The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia had 3,031,768 fans in attendance to witness the epitome of the beautiful game, and the glory, heartbreak, despair, heroism, hope and belief that went with it. Over 3.03 billion people tuned in from all over the world to watch the action unfold between 32 teams across 12 stadiums over the course of 64 matches.
Out of all this, one team, breaking all barriers, rose to the pedestal, undaunted by the calibre of their opponents. Yes, we’re talking about the ‘Fiery Blazers’, the Vatreni – the Croatian football team. Taking previous World Cup campaigns into account, there wasn’t much hope for this team who had been out of the game for long. What ensued was genuinely startling.
World Cup Qualification
Having drawn against Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo, Croatia were the favourites to win Group I. But a 1-0 loss against Turkey and a 1-1 draw against Finland in their eighth and ninth games respectively meant Croatia slipped from first to third in their group. Their last match against Ukraine became a must-win affair, and the Croatian football federation decided to shake things up. Ante Čačić was sacked from his position as coach.
Zlatko Dalić, who coached the U21s for five years up until 2011, was brought in as a replacement to reverse the team’s fortunes. The change made an immediate impact as they registered a 2-0 win over Ukraine to secure a playoff spot. A reinvigorated Croatia then thumped Greece 4-1 in the two-legged affair to book their tickets to Russia.
Nikola Kalinić’s exclusion
One of the goalscorers in Croatia’s play-offs win over Greece was Nikola Kalinić. The striker played a major role in ensuring qualification for Croatia but played no role in Croatia’s World Cup journey. Not because he was injured or excluded, but because he failed to carry out the instructions of the coach.
Kalinić refused to come on as a substitute during the 2-0 win over Nigeria in their opening match of the tournament. The act of indiscipline didn’t go down well with Dalić, who ordered the striker to leave the Croatian camp.
Kalinić could be considered one of the unluckiest players on the planet as he was forced to leave his team in a World Cup campaign where they reached the finals, but he had only himself to blame.
World Cup Journey
With the fans ready to witness their heroes on the pitch, Croatia began their campaign on an impressive note as they registered a win on the opening night against Nigeria. Ivan Perisic got very close to scoring in the opening minutes but his shot missed the post by a whisker. At the 30th minute of the first half, a diving header from Mandzukic was diverted by Kramaric which put Croatia one up on the scoreboard. Later on, in the second half, Luka Modric bagged another for his team by striking a penalty, low and strong into the bottom left corner.
In their next match, Croatia defeated Lionel Messi’s Argentina 3-0 to qualify for the last 16. Even the mercurial genius of Lionel Messi couldn’t save La Albiceleste from this humiliating defeat. In the first half, Willy Caballero’s error was punished by Ante Rebic. Luka Modric’s late goal was the highlight of the game as he struck it from right outside of the box beating Willy Caballero by centimetres. They defeated Iceland 2-1 in the final group match to finish top with a perfect record.
They continued their fine form in the knockout stages, overcoming Denmark in the Round of 16 and Russia in the quarter-finals, wreaking havoc and surprising everybody. The game against Russia was one for the ages as the momentum pendulum swung both ways before Croatia edged the hosts on penalties.
Croatia had grown increasingly dependent on Modric. He had previously organised play from as deep as the edge of his own box, carrying out a lot of defensive work too. Whoever played in front of him – generally Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic or Mateo Kovacic – rarely provided killer passes and Croatia chiefly attacked down the flanks, which was odd for a team packed with midfield talent.
Despite arguments that 4-3-3 might be a better fit, Croatia’s default formation has long been 4-2-3-1 – with the odd foray into a 4-4-2 midfield diamond. Zlatko Dalic made a significant change immediately after taking over as manager (two days before the deciding group game against Ukraine in the qualifiers), moving Luka Modric to the No 10 position, a role the Real Madrid player has rarely occupied since his early days. The Modric-Ivan Rakitic conundrum was a stumbling block for Dalic’s predecessors, who struggled to harness both stars’ playmaking skills coherently; the new coach’s solution paid off in Kiev and in the play-off against Greece.
Croatia’s most enthralling and gripping match of the entire tournament has to be the semi-finals against England. The young British side, backed by the rallying cries of “it’s coming home” opened the scoring with the youngster Kieran Trippier banging the top right corner of the net with a sweet free-kick in the first 5 minutes of the game. But, Ivan Perišić, swooped in out of nowhere like superman and got one back for the Croatian side with a wonderful header in the second half. The game went on to be a bit drab until the final moments of extra time, where the English defense loosened the reins a bit, providing Mario Mandžukić with an opening, which he duly took, and tilting the game in favour of Croatia. The match ended 2-1 to Croatia, who went on to the finals to face the young and energetic France.
With the fans buzzing and elated, Croatia won millions of hearts as they bounced out of the blue and fought their way to the final. The entire Croatian team, with Luka Modrić as their spearhead, with their grit and indomitable will, etched their names in the list of teams which make football the beautiful game we all know and love.
France vs Croatia – La Finale
As the match started, France took the early lead as their first goal arrived off a Croatian’s head, and their second only after the intervention of the Argentine referee. These two goals were like daggers put into the Croatian team and their fans. But it was the next two goals, the low, hard shots that delivered the World Cup back into French hands, the goals that crowned its latest generation of stars. Croatia still somehow managed to score two goals but were no match for the French ensemble team.
Les Bleus, consisting of a perfect combination of youthful energy and experience in the side, carried the World Cup home after a successful campaign. With some of the best players in the world at the height of their powers, a youngster with the world at his feet and a former World Cup-winning captain in the dugout, this French team was perfect.
This tournament again proved that football isn’t a game won on paper. It’s much more than that. It involves belief. It inspires smiles. It is a celebration of unity, a harbinger of happiness and an expression of creativity. It is a feeling which unites all of us as one big family of proud fans. It is the phenomenon that keeps us glued to our seats, always staring wide-eyed at the screen in front of us.
Croatia did not win the world cup but won millions of hearts. Their willpower, indomitable spirit and the urge to win shocked everybody and fueled their journey up to the finals. Footballing fans worldwide will hope that Croatia will come back stronger and even more determined at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Written by Shiv Tiwari | Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
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