The first-time World Cup finalist has defied expectations and punched above its weight
The narrative of this FIFA World Cup — much more than its earlier editions — has unravelled melodramatically, with despondencies and elations, shocks and surprises. It has churned a cauldron of every human emotion thrown in, in all manner of combination, felt as much by the players as those witnessing them.
There have been the grand tales; herculean demonstrations of effort, strength and discipline, like Croatia’s three consecutive come-from- behind victories that extended beyond the regulation 90 minutes of play.
The Eastern European nation, with a population of 4.28 million (Kolkata, India’s seventh most populous city, has a population of 4.5 million) and a nominal per capita GDP of $14788, has defied every pundit and bookmaker (33-1 to win the title at the start of the World Cup) to reach the summit clash.
Quality over quantity
Coming from the smallest nation in a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950 (population-wise), the Croatians break the traditional model of teams benefitting from a structured football development, as the country and the national football federation are still troubled by mismanagement and nepotism.
The country’s wins have come against odds and are a testament to its character, the pride and passion of the players, who run till the very end — Ivan Perisic was a case in point — for the national colour.
“For Croatia, as a country, this is history being written. We are going to play England in the League of Nations in September and we don’t have a ground for that. So, you can imagine how big this is,” coach Zlatko Dalic said after vanquishing England. “What our players did today, the strength, the stamina, the energy levels, was incredible. I wanted to make substitutions, but nobody wanted to go off. That shows character.”
This generation of players, with memories of the Balkan Wars or the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95) still afresh, has picked the manicured fields of Russia to showcase its prodigious talent and establish the relatively young country as a football superpower.
Luka Modric — easily this World Cup’s best player -– became a refugee when he was six and lived under the threat of grenades and bullets, but still practicing football and breaking glass in the Kolovare Hotel — the Modric familiy’s temporary shelter — in the coastal town of Zadar.
He’s made a difference in this World Cup, languid in his approach only to burst into action to conjure space and moments that seem so easy to imagine but are so difficult to execute.
Argentine Jorge Valdano, the ‘Philosopher of Football’, writing for The Guardian, rightly said: “At a World Cup at which it seems like spaces are disappearing — which is strange, considering the pitch still measures 100 x 70 — and everyone who gets the ball seems to be in a hurry, as if the entire pitch was penalty area, Modric performs the miracle of allowing the move to breathe, giving the ball the necessary speed, wherever it is on the field.
“Suddenly, we discover space and time do exist and that all that was needed was someone with the talent to bring them back, to make them what they always were.”
Croatia, which secured a berth in this edition through a playoff victory over Greece, after virtually playing an extra game (three 30 minutes of extra-time) will take on a well-drilled France, once again needing to call in on their reserves and the spirit of the fight to gift their nation the biggest balm of joy.
But will they have the gas to conjure another Houdini act?
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