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.”