Benefield: Local soccer coaches find lots to admire in World Cup's final pairing

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


An extra game. Croatia has played a combined 90 minutes of extra time in its past three World Cup games, the equivalent of one more full game than World Cup final foe France.

How those additional minutes will affect the legs, and minds, of the older Croatian squad has become a million-dollar question in the lead-up to Sunday’s final. Will Croatia, the first team since England in 1990 to have three consecutive overtime games, look cement-legged or mentally weary when the whistle blows — or will the Croatians use it as a positive?

“You can kind of play with it as a coach,” said veteran Santa Rosa Junior College men’s soccer coach Marty Kinahan.

While it could spell disaster on the fatigue front, Kinahan said Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic could sell it to his squad in a very different way.

“It can be, ‘We are more seasoned, we have more games, we can run more, we are stronger,’” he said.

So should Sunday’s final go to OT, the Croatians will have reason to feel confident: “We have been here before and we have won.”

France, with its youthful roster, maybe not so much.

“If Croatia causes problems and it goes to OT, France could panic,” said Deegan Babala, head coach of the Petaluma High girls team.

But ask the oddsmakers, and this game might not get that far.

When play kicked off on June 14, oddsmakers had France 10-1 to win the whole deal while Croatia was a dark horse at 60-1. France remains Goliath to Croatia’s David on this one.

And yet, a friendly survey of area soccer coaches revealed a funny thing about this matchup: Many soccer minds say it’s France’s game to lose, but soccer hearts are pulling for the underdogs.

“Croatia have had a harder time getting to the final and they have proved themselves three games in a row going into overtime,” said Healdsburg’s boys coach Herbert Lemus. “I like them, to be honest with you. I like France because of the speed of their game, but Croatia? They have proved themselves. And it would be nice to see someone new win it.”

Nations that have won a World Cup are in a pretty exclusive club. Only eight countries have hoisted the trophy. France has only done it once, in 1998.

But in its short national history, Croatia has had enviable success, making the tournament five times and finishing third in 1998.

And the players that make this team go? They are legitimate stars. Luka Modric plays with Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic is with Barcelona and Mario Mandzukic suits up for Juventus.

And so impressed was the brass at Manchester United when Ivan Perisic helped put England away in the semis that news outlets started reporting the club is in talks with Inter Milan for the 29-year-old.

It’s a funny thing when a squad made up of those names is considered a dark horse. But they are. Why? Because France is just loaded.

And unfortunately for anyone not rooting for France, they are young.

These guys are going to be around for a while. And despite their youth, they are a group that hasn’t shown signs of wilting in the limelight.

“They seem excited,” Babala said. “They don’t seem to be nervous to be on the big stage. I think some of these guys could come out and just put on a show.”

And the guy grabbing the biggest chunk of the spotlight for the past month? A 19-year-old wunderkind named Kylian Mbappe.

Mbappe has been a pure joy to watch. He has created a highlight reel of nifty passes and his speed makes the fastest defenders look slow. The game looks fun to him.

“Mbappe’s speed and creativity? He’s ridiculous. He causes so many problems,” Babala said. “The amount of energy — he takes a lot of attention off his teammates, which creates opportunities for them.”

And if you are creating opportunities for Antoine Griezmann, good things are likely going to happen.

And the balance to Mbappe’s flash sometimes comes with the play of defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante.

“I think he’s key for them,” said Roseland Collegiate Prep boys coach Tomas Salinas.

Santa Rosa High boys coach Antonio Garcia likes Kante, too.

“He is so tiny, he is so smart. He’s the unsung hero,” he said.

But you know what Garcia and others can’t seem to get over and can’t fail to admire? Croatia’s grinding perseverance.

“They are tough individual guys. They run so hard for so long,” Garcia said. “I’ve just never seen (a team) like Croatia.”

And to Windsor High girls coach Mark Archambault’s way of thinking, the Croatians may actually get stronger as the game wears on, rather than the opposite.

“If they get down, with their backs to the wall, it tends to bring something out of them,” he said. “I think grittiness is the right word.

“I think they will play their hearts out, coming down to the last minute, if they are down 1-0 or down 3-0,” he said.

Croatia has been down, has been pushed to the brink and has fought back.

Knowing a team has that kind of fight in them can be invaluable.

“They are not afraid,” Kinahan said. “They are comfortable in that position. It speaks volumes to their mental makeup and their coaching and their mentality.”

Perhaps representing a split between who your heart wants to win but who your mind thinks will do so, Kinahan picked France in his pool. But he’ll be rooting for Croatia.

“It’s David and Goliath, no question,” he said.

And we all know who won that one.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine