Many a slip between World Cup and lip: Why Croatia won its game

Fearless Croatia defeated jittery England, but football was the ultimate winner.

 |  5-minute read |   12-07-2018
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From music streaming records to pubs and bars across Delhi (unsurprisingly!), there were only three words wherever you went and whoever you spoke to.. “Football’s coming home”. For those still living under a rock, the reference is to the anthem of Euro 96, held in England, where the task at hand for the English team at the time (including one Gareth Southgate) was simple. It’s high time one of the most prestigious prizes in world football made its way to the promised land.

south_071218050327.jpgIt didn't come home: Croatia's Andrej Kramaric and Filip Bradaric shake hands with England manager Gareth Southgate [Photo: Reuters]

What followed was a capitulation in the semi-finals of the tournament, with the current England manager left inconsolable after his missed penalty left England in misery and Gareth Southgate shutting himself off the anthem of the tournament for 20 years. What feels like vindication today began with mockery on matchday when I put all my eggs in the Croatian basket. When asked about my "naïve" stance, the response was quick and as it turns out, right when the rationale offered was.. “There’s something about this team which the English team is missing”

croatia_071218050548.jpgWhat the English team didn't have: The Croatian team had something special about them from the beginning [Photo: Reuters]

The attribute was teamwork and Croatia brought it in abundance to the beautifully lit Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night.

The thing with World Cups is that it turns footballers into demigods, youngsters into household names. Not the other way round. Neymar found that out the hard way, and against Croatia, so did the English Premier League demigods.

neymar_071218051243.jpgDrama King: Neymar found the truth in a hard way [Photo: Reuters] 

England began with a bang, Kieran Trippier channeling his idol David Beckham and sending the English team into the lead and the English fans into a frenzy. There couldn’t have been a better start to the game — surely the postage stamps were out, the velvet trophy case ready for transportation. For a lot of the world, it was coming somewhere, if not home. And why not? England were lifted by the early lead, and it showed. Luka Modric was unable to move a limb without an English shirt around to check whether it was an arm or a leg. Dele Alli had found his game to shine, running the show from the middle. All this and Harry Kane was yet to make a touch of intent. Fake WC trophies were held aloft by the England faithful as early as the 20th minute. No place like home for the FIFA World Cup Trophy other than Wembley right?

first-goal_071218051506.jpgToo Soon: England began with a bang but at the half-hour mark, the English plan had gone for a toss [Photo: Reuters] 

But as the game went on, England made the same mistake most pundits made on TV — underestimating the hunger of a team that fails to recognise itself as anything but a team. They weren’t referred to as “Modric and Co.” or “Rakitic and Co.” Croatia.

All the way to the semi-final.

At the half-hour mark, ‘the English plan’ had gone for a toss. Long balls were the order of the day and the football reminded one of the West Ham blueprint. Direct football with no precision. The Three Lions could have taken a healthier lead than a 1-0 at halftime, had a wasteful Raheem Sterling done something about it.

The Man City forward won a lot of plaudits for his influential role in Man City’s success, but it was clear that his shooting boots were still in a locker somewhere in Manchester. The second half saw the Croats play their game, the same flow, the same rhythm that crushed Argentina 3-0 in the group stages. Rakitic and Modric wrested the control in midfield and won the battle decisively right till the final whistle.

Sure enough, Croatia scored and with that equalizer came a familiar fate, the sight of a well-known, un-confident English team that was drowning in its own anxiety. Marcus Rashford replaced Sterling and there was a spark in the proceedings, but only for so long. Both teams had braved the pressures of extra time, but it was Croatia who looked more comfortable than the Three Lions. And then came the sucker punch. A Super Mario punch. It did not need a bicycle kick, it only needed presence of mind, and for a predator like Mandzukic, second chances are a luxury he does not need.

And after two hours of a football game that had enough chances to excite the loyal and the neutral, the better team won.

You can hear the same words and sentences from almost every footballer in the world  when it comes to picking their brains on their outlook towards the game but on Wednesday night it came true. Its not about the individual, it’s about the collective.

Also read: Fluent France outwit Belgium with patience, and a plan


Chaitanya Lekhwani Chaitanya Lekhwani @chaitanya021

The author is an avid football enthusiast and has followed the beautiful game through passion and profession for the better part of a decade. When not playing FIFA or watching football highlights, he can be found crooning at your nearest Karaoke bar.

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