Wednesday 29 January 2020

Heart and soul and nationalistic fervour has taken Croatia to the brink


Croatia's Mario Mandzukic after the semi final match against England Photo: Reuters
Croatia's Mario Mandzukic after the semi final match against England Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

They came with fire in their bellies for England on Wednesday night and if they bring it again today, Croatia will shorten the odds in their showdown with France for the greatest prize in global sport.

It was only after they'd won their World Cup semi-final that we discovered the level of resentment they'd harvested over the previous few days, and converted into fuel for the job that awaited them. It emerged that while England had managed to turn their media into the ally they wanted, the Croatians managed to turn them into the enemy they needed.

Many of them have been schooled in Italy's football academies and still make their living there. Their performance after half-time showed they were well trained in the art of game-management, a signature trait that has so often elevated European teams above their English counterparts.

They had been outplayed by England in the first half. They were lucky to be trailing by just a single goal at the break. Maybe it was weariness; maybe they were still running the lactic acid out of their legs after the 120 minutes of hard labour against Russia the previous Saturday, and the lingering fatigue from their 120 minutes against Denmark six days earlier.

But they found a second wind in the second half. And in all likelihood they found it for the simple reason that they needed a goal. Once they got it, they gave every sign from there on that they'd figured England out. They had solved the problem and were visibly navigating their way through and around the formation that lay in front of them.

It helped that they were vastly more experienced by comparison. Whatever the combination of reasons, they were applying a level of clarity and concentration to the struggle that seemed to increase as England's receded. After that first 45, the rest of the match assumed that familiar scenario from so many of these encounters at club and international level.

It was therefore a surprise to find out afterwards that this continental fieldcraft had been augmented by a fairly primitive form of motivation. So far as we know, they haven't exactly revealed that they stuck an offending newspaper article up on the dressing room wall. Whatever they read that galled them, they probably found it online. But they were obviously monitoring the output from British TV, websites and newspapers with a beady eye, looking to find something dismissive or derogatory or annoying. In fact, it sounds like they were praying to be insulted, queuing up to take umbrage.

And it was Luka Modric, of all people, this most sophisticated of ball players, who sounded afterwards like he'd been ready for a knockdown fight rather than his usual technician's surgery. "People were talking," he said, "English journalists, pundits from television. They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: 'OK, today we will see who will be tired.' They should be more humble and respect their opponents more."

And he said it to ITV, which was broadcasting to an estimated 20-25 million people back in Britain. Having dished it out on the pitch, tiny, elfin Modric was dishing it out to them again - and straight down the pipe too. This is one steely waif.

Many members of the British press were mystified by his comments. They had given him, and his team, all due credit in the build-up, they believed. But perhaps it was the enormity of the expectation they'd poured on their own team and manager, the stampeding torrents of praise, that left the Croatians feeling miffed. Or maybe it wasn't ire it provoked but scorn. They knew in their hearts that England were not as good as the media industry back in Blighty was making them out to be; they knew it and they sensed an opportunity to punish this presumption.

But no country's press is going to be scrupulously even-handed in the build-up to a World Cup semi-final. And even if England's had been, the Croatia camp were on a mission anyway to find a grievance somewhere. It suited their cause. And one way to circumvent a fatigue problem is to deny you have it in the first place. It seems that the more the global coverage focused on this issue, the more Croatia vowed not to make it an excuse. In the end, they outlasted England for legs too.

They will have to pull off this psychological trick on themselves one more time this afternoon. Extra-time in the last three games means they have played the equivalent of one full match more than France. Presumably the French press have also been seizing on this as a potential point of vulnerability over the last few days.

And at some stage the physiological reality has to kick in. The average age of the starting 11 in this tournament has been 29 years, give or take. And they don't have the English press to kick around for fuel anymore.

But there is another kind of motivation which is much more primal - and that is nationalistic fervour. Croatian football squads, in word and deed, have demonstrated a deep emotional connection to their country over the last 20 years and more. If the stamina starts to run dry in Moscow today, heart and soul will take over. There's plenty of fuel in that too. Croatia will take it to the limit this afternoon.

And still, it is France who should take the crown. They have the star power on their side, the pure weight of world-class talent. But Modric and his mates will be asking the same question they asked of England: let's see who's really tired. Let's see who really wants it more.

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