Ahead of the 2018 World Cup final on Sunday morning between Croatia and France, Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell sat down with The Star to give his thoughts on the past couple of weeks of soccer mayhem, as well as his predictions heading into the final weekend.
Russell has made four appearances for the Scottish national team so far in his career, facing World Cup teams such as England, Peru and Mexico.
What has made this World Cup so crazy and fun to watch?
I just think it’s been a bit unusual. It’s been a good watch; there’s been a few shocks that you wouldn’t really expect or say it was going to happen before it started. But that adds to the viewing when stuff like that happens. When you see a smaller nation going on a run, even like Croatia, the population that they’ve got to get to where they are, it’s an amazing achievement.
Who did you have winning the World Cup heading into it?
I’ve liked France for a while: they’ve got a good, young squad. Technically, some amazing players, very athletic team. They were a little bit stop-start through the group stages, but I think since the knockout rounds have started, they’ve shown how good a side they are and are one game away from winning it. I did back them at the start, so I’m going to stick with them.
Is France the perfect team?
I wouldn’t say they’re perfect — I wouldn’t say many teams are. But they’re not far away. It’s going to be very difficult to beat them. When they play at the top of their game, I can’t see many teams beating them.
What team has over-performed in the tournament?
Croatia, probably. They have good quality players, nobody can doubt that. They’ve got players who play at the top clubs all over the world, but just with some of the stronger countries there you wouldn’t have expected them to get this far. But that’s why these tournaments are so good: there’s always someone that makes a run that you didn’t expect.
Croatia, for their population of their country, have done amazing to get where they are. And like France, they’re one game away from being world champion, so the fact that they’ve came through three extra-time wins, too, just shows how tough they are physically and mentally, as well.
Croatia endured two penalty shootouts and another extra-time victory. How do they keep on winning?
It’s tough. I can’t even imagine what they’re going through. Doing it, playing games in such as short time. But they’re getting through it and they still look great the next game, so they’re obviously immensely fit as well. But it takes a mental toughness to continue to do that as well and continue to push, but we know now, if it does come down to that, how strong they are in extra time and penalties. So, mentally it’s tough, but at the same point it gives them an edge knowing that they’ve been there and done it so many times.
Star player for Croatia?
There’s a few. You’ve obviously got the midfield, who have been brilliant. I think last night’s game (against England), (Ivan) Perisic, you can’t look past what he gave. But so many quality players — I think he’s maybe been the standout on their side for me. But you can’t look past (Luca) Modric, (Ivan) Rakitic, (Mario) Mandzukic, as well ... even (Ante) Rebic.”
Who underperformed in this tournament?
You would say Germany. Defending champions coming back, and it just didn’t work out for them. For whatever reason, you look at their squad, and even the guys they left at home as well, some of the best players in the world are there. So it just shows if you don’t perform well, there’s no certainties, and no one leading up to the tournament would have probably picked them to go home so early as they have. But you always expect things coming into World Cups from Germany, Spain, Brazil, stuff like that. So when they don’t make it as far as you think, then people look at it as a disappointment.
Four of the last five World Cup winners have been knocked out in the group stage the following World Cup. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think it’s just coincidence, to be honest, but it is quite interesting. It is difficult to defend anything, but I do feel it is coincidence. But like you say, it is disappointing when you see the big teams go out early. But at the same time, it’s good to see smaller nations getting through, a bit of a crowd-pleaser — everyone can get behind an underdog, so it’s always good to see that as well.
Did you think at any point that England could have maybe won their first World Cup since 1966?
You heard a lot about it, and you can understand why everyone was getting excited. It’s a young, exciting team, a lot of great players. I just feel that people were looking past Croatia too much. A few of the boys were saying to me that they fancied England, and I was saying I don’t know, Croatia are strong. Like I say, I can completely understand. I played in England; I know how much people love football.
It’s just good to see everybody get behind a team. I don’t think it’s been that way for a while. They showed taking a young side: you’re building for the future. You look at that side, and they’ll all play at the next World Cup — they’re that young. To give them that experience at that age, to build over the next four years as well, I’m sure everyone will be excited for that second one as well.
You played against England in 2014. What was different about this year’s team?
I think from the team that I played, it’s just a lot younger and hungrier team. The team we played was very sort of possession-based, whereas this team, although they have a bit of possession, they attack in numbers and they attack quick. I think people like to see exciting football, and they do attack at pace and they’re a whole new team, a lot of youngsters, and I think they’ve shown they were able to step up to the plate, as well.
You also played with (England’s) Jesse Lingard at Derby for a short time. What do you make of him?
When he came, you could always tell he was talented. He was still young, so you could tell that he had ability. But you would never have said that — although you expected him to have a great career — that he’d go on to start in a World Cup. So I’m delighted for him because he’s a good kid, as well. Played with him for a short time, but you could see then that he had quality to go far.
Was Belgium’s comeback and stoppage-time goal the best thing you’ve seen in this World Cup?
That counter-attacking goal was one of the best I’ve ever seen. From there, it’s just pace and power, and the ability that late in the game to push yourself to get into the box in numbers that they did as well. It was just heartbreaking to watch Japan lose in that way, but from an attacker’s point of view, to see a counterattack like that, it was nice to watch.
From a team point of view it was probably goal of the tournament. You always want to see some worldies, but you also want to see some unbelievable team goals, and I think we seen that there as well.
Who has been the player of the tournament for you?
I think for their age and what they’ve done, I think (France’s) (Kylian) Mbappe has got to be up there. To do what he’s been doing a club level and national level at 19 is crazy. Guy’s still a teenager playing at a World Cup, scoring and assisting. And I think his all-around game has been immaculate as well. I think everyone will look at him as maybe being a standout, just because he’s so young and what he’s done.
Who’s going to win the final between Croatia and France?
I think Croatia need to be — both teams need to be — at their top. But I think Croatia need to have ... every man needs to be a standout to beat France, but it’s going to be a difficult game. I think Croatia have shown they can keep going and create chances and grind games out, whereas France I feel have got a little bit stronger as they’ve went on. I just feel France have got too much on the day as well, but hopefully it’s an exciting game, a lot of goals.