This year’s month-long episode of the FIFA World Cup will drop the curtain with Sunday’s final match in Moscow between France and Croatia. Regarded to be the most anticipated match in the sport, the final of a World Cup is the manifestation of the highest level of football. In an 11-vs-11 matchup, there will only be one winner, which as in any sport, will test the intelligence, skill, and endurance of both sides. Even though France were greater favorites than the modestly-sized Croatia, they are both teams that have put out great talents, whose reputation spans the highest stages of football.

However, when watching the sport from the United States, where football’s reputation has been riddled with undermining ridicule, it feels like the American critics are missing the most important aspect that the sport holds in the minds of the most passionate watchers: history. I’m not referring to the history of the sport, as I can’t expect for the non-watchers to know that, but the political history that each country carries on its back when being represented on the pitch. When the men’s US team goes far in the competition, they are cheered on. Once they crash, the justifying go-to statement is ‘soccer is just not as big here’. The statement is followed by a shrug, and life just goes on.  

The excuse is very understandable, but the aftermath is not to us (‘us’ being the football watchers/naturalized citizens/permanent residents/general foreigners). When my American girlfriend sees fans crying on the stands after a loss (or even a win sometimes), she has a hard time understanding the emotional side that goes with the results of a match. For many, it has to do with the historical background of a country that follows them to the greatest stage of the sport.

Brazil fans crying after the 7-1 defeat in the 2014 World Cup semifinals

In the final, France’s appearance holds a historical significance that has to do with the sport, more than the political aspect. They had their first World Cup glory in 1998, and since then they’ve appeared only once more in 2006. That year they dramatically lost on a penalty shootout, exhibited after an embarrassing red card for their greatly respected Zinedine Zidane. Since then, the closest they have gotten was a quarterfinal in 2014, but this year, they get a chance for redemption with a shot at the trophy.

On the other end of the field, Croatia carries the greater drama. In terms of the sport and the competition, their best record has been the third place in 1998. The ‘why?’ is not because they ‘sucked’ from 1998 and before, but because they just didn’t exist as an independent country. As the sixth nation under Yugoslavian control, Croatia didn’t have its own government, nevermind its own football team. Often, the successes in sports of any ‘pan-’ nation have been attributed to the ability for the representing team to pick players from the smaller nations that they controlled, to then truly put together a highly skilled team. That record-setting 1998 Croatian roster had players that had actually played in the Yugoslavian pre-90s football team, while the 2018 roster has players that have been directly affected by the war conflicts that emerged from efforts of independence in the early 90s.

Croatian striker Davor Šuker, who also played for Yugoslavia before independence, after the 1998 Bronze Medal achievement

Lately on social media, captain Luka Modrić’s story as a child raised as a war-refugee emerged and added the tragic element to the team’s efforts for glory in the competition. As a nephew to a brutally executed Croatian, and son to a war rebel, he drew the attention of other Balkanic countries who connect historically and politically to what he endured as a child.

Many have shown their support to the team not only because of the Ballon d’Or prospect’s story, but because Croatia is the first Balkanic nation to make it to a World Cup final. In the eyes of these previously war-torn countries, they are a team fueled by hope, and are fearless when faced with hardship. Often called ‘heroes’ and ‘fighters’, the team has played the most minutes than any other team in this World Cup, due to forced draws. I, myself was wrong to undermine them when they had to face a greatly inspired England in the semifinals, as they not only came back from a 0:1 deficit, but were able to score in extra time.

For them to lift the trophy in this World Cup would also mean political victory in Russia, a country that has always sided with Yugoslavian control by Serbia over Croatia and the other four nations. With the recent developments, that should give Americans a team to root for in this Final.

Nevertheless, football will always hold great importance for the world outside of the United States, not because of the excessive diving displays, or the boring plays, but on the contrary, due to the load of historical perspectives that a team carries with to the pitch. No matter the result, Croatia will be applauded in the 2018 World Cup Final due to the significance that the nation holds when trying to fight the ugly memories with this beautiful game.

 

 

Cover photo: tech2.org

Brazil fans photo: pinterest.ca

Šuker photo: thesefootballtimes.co

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