Children of bloody war stand tall for Croatia
A Moscow miracle would be rich climax to an already blood-stirring story
Croatia must be up for adoption as the team of a fractious, turbulent world as they prepare to meet the classy plutocrats of France in Moscow tomorrow afternoon. Any takers? They certainly have one here.
Maybe it's true the idea of sport as a mirror of real life has taken a fair old battering these last few World Cup weeks.
But then if there isn't a powerful theme of supreme commitment in the story of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic and their team-mates we might as well take the trophy to Qatar in four years and dump it in some patch of godforsaken desert.
The truth is that while England took their leave with a heightened reputation as improved, perhaps even partially reformed competitors, Croatia simply refused to leave a battle ground they have covered so liberally with their sweat and will.
If they hold up their hands against such virtuosos as Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann we can be sure it will be only at that moment when the game is over, when there is no more powder, no more call for blood and guts and sometimes superlative skill.
Against England there was almost a sense that Modric, the general in kiddy-sized boots, had issued instructions that in the event of defeat they dig a hole and bury him where he fell. As the game wore on, the need for a spade became progressively remote.
Modric has already spoken hauntingly of his youth in his homeland, the execution of a beloved grandfather, for whom he was named, and other villagers, the sense that each day might be your last and every casual observer of Balkan history - and international courts of justice - can guess that few places on earth ever visited so much random horror and pain on its inhabitants.
England's disappointed players and fans lost the ambition of "bringing home" football but - it's worth a thought - what would a victorious Croatia have in their baggage at Zagreb airport? A glowing badge, for a once grievously dislocated society, of working, if sometimes ferocious, humanity.
Croatia, with a population nearly a million less than Ireland's, would have played the world's most popular - and richest - game to a standstill.
There was, of course, a much earlier wonder in 1998, eight years after England had last appeared in a World Cup semi-final and much less than a decade since most Croatians couldn't walk down their street without the fear of being in the sights of some sniper.
Croatia reached the semi-finals of their first World Cup and led the eventual champions and hosts France before being beaten by two unlikely goals from the defender Lilian Thuram.
They beat Germany in the quarter-finals and edged the Holland of Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids in the game for third place.
Davor Suker won the golden boot as Croatia not only announced they existed as a nation but had the nerve and the determination to prove it on one of the world's most spectacular stages.
Paris, naturally, was celebrating for days. The Champs Elysees was a vast ocean of blue but always you could find knots of the red and white squared shirts of the Croatians.
Such memories have been rekindled with some force in recent weeks and this has been especially so if you just happened to be in Croatia when the war was still being waged. It was not a self-designed presence, one has to say.
I was woken in my hotel room in Poland, where I was covering England's qualification for the 1992 European Championships. It was the editor and he wondered if I might stop off in Croatia on my way home.
"What's happening there?" I asked him blithely enough. "Well right now," he said, "they're bombing Dubrovnik."
I stayed in Zagreb long enough to satisfy the foreign desk in London before the delayed arrival of their chief reporter. It was not so long. I didn't get to know the war but I felt its rush and its dehumanising horror.
I was taken to an interview with the leader of the Ustasha right wing organisation and noted, as you might, that the young woman who took me to his office in the Zagreb Arts Club had a yellow flower pinned to her blouse - alongside a hand-grenade.
There were sandbags around the hotel, which was next door to the president's palace, which was bombed a few nights before I travelled by road from Austria to the no-flight zone of Zagreb.
In the bar of the hotel, mercenaries from time to time opened a window and fired volleys from their automatic weapons.
An English speaker among them offered to take me to see a massacre which would happen in a village the following night.
There were decimated families in every other street. It was a world, you didn't need too long to discover, enclosed by fear and uncertainty.
One morning I saw some kids playing football in the street and it seemed odd.
They were skilful and keen and for them the war could wait, at least for the moment.
The driver who eventually returned me to the Austrian border, not unreasonably perhaps, asked me for danger money because of the hazardous areas where there were road blocks and the habit of firing on cars with Zagreb number plates.
Pale memories, no doubt, when set against the boyhood of a Luka Modric but for what they are worth they have come back as vigorously these last few weeks as they did when Croatia came so close to what would have been a miraculous appearance in the World Cup final at the Stade de Paris.
Not least, perhaps, because one of those kids playing in the street might just have been Luka Modric. He was six years old at the time and he had a life to lead and, who knew, maybe a world to conquer.
If it should happen tomorrow in Moscow it is hard to imagine a more resonant climax to an already blood-stirring story.
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