France forward Antoine Griezmann lunges for the ball during the second half in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup 2018 against Belgium on July 10, 2018, at Saint Petersburg Stadium in Moscow.

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Hartnett: World Cup Final Pits 2 Nations On The Rise

France, Croatia Square Off Sunday

Sean Hartnett
July 13, 2018 - 2:48 pm

Sunday’s World Cup Final pits two rising nations in Croatia and France. For too long, France and Croatia underperformed at recent major tournaments.

After winning the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, many pundits tipped France to form a modern dynasty. Such expectations were not unrealistic given the potent strikeforce of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet, the mastery of Zinedine Zidane and the physical dominance of Patrick Vieira.

Zidane’s red card headbutt of Marco Materazzi in his last-ever match during the 2006 World Cup final closed the door on an era. France lost the 2006 final on penalties to Italy. Since then, a series of high-profile internal disputes and premature tournament exits marred Les Blues’ attempts to regain its dominance.

The rise of forward Antoine Griezmann has injected fresh hope for an expectant nation. Griezmann was named Player of the Tournament and won the Golden Boot at Euro 2016, though France was defeated in extra time by Portugal in the final on home soil at Stade de France.

With the elusive Griezmann occupying the space behind powerful striker Oliver Giroud, emerging star Kylian Mbappe attacking from the right wing, the box-to-box engine of Paul Pogba, a central defense wall of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, and a top-class keeper in Hugo Lloris – this new generation could re-establish France as a preeminent force.

Croatia’s finest squad prior to present day finished third at the 1998 World Cup. Led by creative attacker Zvonimir Boban, sharpshooting striker Davor Suker and commanding defender Dario Simic, this group was dubbed “The Golden Generation.”

The current Croatia squad has been deemed the second coming of its nation’s “Golden Generation.” With two of the world’s best creative midfielders in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic at the controls, the 2018 Croatia team has every chance of being crowned world champs. Resurgent defender Dejan Lovren is back to playing his best, striker Mario Mandzukic is a reliable goal-getter and Ivan Perisic is danger man when cutting inside or through delivering crosses from the wing.

Croatia midfielder Luka Modric (10) plays for the ball against England forward Harry Kane in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup 2018 on July 11, 2018, at Saint Petersburg Stadium in Moscow.
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Sunday’s meeting brings back memories of bad blood. When France and Croatia met at the 1998 World Cup semifinal, Croatia defender Slaven Bilic’s infamous acting got France defender Laurent Blanc sent off. Following a scuffle in the box, Blanc shoved Bilic in the chest. Bilic theatrically dove to ground, grabbing his forehead, and Blanc was dismissed for this first time in his career. France went on to win the match, 2-1.

Twenty years later, these two nations will have the chance to settle an old score with the entire world watching. Though, this match is likely to feature more skill and less of the dark arts. Any of Griezmann, Mbappe, Giroud and Pogba or Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic and Perisic is capable of stepping up and writing their names into World Cup lore.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​