MOSCOW (AP) One of the most notorious dives in soccer history took pace 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 for the first time in his career.
Despite seeing the replay afterward, FIFA refused to retract the penalty. Blanc missed the final, when 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. The match two decades ago remains on the mind of current Croatia coach Zlatko Delic.
”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 soccer 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.”
Croatia was under French control from 1809-14, part of the Illyrian Provinces, an autonomous area of Napoleon’s First French Empire.
It has played France five times, losing three games and drawing two. The only other meeting at a tournament was in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship, when a controversial referee’s call went against the Croats.
Goalkeeper Tomislav Butina’s clearance was blocked at the top of the penalty area by the hand of David Trezeguet, who kicked the ball into the net for an equalizer in the 64th minute of a 2-2 draw. Danish referee Kim Milton Nielson allowed the goal to stand. Milton had called a questionable foul for a free kick that led to Zinedine Zidane scoring the opening goal in the 48th minute.
Croatia went ahead in the 1998 semifinal only 26 seconds into the second half when Aljosa Asanovic split the defense with a pass, and Davor Suker scored his fifth goal of the tournament. Lilian Thuram tied the score a minute later after stealing the ball from Zvonimir Boban near the Croat penalty area and exchanging passes with Youri Djorkaeff. Thuram scored the go-ahead goal with a curling shot in the 70th minute, and France won 2-1.
Now Suker is the much-criticized president of the Croatian Football Federation. The national team was 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 put in the grass at Poljud Stadium. That led European soccer’s governing body to deduct a point from Croatia, ordered to play two additional games without fans and fined 100,000 euros (then $117,000).
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