Twenty years ago, it was Lilian Thuram.
Now, in 2018, another player has a chance to etch his name in World Cup folklore.
France and Croatia will meet at the World Cup for the first time since the 1998 semifinals in Paris. They have played at the Euros in 2004 but given the stakes of Sunday’s final, that fateful date 20 years ago seems more poetic.
The 1998 semifinal was the first official match between the two countries, and Croatia’s first-ever World Cup appearance, having only gained independence in 1991. Boasting a squad with Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Goran Vlaović and others, the Vatreni advanced through Group H with Argentina, losing 1-0 to the South Americans in the final game to finish as runners-up.
A narrow victory over Romania was followed up with a resounding 3-0 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals. Despite the Germans generating a few quality chances, the Croatians took control in the second half and breezed through the four-time world champions.
A date with the hosts at Stade de France was confirmed. The French had to overcome Paraguay in extra time to begin the knockout stage, despite being the heavy favourite to progress. Another marathon followed in the quarters as France topped Italy on penalties.
The paths between these two sides in 2018 are a stark contrast compared to 1998. Instead of France playing extra time in their knockout games leading up to the Croatia matchup, it’s the Croatians who are coming in with an extra 90 minutes on their clocks entering the final.
Once again, France was slightly favoured by the bookies. Given that the French had one of the most talented squads at the World Cup (sound familiar?) it spoke to the competitive balance of the match.
From the outset, Zinedine Zidane was pulling the strings in midfield for France. Zidane scythed through Croatia’s midfield trio of Boban, Aljosa Asanovic and Krunoslav Jurcic on several occasions, registering two solid attempts after nine minutes.
Croatia’s midfield couldn’t cope. They were continually dragged out of position by Zidane, Emmanuel Petit and Didier Deschamps, now the coach of France 20 years later. The swift counter-attacks were a treat to watch. Unfortunately for the home fans, the finishing left plenty to be desired.
Credit the Croatian defence, though. Slaven Bilic and Dario Simic closed down Youri Djorkaeff and Stephane Guivarc’h whenever they roamed into the box to ensure Drazen Ladic had little work to do in goal.
Interestingly, Boban suffered a knock and finished the match, even though he requested a substitution at halftime. The AC Milan midfielder committed five turnovers in the first half alone, with only 13 touches. He was clearly impacted by the injury.
Despite being heavily outchanced by France in the first half, it was Croatia who took the lead just seconds after the restart. Asanovic evaded a challenge from Deschamps, lifted his head and executed a deft chipped ball over the top of the French defence. Suker, the eventual Golden Boot winner, latched onto the pass and tapped it past an onrushing Fabien Barthez. Croatia, shockingly, was ahead.
The lead, however, was short-lived. A costly turnover from Croatia in the defensive third found the feet of Djorkaeff. Lilian Thuram made an incisive run behind the Croatian centre-backs and finished calmly past Ladic. France was level just three minutes after Suker’s opener.
France continued the pressure, and eventually pulled ahead through Thuram again. Zidane picked out the defender, who eventually evaded a couple of tackles and fired from distance out of nowhere into the far right corner.
In 142 caps, those were Thuram’s only goals in his international career, and they were scored in a World Cup semifinal. Quite a unique accomplishment.
Croatia was handed a lifeline after defender Laurent Blanc was sent off for an altercation with Bilic prior to a French free kick. Blanc was adjudged to have shoved Bilic in the face, although replays showed that it might’ve been a harsh decision.
Eventually, France held on for the victory, coming from behind in order to do so. Ironically, that was the last time a team won a World Cup semifinal after conceding the first goal.
That is, until, this year’s semifinals. Croatia overturned a 1-0 deficit versus England in their semi to emerge victorious 2-1 after extra time.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) July 11, 2018
Like in 1998, France is the betting favourite over Croatia on Sunday, but this World Cup has been very unpredictable.
It would be a fitting conclusion for this tournament if a first-time winner lifted the trophy. It would be even sweeter for Croatia, as they would extract revenge over France, who, fittingly, also won its only World Cup exactly two decades prior.