Croatia’s shock troops can upset the odds

Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric celebrates. Pic: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric celebrates. Pic: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
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The World Cup is long overdue a shock winner. Only once in its history, when West Germany triumphed in 1954 – and even that doesn’t really look a shock in retrospect – has there been a real surprise.

When Greece and Denmark have won the Euros in the past two decades, when Leicester City have won the Premier League, there is no reason for the World Cup to be immune to underdogs. There hasn’t even been a shock finalist, really, since Czechoslovakia in 1962. So while all logic may say that France are better and fresher and should beat Croatia this afternoon, there is also a sense that the World Cup has been waiting for some sort of eruption.

Croatia’s progress has been staggering, particularly if you consider where they were last October. They had lost away to Iceland and Turkey in qualifying, and scraped a 1-0 win over Kosovo at home. When Ante Cacic had been appointed coach, he had been regarded by many fans as little more than a place-man for the president of the Croatian football federation (HNS), Davor Suker, who was himself regarded as being little more than a puppet for Zdravko Mamic, the former president of Dinamo Zagreb who remained the most powerful figure in Croatian football. For all the talent in the team – Luka Modric, Mario Madzukic and Ivan Rakitic have now played in eight Champions League finals between them – there was nothing they did under Cacic to change perceptions of the coach.

Going into the penultimate qualifier, at home to Finland, Croatia led their group on goal-difference from Iceland with Ukraine two points back. There was an assumption they would qualify, and a similar assumption that they wouldn’t do especially well in Russia. With a minute to go, Ukraine and Iceland were both leading, but so too were Croatia. Then Pyry Soiri, a Finnish player with a Namibian father who played in Belarus, who had come off the bench to make his international debut 10 minutes earlier, ran on to a long ball played in behind Dejan Lovren and equalised. Suddenly Iceland topped the group and Ukraine, whom Croatia played last, in Kyiv, were within striking distance.

Panicking, the HNS acted. Cacic was dismissed and Zlatko Dalic appointed. Dalic’s record in Croatia was unremarkable, but he had had success in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Vitally, he wasn’t Cacic. Croatia went to Kyiv and won. Then they beat Greece in the play-offs. But still nobody expected much. Still there was chaos.

Mamic was brought to trial and, in June, convicted of fraud and embezzlement in the transfers of a number of players. He was sentenced to six and half years in jail but, by then, was already in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If Croatian fans in general were cheered by that, though, there was significant collateral damage. Luka Modric’s transfer to Tottenham was one of those under investigation. Initially, it seemed his evidence would damn Mamic, but when it came to trial, his memory suddenly seemed faulty. In March he was charged with perjury.

Yet Modric has been one of the players of the tournament. It’s not just that he has created almost twice as many shooting chances or played more passes than any other Croatian player, it’s that he has run more than anybody else at the entire tournament. In a World Cup in which teams based around individuals – Brazil, Portugal, Argentina – have faltered, he has demonstrated how individual genius can be harnessed for the good of the collective.

Croatia’s progress has been a matter of the most extraordinary will.

They sent the striker Nikola Kalinic home after he reportedly refused to come off the bench against Nigeria. A coach had to be sacrificed after making provocative statements about Ukraine following the victory over Russia in the quarter-final. Croatia, having dragged itself through what was arguably the toughest group, have gone behind in every knockout round. They’ve become the first side to progress despite being taken to extra-time in all three knock-out games.

They’ve become only the second team to win two penalty shoot-outs at the same World Cup.

At every step, they have done it the hard way. By the end against Russia and against England, they looked exhausted. Dalic spoke after the semi-final win of how two players had played “with half a leg”, of how nobody had wanted to come off, of how everybody had driven themselves to their limit. The danger, of course, is that fatigue does eventually set it, that a wall is hit and Croatia collapse, but the level of desire and determination in this side cannot be overestimated. Can they drag themselves on for one more game?

The biggest problem, perhaps, is that France have given the sense of playing consistently within themselves. Even in the 4-3 against Argentina, there was a sense of freakishness about the goals they conceded and little sense of real jeopardy once Benjamin Pavard had levelled the scores at 2-2. Given they were in the tougher half of the draw, to ease through as they have says much for their defensive capacities, the way N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba have combined to present a block in front of the back four, which itself handled the aerial threat of Belgium superbly. And if there is any player equipped to exploit weary opposition, it is Kylian Mbappe. Given how Raheem Sterling troubled Croatia with his pace in the first half of the semi-final, Mbappe, who is both quicker and more ruthless, could cause serious damage.

For France this is beginning to feel a lot like 1998, when the present manager Didier Deschamps was the captain. Then too France had a centre-forward who didn’t score goals, a resolute central defensive partnership and a goalkeeper in exceptional form. Then too there were grumbles about the style of football France played, demands for Aime Jacquet to use the immense resources in his squad to play in a more obvious aesthetically appealing way.

Victory there was the great redeemer: the grinding wins over Denmark and Paraguay, the goalless draw and penalty shoot-out against Italy, the slightly fortuitous victory over Croatia in the semi-final, all forgotten in the surge of joy and political optimism that followed victory in the final. That they then improved and won Euro 2000 playing much more expansive football helped gild the memories.

And perhaps that is as it should be. Modern football has become very attacking, perhaps because of the concentration of wealth at a small handful of clubs that means they dominate their domestic leagues.

Deschamps is a throw-back. He holds his players back. He favours discipline over imagination. He asks gifted players to do their job first and express themselves after. They’ve always seemed to have something in reserve. And perhaps that’s as it should be. If France win, particularly after falling in the final of the Euros to a well-organised but prosaic Portugal, few French fans are going to care how the World Cup was won.

But in their way stand Croatia, the smallest nation to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950. It’s the implacable machine against the plucky scrappers with a complicated past. It shouldn’t be a contest but this least predictable of World Cups perhaps has one last shock to offer.