By the time Croatia reached the semi-final of the 2018 football World Cup, those following the competition, including pundits, had begun to get used to the idea that they could reach the final and, given a slice of fortune, become the ninth nation to win the tournament.
In the event, Croatia beat England in the semi-final without really running out of gas, to become the lowest ranked team, placed at 20, to make it to the final. Once Croatia had made it to the final, pundits and the football laity began an earnest search for the qualities that had enabled this tiny nation — of around 4.5 million people — to almost go the distance. On their journey, they had beaten Argentina, 3-0, in the qualifying rounds and England, of course, 2-1. They had won all their group matches, even though they had needed two shoot-outs and an extra-time winner to progress.
Among the many qualities cited that made Croatia formidable, one species seemed to find pride of place. It was variously called spirit, fortitude and the like. In this version, what played a huge role in carrying Croatia through to the final was their refusal to accept defeat, their propensity to keep going when by any reckoning they should have given up, if only out of sheer exhaustion, and their togetherness as a team.
What had forged this incredible will to keep competing and winning, many said, was the history of the nation. Croatia had won independence in 1991 after the fall of the USSR and the dismemberment of empires and countries. Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and went through a protracted war in the maelstrom that had also sucked in Bosnia and later Kosovo. The older players in the team — Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Manzukic, Ivan Perisic — had been through it in their childhood. Many of them had been displaced and spent their childhood growing up away from home. It was this adversity that had shaped ‘character’. And character born of adversity was what had forged a powerfully united team and taken it to heights no one had foretold they would conquer.
But there was another, more muted storyline lurking in the background, which began to impose itself on all the others more and more undeniably, whenever Croatia took to the pitch. At the heart of this storyline was one element above all else — pure quality. Arguably, Croatia ranked alongside the much more heralded Belgium side in playing the most attractive football in the tournament. Even more than Belgium, it did this without sacrificing shape and defensive solidity. This was a great achievement, especially given the fact that Croatia had changed its manager towards the end of its qualification campaign. Zlatko Dalic had been parachuted in with two qualifiers left to play.
On the pitches in Russia, it didn’t show. Croatia’s slick midfield passing game, orchestrated like a seasoned conductor by Modric, ranged from the sublime to the competent. It was on very rare occasions that they lost control or seemed to be directionless. At the back, marshalled by the tireless Domagoj Vida, they were rugged, usually impenetrable. And, of course, in Danijel Subašic they had an outstanding shot-stopping keeper.
After Croatia humbled Argentina, many began to see this team as exceptional. And why not? It should have occurred to the cognoscenti long before, given the club affiliations of the Croatian players. Seventeen of them play in the top five leagues o the world — La Liga, the Bundesliga, the English Premier League, Serie A and France’s Ligue 1. Eight of these seventeen play in elite clubs — two in Real Madrid, one each in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; two play for Inter, one for Juventus; and one for Liverpool. Four of the other seven play for big clubs in eastern Europe: Dinamo Zagreb, Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Kyiv and Besiktas in Turkey (stretching a geographical point). There was no earthly reason, come to think of it, why such a supremely talented team should not have gone the distance. Character played a big role, but talent was even more salient.
Take Modric. The midfielder with the silken touch first caught the world’s eye when he joined Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. After a successful stint, he was poached by Real Madrid in 2012. Since joining the Galacticos, Modric has been at the heart of the club’s midfield, pulling the strings and creating or initiating moves more than anyone else. His club and the several managers he has played under know his worth, which is why he has seldom failed to make it to the starting line-up of the first XI.
The problem is that those who play for Real Madrid have to compete for attention. The diminutive Modric has talent to spare, but does not have stardust sprinkled on him. On the pitch and off it, he goes about his business almost anonymously. No surprises then that Modric is overshadowed by not just Cristiano Ronaldo (almost anyone would be) but by the likes of Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo. In Barcelona, Rakitic is indispensable, but again he is overshadowed by more glamorous colleagues.
To those who watch the European leagues through the year, Croatia’s performance, as silken as it was dogged, may have been a revelation, but it was not a big surprise. Unfortunately, the inner core of the team will be too old to play in 2022. One hopes that the Croatian assembly line will produce exciting replacements.