FIFA World Cup 2018: Croatia wade through obstacles and turmoil to script fairytale run to the final

Croatia haven’t done it the easy way. Their road to the 2018 World Cup final involved three knockout games that ran the full 120-minute distance. They even had a player sent home in the middle of the tournament, a coach sacked before their biggest game in 20 years, their captain in the middle of a political-legal storm that may still see him land in jail. Yet they are here, in a World Cup final – the gold standard, the biggest stage of international football.

In contrast, Croatia’s semi-final opponents England made examples of themselves owing to their meticulous attention to detail, long-term vision and planning that saw them sweep youth World Cups in 2017, and a young, hungry generation of footballers removed from the baggage of past tournament failures. All of which counted for very little on Wednesday against the Vatreni’s improvisation in chaos.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Croatia wade through obstacles and turmoil to script fairytale run to the final

Croatia overcame a series of obstacles to reach the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. AP

For a glimpse of the chaos that engulfs Croatian football, look no further than their manager Zlatko Dalic, who was appointed in October 2017, mere 48 hours before a do-or-die qualifier against Ukraine. Dalic, who was earlier seen as a puppet who doesn’t make decisions himself, has now overseen Croatia’s greatest World Cup run. He has never lost a competitive game in charge of Croatia, a streak he’ll hope to stretch to its 10th game against France in the final.

“When we started our preparations six weeks ago, I said it publicly that I cannot teach them (the players) football. I was in charge of other things and they have accepted that. Maybe initially they did not trust me fully but I have gained their trust,” the manager said in the aftermath of his team’s 2-1 win over England, a clear pointer to the polarity of the situations when he started off in Kiev last October and now.

Along the way, however, the 51-year-old has had to take tough decisions and navigate tricky situations. Nikola Kalinic, the team’s only pure number 9 other than Mario Mandzukic, was sent home after the World Cup got underway. Kalinic had refused to come on as a substitute in Croatia’s World Cup opener against Nigeria citing a back injury. Dalic decided against keeping the AC Milan man, saying: “I have calmly accepted that and since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision (to send Kalinic home),” thereby reducing his squad to 22 players and striking options to their bare bones.

It was perhaps fitting that the knackered Mandzukic scored the winning goal, a relief for Dalic whose bold decision has stood vindicated so far. The removal of Ognjen Vukojevic from his coaching staff after the quarter-final win over Russia for publishing a politically-charged video on social media proved to be another storm for Dalic and his team, but like always, they came out of it damaged but delighted.

It has mostly been that way for this group of history-making Croatians – beaten down but still getting back up. They failed to win any of their three knockout round games in regulation time – including last night’s – but they came through each time, twice surviving the psychological exertions of a penalty shootout. They also conceded first in all those games.

Back home, their captain Luka Modric and star defender Dejan Lovren are embroiled in cases related to false testimony and perjury, with Modric even facing the prospect of ending up in prison. Unlike England who, despite their defeat, are going in the right direction with their philosophy and youth system in place, the footballing ecosystem in Croatia lacks order, logic, strategy and clarity.

The only production line of Croatian football of some pedigree – Dinamo Zagreb – has now made Croatian football suffer due to the illicit ambition of the club’s one-time executive Zdravko Mamic among others, the primary reason for the travails of Modric and Lovren.

There is turmoil in Croatian football. There are numerous issues that have threatened to derail the national team, yet in the middle of it all, they are in a World Cup final. There is little to suggest that things are going well in Croatian football, but as is the culture in the Slavic nation where no one questions when things are going well, Dalic and his team of national heroes have secured for themselves some much-needed light in darker times.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 18:03:56 IST

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