On Monday morning, Croatia could achieve one of the great sporting miracles of our time.
If the Slavic nation manages to win the Fifa World Cup final, it will be a true Cinderella story, a truimph for belief, organisation and passion over pure footballing logic.
It could happen – but it will be an uphill struggle.
It’s the only match left to be played in the biggest event in the sporting world, after Belgium rubbed salt into English wounds with a 2-0 win in the third-place play-off in St Petersburg on Sunday morning.
The win marked the best-ever World Cup finish for Belgium, which lost 1-0 to France in the semi-final.
France are the overwhelming favourites to defeat Croatia on Monday morning for several reasons. After an uncertain start to the tournament, where there were fortunate (via a dubious VAR call) to beat the Socceroos, they have improved with every match.
They overturned a second half deficit against a fired up Argentina side, then completely neutralised a Uruguay team that had cantered through their group.
But the best was yet to come, with a powerful display against Belgium, where they weathered an early storm before gradually grinding the Red Devils into the dust.
By the end Belgium had lost the will to compete, reflecting the power of this French team.
They are not the most elegant, but are a perfect tournament team. They have an outstanding defence, a combative, relentless midfield and enough flair up front to create chances. Les Bleus wear you down physically and mentally, then profit on the scoreboard.
Croatia also has to overcome history. Miracles happen in football, but rarely in the World Cup final.
In the entire post-war period, there are only been three World Cup finals where the favourite has been beaten (1950 Uruguay over Brazil, 1954 West Germany over Hungary and 1974 West Germany over Holland). That’s it. On every other occasion, the bookies’ choice has lifted the trophy.
Another factor harming Croatia’s chances is its gruelling road to the final, which included three periods of extra time, and two penalty shootouts. Not only that, but they’ve had a day less to recover than their opponents.
“We will probably be the only World Cup team that play eight games if we tally up all the minutes,” Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic said on Saturday.
“That is extremely hard. But the harder the circumstances the better we play football.”
With a population of just 4.5 million people, Croatia is the smallest nation to contest a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950.
The key questions:
When and where can I watch it?
The match begins at 1am Monday morning, Australian eastern standard time. You can watch it on SBS or with Optus (if you trust the technology).
What’s the word on the street?
It’s been a strange feeling in Moscow, as this is the final no one expected. Around every corner there are smatterings of Brazilian fans, who were confident their team would still be here. There are also a few Germans, Belgians and a significant number of English supporters, some of whom are trying to offload pricey final tickets.
Who will gain the neutral support?
It’s likely to be Croatia. France don’t have too many friends in Europe, although many Russians might find some solace in their team being eliminated by the eventual winners.
What’s the key match up?
There are good battles all across the field, but the game will be won and lost in midfield. England couldn’t shut down Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and eventually paid the price, but the likes of N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba will greatly limit their time and space.
What about big match experience?
Fairly equal. France has a younger squad but reached the final of Euro 2016, while Croatia is stacked with Champions League players.
When I sit down to watch the final, how many other people on planet earth will be tuning in?
About 1 billion. So far more than three billion viewers have watched games from the tournament.
What do we know about the referee?
Argentina’s Nestor Pitana is a 43-year-old physical education teacher. He’s an assertive chap, with a stare that could break a rock. Senor Pitana has refereed four matches at this tournament, including each of the finalists once (Croatia versus Denmark and Uruguay vs France). He is the second referee from Argentina to take charge of a World Cup final.
What chance of a streaker during the final?
Ah, somewhere between Buckley’s and none. There have been zero pitch invasions in this World Cup, with 18,000 stewards and more than 20,000 security guards doing their jobs effectively.
If a goal comes, when it is likely to be scored?
In the second half. Almost 62 per cent of goals have been scored after halftime in this World Cup, with nearly 20 per cent in the last 10 minutes of the match.
So, who will be celebrating on Monday morning?
It should be France. They are a more complete team, and have the crucial physical and logistical advantages. The Croatian party will end on Monday morning. Surely…