France’s 20-year itch vs Croatia’s historic bid for maiden title

image

By Pulasta DharFootball has the ability to make you forget many things — from racism to war-inflicted trauma. And it can revive the memory of the same, too. It can remind you that most of the Croatian players were ripped apart from their families and homes during the Yugoslav wars; that more than half of the French team has African roots but play for a country fighting to maintain its best values.

Football’s soft power is used by some to shroud the problems of this century and by others to open your eyes and realise what these problems are.

Luka Modric is at the forefront of these stories. As if it wasn’t enough for him to flee his hometown Modrici due to civil war, the Croatian captain had to grapple with the loss of the man he was named after. Modric’s grandfather was executed by Serbia’s military in 1991, three years before defender Dejan Lovren fled Kraljeva Sutjeska to Munich as the region plunged into uncertainty in a decade long series of conflicts.

No wonder then, that the Croatian team have leveraged their worst experiences to reflect a battle-hard presence on the field. They’ve gone through a hat-trick of matches which went into extra-time, and came through jaded but emboldened. Two of these matches were won on penalties (against Denmark and Russia) before they sent England out of the competition.

France will be hoping the final doesn’t go past 90 minutes, but if it does, this bunch of youngsters will play with the steel forged on the unforgiving streets of Paris. Their midfield core of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are all from African families, and honed their skills around estates which housed the minority community. Nine other players, including boy-wonder Kylian Mbappe, also share African roots.

The 19-year-old has literally taken the World Cup like a flash of lightning as he revels in praise and expectation. Mbappe was born in 1998, when France’s famous Rainbow Team won the World Cup on home soil, led by Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram — two players symbolising the country’s multiculturalism that is as much a boon as it is a bane. That victory brought unity, the very emotion a win in 2018 would bring.

But one cannot trust that the makeup of a football team reflects that of an entire nation. If that were the case, achieving the rare status of World Cup winner would not be treated as a qualifier to be an accepted immigrant; Kante would not have to lie about his fasting when he was playing for Caen in 2013 and Franck Ribery (not in the current team) wouldn’t have had to profess his identity as French after converting to Islam a few years back. People may dance together if they take home the cup but it won’t matter to the protestors rallying against cries of excessive police force against ethnic minorities last week.

While the French team will fight to change the present, Croatia will play to clear the stench of war which has ravaged their region.

Memories of bombs falling and bullets zipping past goalkeeper Daniel Subasic, or those of the death-threats midfield mainstay Ivan Rakitic received when he chose to play for Croatia over Switzerland will never be erased from the Croatian collective. But a World Cup will bring solace to many who have suffered in a country which boasts of a gleaming Dalmatian coastline — a paradise which was almost lost.

The ragged ball Modric would kick around as he went from cheap hotel to hotel in his childhood will be his inspiration. Those days have been replaced over a storied galactico career but this is the same diminutive midfielder who once wore wooden shin pads and was deemed too small a player from a country which is among the tallest in the world. If Croatia win, he will lift the World Cup, elevating himself to an infallible status. The Ballon d’Or may follow.

For Mbappe, thrust into the limelight at a tender age, winning now would mean fulfilling the legacy that a popular saying invokes: “1998 was a great year for France. Mbappe was born.” What it doesn’t say is that France desperately needs another ’98.

Come Sunday night, Croatia and France will play for ultimate glory. World champions may change every four years, but as fans of the beautiful game, we can only hope that a cup weighing 6.1kg will withstand the weight of the past, affect the present and change the future.

Source: Economic Times