France coach Didier Deschamps was sweating on the fitness of several key players on Saturday as his team battled a mystery virus on the eve of the World Cup final against Argentina.
Croatia beat Morocco 2-1 in the third-place playoff, paving the way for the showdown 24 hours later.
As reigning champions France prepare to face Lionel Messi and Argentina at Doha’s Lusail Stadium, they are struggling to contain a viral outbreak that is believed to have affected five players so far.
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Central defenders Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate, and winger Kingsley Coman were the latest players to be laid low by the illness, and were forced to miss a training session on Friday.
That came two days after Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano were ruled out of Wednesday’s semi-final victory over Morocco.
Players, staff and sources close to the French squad have spoken of a range of symptoms affecting the team in recent days including fever, stomach pain and headaches.
“We are trying to take as many precautions as possible, to adapt as necessary and get on with it,” Deschamps said at a press conference.
“Obviously it would be better if this wasn’t happening but we are handling it as well as possible with our medical staff.”
There was a more encouraging bulletin from the French camp later Saturday after all 24 members of Deschamps’ squad took to the field at the start of a final team training session.
It was not clear if all players played a full part in the session, however, which was only open to the media for the first 15 minutes.
The virus scare threatens to derail France’s bid to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962.
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Croatia, defeated by Argentina in the semi-finals, showed their class by beating Morocco in an entertaining third-place playoff on Saturday that was decided by Mislav Orsic’s winning goal.
Josko Gvardiol, one of the stars of the tournament in Qatar, headed Croatia into the lead in the seventh minute at the Khalifa International Stadium but Achraf Dari brought Morocco level right away.
Orsic struck a terrific curling shot late in the first half to ensure 2018 runners-up Croatia took home the bronze medal, the 11th World Cup in a row a European team has finished third.
“It’s a bronze medal but for us it’s like a gold medal,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.
Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who led an African team to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time, predicted a team from the continent will win it in the next “15-20 years”.
The next World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams and Africa will have nine slots, up from five at present.
“With nine participants, we’re going to learn. In 15, 20 years, I’m sure an African team will win the World Cup because we’ll have learned,” said Regragui.
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Attention now shifts fully to Sunday, when Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi is looking to cap his glittering career with the one major title that has eluded him.
France’s challenge will be spearheaded by Messi’s PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe, who at 23 could become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.
At least 40,000 Argentinians are estimated to be in Doha, many wearing Messi’s number 10 shirt in the streets.
“It’s like we’re playing at home,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said on Saturday.
“We feel it before the match, during the match. It’s like playing in Argentina. That’s a great advantage.” Martinez, one of the heroes of Argentina’s run to the final after his penalty-saving exploits in a quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, says the South American champions are unfazed at being portrayed as underdogs for the final.
“We always like to hear that the opponent is the favourite because we don’t feel superior or inferior to them,” Martinez said.
“People say the favourites are France. But we have the greatest player of all time,” Martinez said.