The Latest: Croatian president: Sports can show Balkan unity

Croatia’s president says no matter what happens in the World Cup final, the unexpected success of her small country’s hard-working, underdog team means that “we’re a winner.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic says she wants her once-warring region to come together to support Croatia in the final and Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final.

She says “sports brings people together. People in all of our countries are tired of ideological differences, of going back into the past all the time.”

Ahead of Sunday’s final against France in Moscow, she predicts a Croatian victory but says “whatever happens, we’re a winner.”

She has used the victory to raise her country’s profile, posing in a red-and-white checkered team jersey at every opportunity – and giving one to U.S. President Donald Trump.

The closing ceremony for the World Cup has started.

The actor and singer Will Smith is among those performing in the brief show before France plays Croatia in the final.

Dozens of people bearing video screens showing moments from the tournament are interspersed among performers dancing in glittery costumes.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has been joined by one of his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy, as guests of FIFA to see their national team play Croatia in the World Cup final.

The president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, is also among 10 heads of state and national leaders at Luzhniki Stadium.

They have joined Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the presidents of Belarus, Moldova, Gabon and Sudan.

Some western European governments stayed away from the World Cup amid the fallout from the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in March.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is also here. Qatar hosts the next World Cup in 2022 and the emir attended a handover ceremony at the Kremlin with Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino earlier Sunday.  

There was new signage inside Luzhniki Stadium for the championship between Croatia and France.

For the previous six matches, the front of the second and third decks had bright blue backgrounds with “2018 FIFA WORLD CUP RUSSIA” in white in English and Russian, alternating with red backgrounds with “MOSCOW” and “(hashtag)world cup” in white.

For the final, there were gold backgrounds with “FINAL2018” in navy blue, alternating with navy blue backgrounds with “MOSCOW,” ”FIFA WORLD CUP” in English and Russian and “(hashtag)world cup” on navy backdrops with gold lettering.

France and Croatia are on the field at Luzhniki Stadium to warm up for World Cup final with under an hour to go before kickoff.

France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris emerged first to cheers from supporters along with his team’s two reserve keepers. French fans waved the tricolor as the rest of the team came out, with defender Lucas Hernandez waving to the stands.

Croatian fans gave captain Luka Modric and his teammates a similar greeting minutes later.

France is aiming to win its second World Cup and first since 1998, while Croatia has never before gone past the semifinal stage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will help present the trophy to the winning captain after the World Cup final.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino will join Putin for the ceremony on the field at Luzhniki Stadium.

The recent World Cup tradition is for presidents of FIFA and the host nation to jointly hand over the gold-and-malachite trophy.

Four years ago, then-FIFA leader Sepp Blatter and Brazil’s then-president Dilma Rousseff presented the trophy to Germany captain Philipp Lahm.

Lahm is bringing the trophy on to the field before France and Croatia kick off at 6 p.m. local time (1500 GMT/11 a.m. EDT) in Moscow.

France and Croatia will take unchanged lineups into the World Cup final.

France coach Didier Deschamps has retained the starting 11 which beat Belgium 1-0 in the semifinals after Blaise Matuidi returned from a suspension in the quarterfinals.

Zlatko Dalic has stuck with Marcelo Brozovic in midfield after he came into the lineup for Croatia’s 2-1, extra-time semifinal win over England. That means forward Andrej Kramaric remains on the bench.

France: Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Hernandez.

Croatia lineup: Danijel Subasic, Sime Vrsaljko, Ivan Strinic, Ivan Perisic, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Domagoj Vida. 

Braving rainy weather, Croatian fans are gathering in squares and streets around the country ahead of the World Cup final with France.

Wearing Croatian team jerseys and waving flags, fans have filled up the central square in the capital Zagreb some two hours before the game kicks off in Russia.

Fans have wrapped the square’s monument in national red-and-white colors.

Croatian media and officials have described the team’s run to the World Cup final as the country’s most important sports event ever.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic says “all this has been a wonderful experience … we should all be happy to be part of it.”

Thousands of fans have filled the historic Grand Place in Brussels to welcome home the Belgium team after its third-place finish in the World Cup.

The Belgian players returned immediately after their 2-0 win over England in the third-place playoff and were first received by King Philippe at the royal palace on Sunday before they were taken in an open bus through the sun-splashed center of Brussels where thousands more stood along the way.

The Grand Place only holds 8,000 and was full several hours before the players appeared on the balcony of the gothic city hall to another rapturous round of applause and cheers.

Croatia has arrived for the World Cup final.

The Croats, who will be playing for the title for the first time, arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium a few minutes after the French squad. Luka Modric, the midfielder who is the driving force in the Croatia team, was one of the first to enter the dressing room.

Croatia’s best showing before this year was when it reached the semifinals in 1998. But the team lost to host France in that game 20 years ago, and the French team went on to win its only World Cup title.

The France team has arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium for the World Cup final against Croatia.

The team, escorted by five police motorcycles, arrived in a bus with a French flag adorned to the windows on either side of the vehicle.

France coach Didier Deschamps was one of the first off the bus, followed by his players wearing blue training outfits.

France is playing for its second World Cup title after winning at home in 1998. Croatia is looking for its first.

The World Cup trophy has arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium.

France and Croatia will play for soccer’s most important title on Sunday, with the winning captain the first to hoist the gold statuette over his head.

According to a video posted by FIFA , the trophy was driven to the stadium and arrived packed in a hard case.

The Croatian president has called on Russians to support Croatia in the World Cup final.

In a video message recorded on a plane and posted to Facebook , Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic says in Russian “You are great hosts. Support Croatia today. Let’s be happy together.”

Dressed in Croatian red-and-white, she then leads a chant of “Croatia, Croatia, Croatia.”

Croatia’s political and football leaders have tried to smooth over relations with Russia after their team knocked the host nation out in the quarterfinals.

After that game, some Russian social media users were angered when Croatia defender Domagoj Vida praised neighboring Ukraine in a video posted online. Vida has apologized for any offense, saying he meant to pay tribute to friends in Ukraine and not to comment on the political tension between Ukraine and Russia.

Grabar-Kitarovic met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and praised the country’s hosting of the World Cup.

Grabar-Kitarovic says, “This championship really has been an example for everybody. You not only ensured the fans free movement, but you prevented any kind of incident prevented any kind of expressions that could be characterized as showing hatred.”

The area around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium is filling up with fans, with less than three hours before the World Cup final kicks off.

Croatia fans appear to have the French outnumbered as their country plays in its first final. France is aiming to win the trophy for the second time after a 20-year wait.

Some Croatia fans have turned up wearing water-polo caps in national colors, something which became a national trend when defender Vedran Corluka wore one following a head injury at the 2016 European Championship.

There are fans from all over the world at the stadium, with the flags of China, Ecuador, Germany, Morocco and England all on display.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has formally passed the torch to Qatar for the World Cup in 2022.

Ahead of the final in Moscow between France and Croatia, Putin has met at the Kremlin with Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

Putin says Russia’s World Cup has been a success and “I am sure that our friend from Qatar will succeed at holding the FIFA 2022 World Cup at the same highest level.”

Putin ceremonially handed a football to the emir to mark the transfer to Qatar, which will be the first Arab country to host the tournament.

The emir says through a translator that the World Cup “will be a huge and great festival for all our country.”

One of those two teams will become World Cup champion later Sunday.

The French, who won their only World Cup title at home in 1998, will be playing in their third final in 20 years. The Croats have the chance to win the biggest prize in soccer for the first time.

The match at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow caps a month-long tournament that started with 32 teams playing in 12 stadiums around Russia.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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