When France beat Croatia 2-1 in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, the two aforementioned academy players hadn't even been born. Stefan Drljača, 19, has already featured as part of our World Cup series during the group stages which cast the spotlight on 13 academy players and coaches from various participating nations, while Nathan Malonga only joined the TSG Academy on 1 July this summer. The 17-year-old striker was born in the Paris metropolitan area and grew up in Plaisir near Versailles. Following spells at Football Olympique Plaisir, FC Versailles 78 and Paris FC, he played for the Paris St. Germain youth teams before joining the U17s of second-division side LB Châteauroux last season.
Why are France and Croatia in the final?
Nathan Malonga: The French team deserve to be in the final because they have a lot of talent and a good team spirit. They understand each other very well on the pitch. The fact they've reached the final is a big deal.
Stefan Drljača: There are two reasons: the strong sense of unity within the team and the mentality of never giving up!
Which players from your national teams stand out to you?
Malonga: Kylian Mbappé und N’Golo Kanté, who both come from the Paris metropolitan area like me, have had a strong tournament. And Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane are both rocks at the back. But they're all really strong to be honest. Mbappé is a role model for me, as is Ousmane Dembélé.
Drljača: I wouldn't pick out one player above the others. They've simply performed outstandingly as a unit, you can really see that when you look at the distances the players have covered, for example, or the high tempo they play with to exert constant pressure.
Have you picked up a sense of World Cup fever from your respective homelands and/or families?
Malonga: I was actually still in France up until the Round of 16 match. It was already in full swing back then. Car horns and the like. Following the victory over Belgium, I received a lot of video messages from friends via WhatsApp who were celebrating at the Champs-Élysées.
Drljača: Just pure craziness and euphoria! This team has deservedly been labelled as a "Golden Generation" and at this point everyone in Croatia believes they can win the title.
Where and with whom will you watch the final?
Malonga: I'll watch it in the players' accommodation in Hoffenheim with all the other lads. My team-mate Amadou Onana speaks very good French, which has really helped me to settle in.
Drljača: I'll be watching the final in Sinsheim with friends, because I unfortunately won't manage to make it back home to see my parents.
What's your prediction?
Malonga: Croatia have a very strong team. The French have more talent but less experience. I think that after the match we'll be able to sew a second star onto our shirts. France will come through in a penalty shootout.
Drljača: Croatia will win, and they'll do so in extra-time again! The team have often showed they can never be written off and that they can always bring the required power to their game despite the high intensity over 90 minutes or longer!