World at their feet: France and Croatia shaped by turmoil
Both teams are richer for having players whose journey to football was characterised by war and strife
We’ve been spared.
The relief of not having to endure the histrionics of a World Cup final involving England, is palpable.
In the build-up we would have been made all too aware that an England versus France final represents a clash of cultures, but it would have been served up as death-by-cliché. It would have been as unedifying as coelacanth deep fried with chips, or the mainstay in your bouillabaisse.
Instead, the final pitted one-time winners France against first-time finalists Croatia. No one could argue their credentials as worthy finalists.
France hopedg to ease the pain of defeat in their last two major finals. The agonising 2006 World Cup final loss to Italy was enough to inspire a walk to the guillotine, while defeat at the Stade de France against Portugal two years ago still rankles.This Croatia team has been shadowed by the achievements of the redoubtable team of the late 1990s. The spine of that team reached the European Championship finals of 1996 and the World Cup semis two years later.
France coach Didier Deschamps, who captained Les Bleus to the game’s zenith in front of their home crowd in 1998, and Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic were, however, desperate not to bask in past glories.
Comparisons after all, are odious.
Deschamps perhaps had more reason to limit references to his team’s triumph 20 years ago, for it created a false dawn in the Fifth Republic. As was the case in SA in 1995, a World Cup triumph can imbue the populace with a healthy dose of patriotic fervour. In the celebratory haze the fault lines of racial inequality and socio-economic disparity disappear from view.
Increasingly, however, France, who at one point tried to limit the number of oversees-born players in their academies, have had to embrace diversity in their national team.
How much poorer would this French squad have been without Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Blaise Matuidi and Benjamin Mendy, to name a few? (Incidentally, all those players with the exception of the Umtiti were born in France.)
This team has attracted admirers.
Fame and misfortune
Born in the northeast of Paris, poster boy Mbappe was born of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother. He may have grown up in a once violent suburb but he soon succumbed to the charms of the beautiful game. His has committed his earnings in the national jersey to charity.
Kante, too, has little time for the trappings of fame. He may earn more than R2.1-million a week at Chelsea, but he drives as secondhand Mini. Kante’s parents emigrated from Mali in 1980 well before he was born in a commune in the west of Paris. The 1.7m midfield disruptor has been the size of the Eiffel in front of the France defence.Dalic also has players whose lives had been shaped by the migration patterns of a world in turmoil.
Captain Luka Modric’s family house was burnt down and his grandfather was killed by Serbian rebels in the Balkan conflict. His family fled and were forced to stay in a hotel but the bullets kept coming.
Like teammate Dejan Lovren, he turned to football. The hotel staff exasperated, suggesting Modric broke more windows with his ball than the bombs or the bullets.In the haunting documentary Lovren – my life as a refugee, produced by Liverpool TV, the defender speaks of his time as a refugee.
Lovren was only three years old when war broke out in 1992. Once the bombing raids started his family left their small home town Kraljeva Sutjeska. His granddad lived in Munich and it provided an escape. An estimated 350,000 refugees followed a similar route.
Eventually, Lovren and his family had to leave, but instead of returning to Bosnia they made Croatia their home.
For neutrals, it was easy to rally behind either of the teams on display in the final. Among either of these winners, the World Cup found a worthy home.