MOSCOW – The World Cup has long been overdue for a surprise winner. It hasn’t even really had a shocking finalist since Czechoslovakia in 1962. But Croatia, its population just 4.1 million, is in the final after another performance of extraordinary resilience.
It had needed extra time and penalties to get through the previous two rounds, and by the end of its 2-1 extra-time triumph over England–at the site of Sunday's final vs. France–it was running on empty, and understandably so after playing 90 extra minutes over the course of 10 days. But somehow it found the energy and determination to come back from a first half in which it was fortunate only to be a goal down.
“What our players did today, the strength, the stamina, the energy levels, was incredible,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic. “I wanted to make substitutions, but nobody wanted to go off. I have to tip my hat to our physio and our doctors for their efforts–some players played with minor injuries with which they would not have played other games. Two players played with half a leg, but it didn’t show. Nobody wanted to give in, to say 'I am not ready.' This shows character and this makes me proud.”
Neither of these sides was supposed to get this far. They were the accidental semifinalists. Gareth Southgate became England manager after one game of the qualifying series after Sam Allardyce was sacked amid an FA panic following the flimsiest of newspaper exposés. Dalic took over even later than that, arriving with one game of qualifying left to salvage a campaign that looked to have tanked. It took a win over Ukraine and a playoff victory over Greece for Croatia to even get to Russia.
Dalic was in tears at the end as he celebrated with his players in front of the Croatia fans. He has had success in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but it’s fair to say he was far from a household name in Croatia, and his main qualification for the job was simply not being Ante Cacic, who was widely seen as being a convenient yes-man for the Croatian football federation (HNS).
And that’s without even mentioning the fact that forward Nikola Kalinic was sent home after refusing to come off the bench in the opener against Nigeria, or the chaos within the HNS. Its president, former star player and catalyst for the 1998 semifinalists, Davor Suker, is a close associate of Zdravko Mamic, the former Dinamo Zagreb president. Mamic was seen as the power behind the throne before, in the week leading into the tournament, he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail on corruption charges relating to player sales. He was already in Bosnia-Herzegovina and so is not in jail, but the case could have further consequences with Luka Modric facing perjury charges after seemingly changing his testimony midway through the trial.
The tendency when an unexpected side reaches the final–and Croatia is the smallest nation to get that far since Uruguay in 1950–is to look for what it is doing right, to find lessons from which others could perhaps learn. There are no lessons in Croatia, or at least not structural lessons. Its secret, if there is one, has been players who care passionately for the national team and fight to the very end.
This was all about will and nothing about planning. Croatia has been behind in each of its knockout games and come back.
“We started slowly but we’ve shown our character,” said Ivan Perisic, who scored the equalizer and assisted on Mario Mandzukic's winner. “This is very important for the team. We didn’t used to be this resilient.”
By the end, Ivan Strinic, Mandzukic and Modric had all been forced off by injury, fatigue or both. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic didn’t look fully fit from the start. Right back Sime Vrsaljko, who delivered the cross that brought the equalizer and cleared a John Stones header off the line in extra time, was reduced by the end to a painful hobble. Yet somehow, Croatia not merely held out, but had become the dominant side even before Kieran Trippier was forced off by injury to leave England with 10 men for the final minutes.
Yet for all that Croatia deserves credit for its grit, England let the game slip. Having taken the lead with Trippier’s fifth-minute free kick, it dominated for most of the first half, with Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard both squandering good opportunities. The problem was almost that its plan to exploit Croatia’s lack of pace at the back was too successful and England overplayed its hand. There was too much that was long, too many direct balls and, gradually, that allowed Croatia to take control of possession. France, you suspect, will not be so forgiving in the final, in which the pace of Kylian Mbappe will be an even more dangerous weapon than usual.
Once Croatia had gotten into the game, England had little answer and became for a while bad old England, reduced to long balls and incapable of holding possession, a major problem when it had seemingly resorted early to playing for time. Encouraged, Croatia kept coming, the delivery from the flanks got better and better. By the end it had had 22 shots to England’s 11, seven on target to England’s two. Its superiority couldn’t be denied.
France represents another level of test in the final, but Croatia so far has found a means of winning when everything seems to be against it. What this Croatia has, above all else, is character, and in a tournament that can go a long way.