Croatia’s defender Dejan Lovren (C) celebrates with teammates at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ /
We are at the finish line. The last two teams left standing, I believe, are the teams that deserve to be there after four weeks of some of the best football the world can offer in 2018.
Russia 2018 has been a feast of shocks and surprises such as the World Cup has never seen. It is very uncommon to have the four semi-finalists of a World Cup without any one of the established giants of world football, and, particularly, without any team from South America!
But that is the setting on the eve of the World Cup. Of the two finalists, only France have won the Cup once before, and that was on home turf, in Paris, in 1998.
Croatia are on a fairy tale, rising from ‘nowhere’ to the apex of the greatest competition in world football without any blemish.
So, any way which way, the world is in for a treat with the possibility of history being made when the curtains are drawn tomorrow.
Croatia at the finals – consolation for Super Eagles!
Suddenly, with Croatia in the final match, everyone is taking a second look and re-evaluating the Super Eagles.
Croatia, the team in Group D that every Nigerian wrote off and thought would be mincemeat for the Eagles, the team that inflicted a massive blow to the psyche of the Eagles in the very first round by defeating them without response, and left them devastated and frustration, has arrived at the finish line of the World Cup!
There is that possibility that the Croatians will be standing on the rostrum to receive the World Cup trophy following their fantastic performances that have left Nigerians thinking what could have happened had their team done right and defeated Croatia. The success of Croatia may have restored some level of respect for the Eagles.
The Super Eagles may not be quite as ‘bad’ a team as we all were thinking, particularly following their pedestrian performance on the night of June 16. That distracted everyone from paying close attention and appreciating the strength of the Croatians.
Four matches after that the world has discovered new heroes in global football.
It was more that Croatia were good, and less about Nigeria being poor. On hindsight, Nigeria had actually played against and lost to a truly formidable team, as everyone now knows.
It will make sense to assume that many of them will now come out of their ‘hiding’ places, put up their legs, and root for Croatia to win and serve as some consolation. The team that gave the Super Eagles their worst and most painful defeat may become the next World champions. Without question, that will rev up a challenge and serve as motivation for the Eagles in the future!
So, next week I shall be doing just that – taking a forensic second look at Nigeria’s national team at Russia 2018.
For now, all attention is on Croatia and France.
In previewing Sunday’s final match permit me to do a small review of the semi–finals.
France versus Belgium
I cannot even recall much of the match. It went in a flash and took even the Belgian team by surprise. Before they knew what was happening time was up and the French had gone away with a lone goal victory from one of the few real chances created throughout that encounter.
Otherwise, the match was so evenly matched that one could almost mistake the teams for each other, both packed to the hilt with several of the exciting players in European football – Kante, Pogba, Mbappe, Lukaku, Hazard, and so on.
It was a match that should have been decided with a toss of the coin and saved the world the agony of watching either side lose on the field of play. Such was the quality of the two teams.
Many people feel that the match between them could have been a more befitting climax to the 2018 World Cup.
On the night, France were slightly better and luckier.
England versus Croatia
Until the 68thminute of the match when a half chance was converted to an invaluable equaliser by Croatia, I needed several cups of coffee to stay awake.
It was a drab match, so low in standard it must easily rank as one of the poorest semi-final matches in modern World Cup history.
Both teams played at such low ebb and with low energy. I was left wondering if I was not in a dream. These could not be some of the best football and football players in the world at this point.
England’s only goal, a real beauty, a textbook example of a perfectly struck free kick, was scored by Trippier, the worst player in the English team.
Playing at right back, his display was so poor I was not surprised that he was responsible for not dealing with the cross that resulted in the second goal that knocked out the Three Lions.
The left side of that same defense was a righted footed wing back. For some reason Ashley Young did not put a foot right throughout the night.
Beyond that, the English did not play with the conviction to win. They left all the football that we see in the Premiership back in England.
There was not a single class player from midfield to the frontline. There was neither bark nor bite in the attack. The midfield lacked a creative commander. The entire team forgot the art of the dribble. They could not even hold on to the ball and make passes confidently.
With both sides of the flanks of the English defense leaking like a basket, it appeared they were just waiting to lose.
Croatia, were initially very slow, the wear and tear from three preceding grueling matches having taken their toll on the players.
They were given a lifeline and energised by the half chance they converted into the equalising goal in the 67th minute or so. After that it became a matter of time before England would make a mistake and end their fairy tale also.
Had England converted any of the three easy chances that came their way begging for connection before Croatia equalised, twice by Raheem Sterling and once by Harry Kane, the story would have been totally different now.
In the end, England did not deserve to win the match. The better and more determined side won.
All of that is history now. England came, did well, and will go back to the home of football without the coveted trophy.
The final match – Croatia versus France
The final match of the 2018 World Cup is between the two teams that deserve to be there.
Croatia and France have both had their moments and challenges and have arrived at the finish line.
Who will be the first to cross it?
On the aggregate of overall performance and player-content of the teams, France have an edge and are favorites to win.
On the basis of grit, guts, and determination to win demonstrated, Croatia have the edge. Should they win, it would go down in history as the ultimate fairytale. Croatia will become the smallest country, with a population of only four million people, to win the most coveted sports trophy in the world.
Many fans around the world will be rooting for this underdog to complete their fairy tale and win the trophy for the first time.
On the other hand, many fans see France as the missing African team in the World Cup. With a preponderance of black players in the team, unlike 1998 when the opposite was the case, most of Africa is rooting for France to repeat the everlasting celebration scenes of 1998 when the entire city of Paris emptied onto the streets, free drink flowing freely in front of every household as feasting and partying went on in every corner throughout the city, all night long.
So, for the sake of ‘faji,’ even the oracle that has failed with honours through most of this World Cup, has revealed a final vision – all roads lead to Paris again!
I am backing the oracle for the last time.