Scandal sours Cup final rivalry
ONE of the most notorious dives in football history took pace the last time France played Croatia in the World Cup.
Les Bleus led Croatia by a goal in their 1998 semi-final at Stade de France when French defender Laurent Blanc gave Slaven Bilic a slight shove on the chest in jostling during a free kick.
Bilic shouted and slammed the palm of his hand into his face, as if he had been struck on the head. Spanish referee Jose Manuel Garcia bought the act in the pre-video review age, and Blanc was ejected for the first time in his career.
Despite seeing the replay afterwards, FIFA refused to retract the penalty. France overcame Croatia but Blanc missed the final, when France beat Brazil 3-0 for its only World Cup title.
Croatia advanced to its first World Cup final with a 2-1 extra-time win over England on Thursday, a day after Les Bleus beat Belgium 1-0.
The match two decades ago remains on the mind of current Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
"Maybe the dear Lord is giving us an opportunity to settle a score," he said.
A victory in the final for the nation known for its red-and-white chequered jerseys would be the nation's greatest sporting moment since breaking from Yugoslavia to become an independent state in 1991 - a year after its national soccer team started playing.
France is a European football powerhouse, its team able draw from a population of about 65 million.
"They have upped their game over the past several games," Croatian star Ivan Perisic said.
Croatia has just over four million people, the fourth-smallest of the 32 World Cup teams ahead of Panama, Uruguay and Iceland.
It has a chance to be the least-populous nation to win since Uruguay took the title in 1950, when it was a nation of just over two million.
"We're a small country with so many successful sports people," defender Dejan Lovren said. "Over the last couple of days people have recognised that."
Les Blues won the European Championship at home in 1984 and in the Netherlands in 2000. But there have been no trophies since current coach Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup as captain on July 12, 1998 - five months, eight days before star striker Kylian Mbappe was born.
They lost the 2016 Euro final 1-0 to Portugal at Stade de France with a roster that included nine holdovers on this year's team.
"Two years ago it was tough," said one of the returnees, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
"We don't want it to happen again. We want it to end in the best way."
Croatia was under French control from 1809-14, part of the Illyrian Provinces, an autonomous area of Napoleon's First French Empire.
It has played France five times, losing three games and drawing two. The only other meeting at a tournament was in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship, when a controversial referee's call went against the Croats.
Goalkeeper Tomislav Butina's clearance was blocked at the top of the penalty area by the hand of David Trezeguet, who kicked the ball into the net for an equaliser in the 64th minute of a 2-2 draw.
Danish referee Kim Milton Nielson allowed the goal to stand. Nielson had called a questionable foul for a free kick that led to Zinedine Zidane scoring the opening goal in the 48th minute.
Croatia went ahead in the 1998 semi-final only 26 seconds into the second half when Aljosa Asanovic split the defence with a pass, and Davor Suker scored his fifth goal of the tournament. Lilian Thuram tied the score a minute later after stealing the ball from Zvonimir Boban near the Croatian penalty area and exchanging passes with Youri Djorkaeff.
Thuram scored the go-ahead goal with a curling shot in the 70th minute, and France won 2-1.
Croatia will be hoping for a different result this time around.