When France play Croatia in the World Cup final tomorrow, the teams will quite literally embody two competing visions of European nationhood. Croatia’s lineup – three quarters of whose surnames end with the Slavic patronymic suffix -ić – represents the close-knit ethnic enclaves of old Europe; the French squad, with five players born abroad, or to immigrant parents, stands for Europe in all of its complex, post-colonial multi-ethnicity. England and Belgium have comparably diverse teams, in fact four English players – Kyle Walker, Ashley Young, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard – have West Indian backgrounds.
This symbolic power will not be lost on the French coach, Didier Deschamps, who captained France to their previous World Cup title in 1998. On that occasion an impressively diverse French squad upset the highly favoured Brazilian team at the Stade de France with two first half goals by the inimitable Zinedine Zidane (the son of Algerian immigrants). At the time, French soccer’s evident racial and ethnic inclusivity proved a powerful check on the resurgence of the racist Front National.
Today, political tensions around race and immigration are, if anything, worse. The prospect of a national team in which immigrants play leading roles – soccer remains one of the very rare instances of such overrepresentation in French life – would be another timely rebuke to France’s rising xenophobia. Rising superstars like Paul Pogba (Muslim, Guinean parents), Kylian Mbappé (Algerian mother, Cameroonian father), Samuel Umtiti (born in Cameroon) have not only played stunning football en route to the final, they have introduced a delightful dose of very African swagger to the post-goal celebrations.
Meanwhile, Croatia, which entered the tournament seeded twentieth (of 32 teams), brings its own heroic backstory to the match. With a population of just over 4 million, it becomes the smallest nation to make it to a World Cup final since 1950. The last two countries it defeated – Russia (145m) England (53m) – have combined populations that are fifty times larger than its own. If France (60m) gets added to the list, the Croatian team will become one of the sport’s unprecedented giant killers.
The Croatian midfield, which boasts the talents of Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, is evidence of another aspect of soccer’s globalization. Other notable players include Domagoj Vida, who plays for the leading Turkish club Beşiktaş, and “Super” Mario Mandžukić a forward for the Italian club Juventus. Having honed their skills at top European franchises, these stars’ careers offer a different argument for the power of open markets and the free movement of people.
The ease with which Russia has hosted this tournament is a reminder that global sporting events can exist in a curiously apolitical media space. At a moment when president Putin’s autocratic tendencies are a deep concern worldwide, Russia has staged this World Cup seamlessly. The Russian team itself, despite being somewhat lacklustre, worked its way to the quarter-finals before losing to Croatia in an agonizing penalty shootout. Equally little attention has been paid to FIFA itself, an organization that is still recovering from the scandal-plagued tenure of men like Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner. Despite this, the football on offer has been as thrilling as ever and the final will either confirm the tenacity of little Croatia or the breadth of one of the pre-tournament favourites, France. Either way tomorrow’s match looks set to be a fitting finale to a glorious celebration of the beautiful game.