Cope: The World Cup finalists have been shaped by a changing world (column) | VailDaily.com

Cope: The World Cup finalists have been shaped by a changing world (column)

David Cope
Special to the Daily

Then there were two — or four if you count the dreaded third-place game on Saturday, July 14.

On Sunday, July 15, starting at 9 a.m., we will crown a new world champion, either France or Croatia. Croatia would be a new World Cup winner, while France has won it once in 1998, and lost another final in 2006 to Italy.

Kante, Pogba and Mbappe

France and Croatia are worthy finalists. France has beaten Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium in the knockout rounds after emerging from a relatively easy group. They have participated in, arguably, the worst game of the tournament, the 0-0 with Denmark; and the best game, the 4-3 thriller with Argentina.

France feature world superstars such as N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe. Possibly the best player of the past decade in England has been Kante, of Chelsea. He is the only player in this century to win consecutive league titles with different clubs, anchoring the miraculous Leicester City team that came from nowhere to win the league championship in 2015. Kante moved to Chelsea and led them to the title the following season.

Kante is a master at positioning himself to intercept and win the ball back to start attacks for his team. Watch the midfield matchup between Kante and Paul Pogba battling Ivan Rakatic and Luka Modric on Sunday.

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Pogba has been an enigma to fans. What does he do best? He is capable of all facets of the game, but in this World Cup, Didier Deschamps, the French coach who was captain of the last French team to win the World Cup in 1998, has deployed him alongside Kante with more license to get forward and attack.

Mbappe has emerged as the next global superstar this month. Long known to supporters of the French League and the French National Team, Mbappe has somehow made his 180 million euro price tag, paid by his club Paris St. Germain last season, look like a bargain. He has electrified the tournament thus far with his goals against Argentina, his spinning backheel against Belgium and his video game celebrations.

Mbappe, Pogba and Kante are part of a wave of players from the immigrant neighborhoods of France that are, in the offensive words of President Donald Trump, "changing the culture of Europe." Mbappe's parents are from Cameroon and Algeria, Pogba's are from Guinea and Kante's from Mali. The president's words are dog whistle, coded messages to racists suggesting that these communities are changing Europe for the worse.

It neglects the history that the countries that their families came from were colonized by the French. Talk about changing a culture, Europeans went into some of these places and obliterated a culture. The Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire were thriving centers of literature, art, music and religion before Europeans came in and established the slave trade. Another irony of the president's proclamations in Europe is that any policies he supports that help accelerate climate change are only going to increase the flow of migrants from warmer climates.

Many football fans in France might argue that these players and their predecessors, such as Zinedane Zidane who led the French team to a World Cup in 1998 and whose family is from Algeria, are contributing to the culture, not degrading it. We may eat more salsa than ketchup in the United States today, but that makes us a richer place culturally. If the World Cup teaches us anything, then it is that the meeting of cultures is a beautiful thing and need not be feared.

Croatia forged by its past

France's opponents in the final, Croatia, blew their opponents away in the proverbial "Group of Death," scoring seven goals and allowing just one against Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland. They have also pulled off the stunning feat of coming from behind in each of their knockout round games. Denmark and Russia each scored first before losing to Croatia on penalties.

England also scored early against Croatia before surrendering the lead and eventually losing in extra time. Croatia may be negatively affected by having played six overtime periods and one less day of rest, but this group is certainly hardened and psychologically tough. Perhaps some of that comes from their background as individuals and as a country.

Smaller than Colorado in both size and population, Croatia split from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It immediately made its presence felt by reaching the semifinals of the first World Cup that they played, in France in 1998, losing to the host nation. This rematch has been long anticipated.

Croatia had been fighting for its independence, essentially since 925 A.D. but the struggle became particularly brutal at the end of the Cold War, with Serbia desperately hanging onto what was left of the former Yugoslavia. The generation of leaders on this team were small children during this war and many were refugees. Luka Modric's grandfather was executed by Serbian rebels during the war and began playing football in the parking lot of a hotel where his family lived as refugees for seven years.

It is hardly surprising that players raised in such a cauldron of violence and strife have found inner reserves of strength and energy. No doubt France will be favored in this final, but these Croatians have been demonstrated their mental strength and their quality throughout their lives. It will be an epic final on Sunday, one that pits a traditional European power stocked with the products of its colonial empire against a new nation, whose players survived the struggle for independence and now look to put their nation amongst the world's elite.

Don't sleep in on Sunday.

David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards. Follow him on twitter at @huskynationcope.