There was to be no end to 20 years of hurt.
Croatia reached the semi-finals at the 1998 World Cup with a team led by striker Davor Suker, one of the drenched dignitaries on the winners’ podium last night in Moscow. They defeated Germany in the quarter-finals before losing to hosts France. Croatia then won the third-place match against Netherlands, the best World Cup finish for any team from the former Yugoslavia.
They have gone one better now. But it wasn’t enough. Old foes France had a little more inspiration at their disposal, in the shape of Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe specifically. Hardly surprising considering there are twice as many people in Paris and its environs alone as live in Croatia.
Croatia were also badly served by yet another referee, Argentina’s Nestor Pitana in this case, who did not have the courage of his convictions. It’s hard to imagine the pressure he felt as billions watched Pitana watch replays of the type of incident that can happen ten times in a game. Still, he had the option to simply stick with his original contention that nothing untoward had occurred.
How many times has this happened in this World Cup now? France might still have won. Having already equalised with a superb goal, Croatia winger Ivan Perisic found himself at the centre of a VAR storm after accidentally handling Antoine Griezmann’s corner. Fortunately an entertainingly chaotic second half ensured Griezmann’s penalty did not prove the decisive goal.
Still, it was impossible to stop wondering what might have happened had Croatia reached half-time still on level terms, and with N’Golo Kante, such a pivotal player in the French midfield, already on a booking. Leading 2-1, France manager Didier Deschamps felt comfortable enough to replace Kante with Steven Nzonzi early in the second-half. Two quick further goals from France vindicated Deschamps. They also floored the Croatians, who nevertheless refused to give up.
The silver medal isn’t what they wanted. Not after a month when Croatia’s ambitions crept ever higher. But, when the dust settles, when the Russian rain is finally wrung from their soaked red and white checked shirts, the Croatia players can reflect on another momentous effort.
They have also shone a light on what’s possible. After coming so near in 1998 Croatians were able to finally celebrate gate-crashing a final. It’s normally the preserve of the Brazils, Germanys and of course Frances of the world. Croatia are the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950.
Croatia were 28-1 to win the World Cup at the start of this tournament.
They deserved the guard of honour sportingly handed to them by the French victors. They deserved to boast the official top player in the tournament. Luka Modric failed to shine to quite the extent he has in previous games. But he was still a contender for man of the match.
Despite defeat, Croatia also boasted another among the most impressive performers on the pitch in Moscow yesterday. Not just in terms of technique – though his goal is one of the best seen at this stage – but also in what he gave to his side. Perisic dragged Croatia back into the game with a stunning first-half equaliser, wrong-footing Kante and then driving into the corner from the edge of the box for his third goal of an impressive tournament.
He kept on running and running. Sheer strength of spirit saw him reach the byline in the second-half to retrieve a ball that seemed bound to go out of play after another lung-busting run. He got there but his cross was just too high for Mario Mandzukic.
And then what of Marcelo Brozovic’s clearance from Griezmann just after the hour mark? It saved a sure fourth for France, even if one did arrive soon afterwards through Mbappe. Yet still Croatia kept on trying to find a way back into the game. Many strikers might have let Hugo Lloris deal with a passback, even if it had seemed to put the goalkeeper under pressure. Not Mandzukic, another star of the last month. He chased him down and got his reward: 4-2.
There were still 22 minutes left. Ivan Rakitic dragged a shot wide shortly afterwards. No wonder Croatian tennis player Marin Cilic tweeted after the final whistle: “Thank you for giving your all out there.”
A team that had emerged triumphant from each knockout match prior to the final despite going behind were not going to go gently into the Moscow night.
People say Croatia’s success – and it is still success, despite yesterday’s result – is a lesson for Scotland. Perhaps. It was a lesson to Scotland 20 years ago, when Croatia, helped by a spine of ball-playing talents such as Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban, reached the last four at France 98. After finishing third then, the Croats were eliminated from the group stage at the 2002, 2006 and 2014 tournaments. The only time they have failed to qualify was for the 2010 World Cup.
They are already a lesson. A country of just over four million people, where a top tier match was attended by just 80 people last season, has achieved all this.