MOSCOW: When Croatia’s semifinal against England progressed into extra-time on Wednesday, there was a moment when you wondered if they had the legs to see this through to the end. As England pondered solutions to their existential crisis, Luka Modric stood in the opposition half, with an expression on his face that indicated he was just about to throw in the towel, both hands on his knees.
The next act, you suspected, was for him to sit down on the floor, signal to the bench for a replacement. But then Croatia won back the ball. And Modric set off like a bunny on steroids.
The more you think about Croatia’s win, the less believable it seems. There is not a hint of logic to this storyline. Of course, Croatia have a good team with a few outstanding players, but this is the World Cup final. This is the exclusive preserve of your Brazils, Argentinas and Germanys. Before the start, they were the 10th favourites.
The last time such an unfancied name made the final was in 1962 when Czechoslovakia took their place alongside Brazil in Chile.
Their run becomes even more remarkable in the backdrop of everything that happened before and just after the World Cup started. When Modric and Dejan Lovren go back home, they may yet be arrested for being charged with perjury in a corruption case that saw former Croatian Football Association administrator Zdravko Mamic flee the country. Angry supporters spray-painted threats on the walls next to Modric’s childhood home just before he left for Russia.
They nearly did not qualify for Russia with only a last-day win over Ukraine in Kiev taking them to the play-offs where they beat Greece over two legs. With just a few days left for that game, they sacked manager Ante Cacic, plucked Zlatko Dalic out of obscurity and tasked him with leading the nation to Russia. This was in October 2017, with just over seven months left for the World Cup. His last managerial assignment was with UAE club Al Ain.
And then, Dalic sent home striker Nicola Kalinic after the latter refused to come on from the bench in their opening game against Nigeria. They fought their entire campaign with one player less than everyone else.
But think about the players! It’s not just that they came from behind in a World Cup semifinal — the first team ever to win a last four-game outright after being behind at half-time (Argentina progressed in 1990, but on penalties). It is that they were somehow able to draw even more from their reservoirs of energy when everyone else thought they had run dry. This was their third consecutive game, in a gap of 10 days, to run for 120 minutes.
For a team supposedly on its last legs, Dalic’s substitution strategy was quite curious. The first came in the 95th minute. Then he hauled off Ante Rebic in the 101st, six minutes after the winger had picked up a booking. When Croatia took the lead, he called back scorer Mario Mandzukic in the 115th minute and put on defender Vedran Corluka. The final change in the 119th minute was an attempt to waste time, Modric finally given some rest.
After the game, Dalic explained it was no deliberate strategy. “The players just did not want to come off. Everybody kept saying ‘I am ready’. Some players played with minor injuries. Two players played with half a leg. But that did not show. In extra-time, nobody wanted to be subbed. This is what makes me proud and glad.”
Maybe this resilience has to do with the larger story of Croatia, a country that is younger than a lot of its players. Most of this team was born into the Yugoslav War out of which Croatia was forged, affected either by the violence or the economic after effects of it. Modric’s grandfather was killed, his village burnt and his family lived as refugees in a hotel in the town of Zadar. Dejan Lovren had a relative knifed to death in the streets of Zenic, before his family escaped to Germany. Mandzukic was a refugee in Germany. Ivan Perisic had to relocate to France as a teenager to save his father’s chicken farm from going bust.It is as the saying goes. He, who is born into fire, will not fade in the sun.
4 No of goals scored by Ivan Perisic in WC.
9 No of goals scored by England from set-pieces.