Croatia underwent one of the great footballing fairy tales in Russia 2018 but, unfortunately for the Vatreni, it appears that it was the Brothers Grimm that wrote the stories end.
Croatia fell at the hands of France in Monday mornings World Cup final, going down 4-2 in an affair that, unfortunately, will likely be remembered just as much for its controversies as its moments of brilliance.
France opened the scoring in the 18th minute after a controversial free kick – debate about if the Frenchman dived, milked contact or was brought down unfairly will rage for years – was won by Antoine Griezmann outside the Croatian penalty area.
Disastrously for Croatia, Griezmann’s resulting free-kick was inadvertently nodded home by Mario Mandžukić as he attempted to head clear, giving France the lead.
A blistering attack from Croatia capped off by a fantastic strike from Ivan Perišić tied things up once again in the 28th minute, only for the VAR to then make its presence felt for the first time ever in a World Cup final in the 33rd.
Rising to meet a Griezmann corner in front of the near post, Blaise Matuidi’s flick-on was blocked by Perišić, who was defending behind the Frenchman.
Calls for handball by Les Bleus were made, however, and the VAR quickly sprung into action.
Referee Nestor Pitana was summoned to the sideline monitors to examine for a potential infraction; with replays then showing the Argentine referee that Perišić had unfairly blocked the ball with an outstretched hand.
Looking at replays of the pen call and I think it’s correct. Perišić is still rising when he makes contact, there’s no reason for his hand to come down and be where it is when the ball makes contact unless he is shifting it into the ball’s path. #WorldCupFinal #FRACRO pic.twitter.com/uzwSt04zeZ
— Joey Lynch (@joeylynchy) July 15, 2018
Given no other option, Pitana pointed to the spot.
Griezmann made no mistake from the resulting penalty, sliding his spot-kick home before running to the corner and celebrating with his trademark “Take the L” celebration dance lifted from popular video game Fortnite.
Croatian hopes were then dashed in the second half when France’s duo of attacking starlets in Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé thrust a dagger through Croatian hearts in the 59th and 65th minutes with two sweetly taken strikes to make it 4-1.
Mandžukić went some way towards atoning for his earlier error in the 69th minute when he chased down French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as he attempted – inexplicably – to dribble the ball out of his own area and knock the ball into the net to make it 4-2, but the damage had already been done.
Croatia was unable to mount any further comeback in the final 20 minutes, France joining Argentina and Uruguay as two-time winners of the World Cup.
While no doubt in hindsight the run of this Croatian side to the final of Russia ‘18 will go down – as it should – as a point of significant pride in Croatian footballing folklore in much the same way that the heroics of the 1998 side has done, the pain from this defeat will likely linger for many months to come.
The Vatreni carried the unlikely dreams of 4.1 million native Croatians and their countless diaspora around the world on their backs heading into the Luzhniki Stadium; dreams that could scarcely have even been contemplated before the tournament.
Croatia’s run – as World Cup success is wont to do – had united a domestic footballing community on a knife-edge heading into the tournament; the Cup-eve conviction of former Dinamo Zagreb chief executive and Croatian FA vice-president Zdravko Mamic for stealing millions of euros from Dinamo having threatened to inflame the already strained relationship between the centre of Croatian footballing power in Zagreb and the Dalmatia region.
With its footballing history intrinsically linked to the Croatian immigrants that embarked on boats docked in the Mediterranean and disembarked on its shores, Australia too had been well and truly swept up in the magic that was the journey of the Vatreni.
As proud descendants of Croatia such as Lucy and Ned Zelić, Tony Popović, Mark Bosnich, Ante Jukić and David Davutovic used their positions within the Australian footballing media to paint a picture of just what a World Cup win would mean for their ancestral homeland within the Australian consciousness, it felt as though the entirety of Australia had been swept up in a fever of red and white checkerboards.
This support rallied around Zlatko Dalić, who had been coaching club football in the Middle East for seven years prior to his elevation to the Croatian job into 2017.
Inheriting a side that had lost 3-0 to Estonia in a friendly and forced to scrape through the UEFA playoffs after his predecessor had failed to steer the side a win at home against Finland in the second last qualifying fixture, Dalić’s had a momumental task presented to him.
Nevertheless, the 51-year-old somehow guided the Vatreni to their first ever World Cup Final.
In doing so, he and his players had given the Croatians the appearance of a team of destiny; with heroes such as Luka Modrić, Perišić, Mandžukić, Ivan Rakitić, Domagoj Vida and Danijel Subašić looking seemingly impervious to pain or fatigue as they dragged themselves through three periods of extra time to reach the final.
In truth, it should have come as no surprise that this group of players was able to crash the party of the world’s traditional footballing powerhouses.
Able to draw players from the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool, Internazionale, AC Milan and Atlético Madrid, Croatia well and truly fits the bill as a footballing nation that punches above their weight.
The diminutive Modrić, who’s humble upbringing made headlines around the world in the lead in to the final, staked a claim to end Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dominance of the Ballon’ d’Or as he willed his side on through the competition, winning the tournaments Golden Ball Award for his efforts in directing the Croatian play in the same way a great conductor leads a symphony.
Alas, the Croatians finally met their match in that final, with Les Bleus upending the Croatian dream on their way to a second Coup de Monde.
Croatia appeared as though they were capable of overrunning the French at times throughout the contest, with Les Bleus looking flummoxed during a number of passages of play.
Nevertheless, the cruel nature of football reared it’s head; the French using fortune and moments of individual brilliance from its stars to seize a commanding lead just past the hour mark.
From there, despite Mandžukić’s late effort, France settled into the game; looking cool, calm and collected – like World Champions – as the game neared its conclusion.
Unfortunately for Croatia, Monday night’s final may prove to be the best chance that their nation had of lifting football’s greatest prize for generations.
Gifted a knockout stages run that saw them come up against Denmark, Russia, and England – sides that were not among the favourites at this year’s World Cup – Croatia’s path to the decider was one they are unlikely to be fortuitous enough to receive again in future tournaments.
Furthermore, while this generation of Croatian footballers – who have without a doubt claimed the mantle of “Golden Generation” from the ’98 side – may still be available for Qatar 2022, there is no guarantee that the poise, grace, and lethality that they have brought to Russia can be replicated.
By the time the 2022 competition arrives goalkeeping hero Subašić will be 38-years-old and the defensive pairing of Vida and Dejan Lovren in front of him both 33. Perišić will also be 33-years-old, whilst Mandžukić and Rakitić will be 36 and 34-years-old respectively.
Even Modrić, despite his seemingly inhuman ability to propel himself onward through sheer force of will, will be 37-years-old by the time the November and December tournament rolls around and even a superstar of his caliber cannot stave off father time forever.
It will likely fall to the likes of Ante Rebić and Mateo Kovačić, who will be 29 and 28-years-old respectively when Qatar ’22 rolls around, to lead any Croatian attempt to get back to the grandest stage in world sports.
For the sake of Croatia, and the legion of followers and admirers it has now gained as a result of its unlikely journey, one must hope they are ready.