There was a moment in extra time at Moscow today which encapsulated what this Croatia team is all about. Luka Modric, playing his football in that rarefied air occupied only the greats of the game, stumbled for once, giving the ball away cheaply. Cue the English counter. Cue danger. Cue Marcus Rashford turning on the afterburners. And then, Luka Modric tackled.
The 32 year old – rested for just 25 minutes in the whole tournament prior to the semi-final – was running on empty. Running is the operative word here – because here he was, still running, still fighting with the rest of the merry men of Hrvatska. They’ve played three games of two hours each in 11 days and come through the fire unscathed. The giant shadow of the legendary 1998 team – cast by Suker, Bilic, Boban, Prosinecki et al – has vanished. Croatia has reached the FIFA World Cup final for the first time in history. Onward to Luzhniki!
So what has been the secret to Croatia’s success? The French have Clairefontaine and a host of clubs that excel at youth development. The English have St George’s Park and an FA swimming in money. The Germans have 28000(let that number sink in) UEFA B License coaches and the greatest scouting system in the world. The Brazilians… well they are Brazilians. Success doesn’t come overnight. The system is everything. The blueprint is everything. And Croatia have none.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a group of exceptionally talented players. 9 of the starting XI on the day will feature in the UEFA Champions League this coming season. The other two (Domagoj Vida and Ante Rebic) will play in the Europa League if they remain with their current clubs. But if fancy names on a piece of paper would’ve sufficed, the Germans would’ve never had had to board the flight back to Berlin. The Italians would have never suffered the ignominy of not getting to board the flight to Russia.
However, the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) has done little to ensure that the Vatreni performs in the best conditions possible. There’s no proper youth system in the country to replace their greatest generation of footballers. Outside of Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, the nation lacks clubs that have the infrastructure to develop world-class talent. This then, is the final chance for a celebrated group of footballers to achieve the Holy Grail. Carpe Diem?
But we digress by looking at wider issues within Croatian football, so let’s come back to the national team. The team that finished runners up to Iceland in their World Cup qualifying group. The team that huffed and puffed to a draw against Finland and a late winner against Kosovo. The team that lost to Iceland and Turkey. With elimination from World Cup qualifying staring right at their faces and a must-win final game against Ukraine looming, the Croatians did a Spain before it became fashionable – they sacked Ante Cacic, their manager.
His replacement? The seemingly uninspiring Zlatko Dalic, who spent most of his senior career at NZK Varazdin and had managed the Abu Dhabi club, Al Ain, in the biggest managerial role of his career prior to the national team bombshell. Vatreni beat Ukraine in their final qualifying game before overcoming Greece over two legs in the play-offs to finally reach Russia. If Dalic thought the clouds were finally clearing, he was wrong.
Enter Zdravko Mamic – convicted felon, formerly a Croatian football administrator and sports agent. Mamic was arrested in 2015 over transfer irregularities in Dinamo Zagreb and imprisoned for fraud relating to the transfers of Dejan Lovren to Olympique Lyonnais and Luka Modric to Tottenham Hotspur. Upon being found guilty, he jumped ship to nearby Bosnia and has been at large ever since.
The headache for Dalic? Modric, his captain was accused in March of having made false statements to the court during the Mamic trial. He was rebuked, vilified and hated back home. Even worse, if found guilty of perjury, Luka Modric – captain, leader, legend and national treasure – could face up to five years in prison.
With a cloud this large hanging over his head, Dalic and his men left for Russia. The rest as they say, has been history. Even in Russia however, a system or philosophy has been conspicuous by its absence in their football. Are they a defensive team that strike potently on the counter a la France? Are they a possession oriented team who break teams down patiently? Are they set-piece bulldozers like their vanquished foes, England?
No, no and no. Simply put, they are warriors. They are fighters. They will their way to wins. They fight their way to wins. They “Andy Dufresne walks through a pile of sh*t and comes out the other side clean” their way to wins. The Uruguayans call it La Garra Charua. It epitomizes the Croatians as much as it does the Celeste.
Every time Ante Rebic hustles for the ball, every time Mario Mandzukic runs himself to the ground to press the keeper, every time Ivan Rakitic is available for a pass the way only he can be, every time Dejan Lovren jumps wholeheartedly into crunching, ungainly tackles, every time Danijel Subasic pulls each sinew of his battered body to make save after save, one senses chaos. It has driven this team across three periods of extra time, two excruciatingly painful penalty shootouts, and on to the final. The secret of Croatia’s success? They win.
And at the centre of this chaos and pandemonium is their captain unloved by many back home. Luka Modric has enjoyed the ecstasy of perfectly placed penalties and long range curlers. He has also endured the agony of imperfectly placed penalties and even more imperfectly placed penalties that bob off the keeper, into the post, onto the crossbar and find the back of the net. (As an aside, they could assign penalty duties to the controversial Domagoj Vida – the “Divine Ponytail” who can actually score from the spot!).
Yet, Modric has played his football with an almost Zen-like calmness, passing precisely, crossing precisely, pressing precisely and tackling precisely. He has been magisterial with his outside foot long passes and meticulous with his one-touch short passes. As the great Jorge Valdano succinctly put it, the highlight of Modric’s game has been his “common sense”. And now, here he is, a step away from leading a young nation – all of four million people – to the ultimate sporting glory.
If they manage to win on Sunday – and it is a big if considering the infinitely talented team at Didier Deschamp’s disposal – it will be without doubt the single biggest miracle in World Cup history, eclipsing even the famous Uruguay team of 1950 (you may also call it the infamous Maracanazo depending on where your loyalties lie). Croatia is on the cusp of greatness. They are on the threshold of sporting immortality. They are in the FIFA World Cup final. And I know who I’ll bet on if the game goes to extra time. HRVATSKA!!