Tag: Croatia

Croatia deny England after telling themselves to get up yet again

Gab Marcotti, Senior Writer ESPN FC

MOSCOW — They tell you it’s about who wants it more. It’s not. You don’t get to a World Cup semifinal — via a combined three penalty shootouts — if you don’t want it desperately, as much as the air you breathe and the affection you crave. Nobody could look the players from England or Croatia in the eye and judge who was hungrier, not after seeing them battle for 120 minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium.

Rather, it’s about lies and deception. The lies you tell your body in an attempt to deceive it into thinking your hit points aren’t down to zero. And the lies you tell yourself when you convince yourself that, yes, you can reach that stray ball, and no, you won’t let that opponent pass. Most of all, it’s about believing that you can keep going through heavy legs, searing pain and shortness of breath.

And do it all with clarity of mind. That last bit is crucial and, perhaps, the reason Croatia will be back here on Sunday to take on France in the World Cup final. England’s collective mind got fuzzier as the game went on. Croatia’s, somehow, seemed to grow clearer, scything through the pain, fatigue and inevitable errors.

Just ask England boss Gareth Southgate, who called them “hardened warriors” whose “decision making” made the difference.

As far as fooling yourself into thinking you are strong when, in fact, you can barely stand, ask his opposite number, Zlatko Dalic.

“I wanted to make substitutions earlier because I knew they were tired and hurt, but every time I tried, the players on the pitch told me they were fine, they felt fine,” he said. “So how could I do it? How could I tell them that what they felt was not real?”

See? They lied to their manager as well as themselves. As the match wore on, Croatia seemed to feed off each other and their surroundings, as if energy and belief and the grand deception were something they could pass on.

There was Domagoj Vida, mercilessly booed by the Russians in the crowd, who filled nearly half the ground, for his controversial video supporting Ukraine, smiling and taking it in stride.

There was Ivan Rakitic, approaching Croatia’s stand with arms waving furiously, wanting supporters to make even more noise, then stopping for a beat or two to let the wall of sound envelop him before jogging back on to the pitch.

There was Luka Modric, giving possession away to Marcus Rashford, yet somehow willing his body to catch the fleet-footed Manchester United forward and knock the ball out of play. As Croatia’s captain lay on the ground, there was Sime Vrsaljko trotting over, touching his face, urging Modric to push on.

With a minute to go in extra time, with play dead to allow treatment for a prone player, there was Dalic manhandling Ivan Perisic by the touchline. Perisic looked away, hands on hips, almost child-like, only for his manager to grab his arm time and again. Perisic then looked to him, nodded and gave a fist bump.

Little things. Details that occupy the mind — maybe just for a second or two — but are enough to regain focus, distract from pain and fatigue, and remind that you are not alone.

Sure, there’s also the tactical and technical sides that matter, and in this case, it was rather simple.

The start of the game was straight out of the Southgate game plan. We don’t know if the England coach is a fan of “positive visualization” — he does employ a sports psychologist — but he likely couldn’t have planned things any better.

After four minutes, Croatia conceded a free kick that was central and just beyond the “D.” Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic lined up a huge wall that was made even denser by half-a-dozen England players, who clearly wanted to stop Subasic seeing Kieran Trippier strike the ball. And it worked: The free kick was accurate, if slow, but Subasic moved even more slowly, and it nestled into the net, like a dead leaf propelled by the wind.

It was England’s 12th goal in this World Cup, the ninth off a dead ball situation (the three from open play include Harry Kane’s wacky deflection against Panama).

Dalic’s reaction was counterintuitive, and he nearly paid dearly. Despite the greater vigor and energy of the opposition, Croatia went for it, pressing high and leaving gaps at the back. It was the sort of approach you might take in the final 15 minutes of a game when you’re a goal down.

It offered England plenty of opportunity, and Harry Maguire and Jesse Lingard both failed to convert excellent chances. At the other end, Southgate’s defence did exactly what they were supposed to do, with wing-backs sliding back to form a defensive line of five, plus Jordan Henderson in front to mop up where needed.

Croatia grew increasingly nervous and edgy. Fatigue began to show. Half-time came as a relief and a chance to hit the reset button. After the break, the frenzy of the first 45 minutes was gone, as if Dalic had told his players to forget what had gone before and the fact that their World Cup was slipping away. Focus instead on winning the second half. Do that, and you live to fight another day.

“I told them to slow it down, to not lose their heads,” Dalic said. “Pass the ball calmly, and make your quality count.”

Croatia entered the zone, playing with a calm intensity, maintaining defensive shape so as to deny the counter and picking their spots with patience. So when Vrsaljko’s cross — the first to hit the target after 18 attempts — found Perisic’s karate kick inches from Kyle Walker’s head, the ball deflected past Jordan Pickford.

Now it was a new game, and now things got ragged, particularly in the England defence, as Perisic’s shot cannoned off the post, and Mario Mandzukic’s effort sailed into the arms of Pickford. England had their opportunities too: Harry Kane headed wide from a 90th-minute free kick, and then, in the first extra-time period, John Stones’ powerful header was cleared off the line by Vrsaljko.

