Was it that Croatia was good, or just that Argentina was really, really bad? Until Willy Caballero’s desperate gaffe 10 minutes into the second half on Thursday, there had been a frustration about Zlatko Dalic’s side, a suspicion that it, just as much as Argentina, was not quite the sum of the parts. It had labored to a 2-0 win against Nigeria in its opening game and seemed to be laboring again, perhaps even suffering that same Argentinian problem of a surfeit of midfield creators without the ball-winners to offer balance.
But in that final half hour in Nizhny Novgorod, as Argentina imploded, Croatia offered glimmers of something else.
Luka Modric’s goal was a work of beauty, a reminder of what he sacrifices when he plays in a deeper role. He excels in that more withdrawn position, keeping the ball moving and always finding angles. It’s not to say he is somehow misemployed when he operates there, whether for Real Madrid or the national side, but equally the decision to move him into a more advanced position, bringing in Marcelo Brozovic to operate alongside Ivan Rakitic, was perhaps the prime reason for Croatia’s greater fluency in this game.
By the time Ivan Rakitic rolled in a third with almost apologetic ease, Croatia was rampant. Perhaps it was unable quite to believe its luck, to be the side to meet Argentina on just the day when all the doubts of the past few years coalesced into self-destruction, but it took full advantage. This was the sort of performance, the sort of result, that can give a side the confidence and self-belief to produce a run deep into a tournament. This is a World Cup in which, as yet, none of the major contenders have lived up to the billing–and, frankly, the World Cup is long overdue for a shock winner. Momentum in such circumstances can take a side a very long way.
Yet Croatia, just eight months ago, looked like a team in chaos. With fan boycotts, Nikola Kalinic sent home after refusing to be used as a substitute and Modric facing perjury charges, it still ought to be in chaos, but there is just the sense that off-field issues are beginning to be resolved. Everything revolves around the conviction of Zdravko Mamic, who once effectively controlled both the Croatian football federation and the country’s most successful club, Dinamo Zagreb, on corruption charges earlier this month.
While the case was ongoing, Mamic was forced to leave all official positions held at the federation and Dinamo, but his influence remained strong. The federation president, 1998 World Cup golden boot winner Davor Suker, is widely seen as being little more than a puppet for Mamic. For a long time, it seemed impossible that Mamic would ever be forced to answer any of the many allegations against him, which is why fans at Euro 2016 operated a policy of actively trying to disrupt games.
But slowly justice closed in and Mamic was sentenced to six and half years in jail. He had already fled to Bosnia-Herzegovina and seems unlikely to be extradited, but his influence is limited. The specifics of the case show that when Modric and the defender Dejan Lovren left Dinamo, for Tottenham and Lyon, respectively, half their transfer fees were paid to them personally rather than to the club. That money was then forwarded to Mamic, who had signed personal contracts with the players, obliging them to share earnings with him in return for being represented by Mamic’s son Mario, a licensed agent.
In a certain light, as young footballers seeking a passage to glory and wealth in western Europe, Modric and Lovren can be seen as victims, but Modric lost public sympathy when he changed his testimony midway through the case. He has been charged with perjury, and other players may soon be facing something similar.
On the field, Croatia was hugely disappointing in the qualifying campaign, limping to second in the group behind Iceland, scoring just 15 goals in 10 games despite a prodigiously creative midfield. Most blamed Ante Cacic, a journeyman coach who had been appointed largely it seemed because he was a convenient yes-man for Mamic and Suker.
But after a 1-1 draw at home against Finland in the penultimate qualifier threatened even a playoff place, Cacic was ousted for Dalic, who had been quietly impressive with clubs in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Croatia won 2-0 in Ukraine to set up a playoff against Greece, which it won comfortably. Slowly, a team was coming together.
Sending Kalinic home demonstrated Dalic’s power. This is his squad now. External chaos, a sense of taking on the world, can be a great source of motivation. Dalic’s rescue act may have begun in the nick of time. Croatia has the talent. Now it may also have the coach and the will.