24 hours earlier before Croatia played England, where the former’s midfield engine Ivan Rakitic played a record-setting 70th game of the season.

“There will be excess energy,” Rakitic, who played 55 games for his club and 15 for Croatia, told a news conference at the Luzhniki Stadium on Friday. “This is a historic game for not just us but also for the whole country. We will carry each other, we will give it our all. We will make sure that we leave the pitch with our heads held high.”

Croatia will need to go into the game with that excess energy. The last four World Cup finals have all gone beyond regulation time. The last three have been decided in extra-time; the one before that being decided on penalties, which France lost to Italy. Had France won that game, this current crop would’ve been compared to the side of 2006 rather than the one of 1998 that delivered a memorable triumph on home soil, the only one in French history.

France coach Didier Deschamps was the captain of that side two decades back. “He’s achieved great things as a player, and as a coach too,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi at a news conference on Friday. “He always had that toughness, that way of leading that led him to success. Everything he puts in place pays off. We are very happy to have him as our coach.”

On the road to that victory, France met Croatia in the semi-finals. Then, a double from full back Lilian Thuram saw France to a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Croats. Just like the current French squad, which is trying to build its own legacy, Croatia want to move on from the past. “We need to put history aside,” stressed Rakitic. “The past is past. When they won then, they won the tournament. But we want to win on Sunday. It is now up to us to play and that game will not play any role.”

Croatia’s achievement in reaching the final is remarkable. A nation of just four million people, victory on Sunday will see them become the smallest one to lift football’s ultimate prize after Uruguay, who had a population of 1.7 million when they became world champions in 1950.

GOLDEN BALL CONTEST

The final will not only decide the winners of the World Cup but also the winner of the Golden Ball, the award for the best player in the tournament. It will see the two leading contenders for that prize, the talismans for each team, their beating hearts come fate-to-face: Luka Modric and Antoine Griezmann.

Modric has scored twice for the Croats while leading their play from the midfield, creating the opportunities for the rest of his team-mates and forming a formidable midfield duo with Rakitic. If France have a Real Madrid-Barcelona axis in defence with Rafael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, Croatia have that in midfield.

Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic, speaking at a news conference on Thursday, said he believed Modric deserved the Golden Ball. “If our boss says it, it means yes Luka deserves it,” said Rakitic on Friday. “I think that if we win the player of the tournament has to be a Croat and Luka is more than deserving.”

Just like Modric, Griezmann is vitally important to French hopes. He’s had a goal or assist in three consecutive games and has three goals in the tournament. Griezmann, though, has his eyes set on the bigger prize.

“It’s a chance to win the World Cup, not the Golden Ball,” he told a news conference on Friday. I don’t care if I win the Golden Ball or not; I’ll give everything to be a world champion. I know a victory can change many things but we’re really not thinking about Monday. We’re proud to be French. We have a beautiful country, we eat well, we have a great team and I want people to feel proud of being French.”

Rakitic was hoping to do the same, citing ‘all of Croatia’ would be on the pitch. He went as far as to say that he wouldn’t mind ending his career on Monday if Croatia won the World Cup.

“I would exchange all my titles,” said Rakitic, who has won everything there is to win at club level. “I would definitely leave my boots at home if that were the price I would have to pay. I would pay any price for the success of my country.”

That’s what the World Cup title means. It transcends everything and anything. It’s the greatest prize there is to win. This World Cup saw Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar return empty-handed. Messi and Ronaldo might never even win it in their storied careers. A chance of a lifetime awaits those on the pitch on Sunday.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2018