Then, in the 109th minute, Perisic’s header, following Walker’s uncoordinated clearance, sent the ball into the space behind a static Stones. Mandzukic was making his umpteenth “just-in-case” run of the game and, having found the space, beat Pickford to send Croatia to their date with history.

This was the third straight game when they conceded first and the third straight time they managed to dig themselves out of the hole before playing 30 minutes more than the game’s inventors intended to emerge victorious.

In reaching the final, Croatia have already surpassed the country’s legendary generation from two decades ago, which reached a World Cup semifinal against the team they will face this Sunday. Dalic knows that well. He was a professional footballer at the time but traveled to France and watched all three group games in the stands as a fan.

They have made history. Now they want to move into lore.

What’s Croatia’s problem with Luka Modric?

Maja Hitij/FIFA/Getty Images


Nick Miller ESPN FC

If Harry Kane leads England to World Cup glory, he’ll be given a knighthood before the plane home touches down. Should Kylian Mbappe score the winner in Moscow, he’ll be France’s boy king, feted for life. If Eden Hazard is the man who lifts the trophy on July 15, he’ll never again have to pay for another strong Belgian beer.

But if the leader of the winners happens to be Luka Modric, then it might not be quite so straightforward. Modric is, to say the least, not universally popular in Croatia; in fact, he’s actively disliked by large swathes of the population.

Why? It’s a complicated issue, but it essentially boils down to Modric’s relationship with one of Croatian football’s most powerful men. When Modric was coming through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb, he, like many others, signed a contract with Zdravko Mamic. Mamic has been, at various points, a Dinamo executive and vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation, and for a while at least was essentially Croatian football’s Mr. Big.

Under those agreements, Mamic provided initial financial support in return for a proportion of the player’s later earnings, and would be represented by his son Mario, a licensed agent. Clauses would be inserted into their contracts which stated the players would be due a cut of the transfer fee should they ever be sold. They would then use that money to pay their obligations to Mamic. In Modric’s case, when he moved to Tottenham in 2008 he received €10.5million of the fee, but around €8.5million of that went to Mamic and his family

The trouble came when Mamic was accused of inserting those clauses after the players — including squad members Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko and Mateo Kovacic, along with Modric– had been sold. In 2015 he was arrested, accused of embezzlement and tax evasion, and was eventually convicted, along with three other men. In June of this year, he was given a jail sentence of six and a half years. He seemingly has no intention of serving that sentence, after fleeing to Bosnia-Herzegovina before the verdict.

So where does Modric come in? In June 2017 he, along with Lovren, testified in Mamic’s trial. Modric said he “couldn’t remember” basic details like how much he earned in his early days at Dinamo and when he made his international debut. Crucially though, he claimed that the contract clauses in question were already in place before his sale to Tottenham in 2008.

However, that seemed to contradict earlier statements, which eventually led to him being charged with perjury in March this year. He could face up to five years in jail if found guilty. Lovren is also being investigated, although he has not been charged.

Even before this, Modric’s popularity in his homeland was low. Fans, sick of corruption in the Croatian game, saw his relationship with Mamic as part of the problem, and a few disrupted their match against Czech Republic at Euro 2016 by throwing flares on to the pitch in protest.

At this World Cup, the antipathy towards Modric continued, whether that was expressed through apathy at the side’s fortunes in Russia or in more specific ways, such as this supporter who had printed on the back of his shirt “Ne sjecam se” — “I don’t remember,” in reference to Modric’s testimony.

And that’s polite compared to some of the graffiti that appeared around Zagreb during the Mamic trial, which included the slightly chilling message: “Luka, you’ll remember this one day.”

Modric, perhaps predictably, hasn’t been keen to discuss his extracurricular concerns. When asked by a reporter from The Guardian before Croatia’s game against Nigeria if the case was a distraction for him or the team, Modric didn’t take it especially well. “Nothing smarter to ask?” he snapped. “It’s a World Cup, it’s not about other things. How long did you prepare for asking this kind of question?”

But what’s remarkable is just how brilliant Modric has been in Russia with all of this hanging over him. Players are routinely left out of matches because their frame of mind is impacted by pending transfers, and yet Modric has been able to produce incredibly performances knowing a possible prison sentence awaits after the tournament.

Still, the brains of some footballers are simply wired differently to others. From Lee Bowyer enjoying brilliant form with Leeds while on trial for assault, right up to John Obi Mikel appearing at this World Cup knowing that his father had been kidnapped, sometimes footballers have an extraordinary ability to compartmentalise and to concentrate their energy on football no matter what else is happening off the pitch.

In this World Cup, he’s been a conductor of subtlety and precision, gently taking teams apart. He was one of only two players left in Croatia’s starting XI for their final group game against Iceland, when they’d already qualified, as if coach Zlatko Dalic couldn’t trust his team to function without Modric on the pitch.

If he leads Croatia to victory over England and then in the final on Sunday, will his popularity be affected? Will on-pitch success save his reputation? Probably not. An unscientific survey of those who would know suggested that positions are entrenched. Those who have decided Modric is not a man to be celebrated are firm in their convictions. Others believe the World Cup is only about football, in which case Modric is already a hero. But it’s unlikely that minds will be changed.

Luka Modric could be a World Cup winner, admired and loved everywhere, except at home.