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World Cup: France-Croatia final a rematch of ‘98 semifinal

Croatia has a chance to be the least-populous nation to win the World Cup in more than 60 years.

Croatia's defender Dejan Lovren (C) celebrates with teammates

Croatia's defender Dejan Lovren (C) celebrates with teammates at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Thursday. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / YURI CORTEZ

MOSCOW — One of the most notorious dives in soccer history took place the last time France played Croatia in the World Cup.

Les Bleus led Croatia by a goal in their 1998 semifinal 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.

Despite seeing the replay, FIFA refused to retract the penalty. Blanc missed the final, but 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 Wednesday night, a day after Les Bleus beat Belgium 1-0. They will play for the championship on Sunday.

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 checkered 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 power, its team able draw from a population of about 65 million.

“They have upped their game over the past several games,” Ivan Perisic said.

Croatia has just over 4 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 2 million.

“We’re a small country with so many successful sports people,” defender Dejan Lovren said through a translator. “Over the last couple of days people have recognized 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 — 5 months, 8 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.”

So does Croatia, which has had it’s difficulty with its fans recently. The Croatians were forced to play a European Championship qualifier against Italy in an empty stadium in Split in June 2015 because Croat fans had thrown flares on the field during a match against the Azzurri at Milan. A swastika became visible on the field of the closed-doors match, caused by a chemical agent. European soccer’s governing body to deducted a point from Croatia, and ordered to play two additional games without fans.

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