One of the great cliches of international football requires updating. Never write off the Germans? It transpires there are times you can. But, long after they went out in the group stage in successive World Cups, a lesson of the 2018 and 2022 is to never write off the Croatians. They feel the hardest team to kill off. Denmark, Russia and England all led against Croatia in the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup. They all ended up defeated. Japan followed suit in Qatar.
Croatia still have not won a World Cup knockout tie in 90 minutes since 1998. They nevertheless reached the final four years ago and are in the quarter-final now. They have a staying power that extends beyond Luka Modric’s extraordinary haul of 159 caps or his 16-year international career. If football is a 90-minute game, Croatia have the capacity to survive 120, the blend of skill and nerve to prevail on penalties after that.
Modric is the defining talent, his country’s greatest player. And yet their match-winners use their gloves, not their feet. Zlatko Dalic reflected on Dominik Livakovic’s hat-trick of penalty saves and cast his mind back to the last man to do likewise in a World Cup shootout. It is a curiosity of Croatian football that otherwise unexceptional goalkeepers can be specialists from 12 yards on the global stage.
“All of the dilemmas were resolved by Livakovic with the great saves he made,” the Croatia manager said. “He proved to be like our previous goalkeeper [Danijel] Subasic in Russia. History is repeating itself.”
Perhaps in more ways than one, with the prospect of another appearance in the final. Croatia may have limped through a group stage in which they only scored against Canada and would have been eliminated by for the worst half of football of Romelu Lukaku’s life. Yet they can specialise in games of brinkmanship. The common denominator between Josko Gvardiol’s last-gasp interventions against Belgium, Livakovic’s shootout saves and Ivan Perisic’s equaliser is defiance.
It feels a national trait. “We showed strength of character,” Dalic said. “They might have underestimated us. Never do that to the Croatians: we are a small nation, but we are diligent, hard-working and fight for what we want.”
If, contrary to many a metaphor, sport is not war, references to it are more justified in Croatia’s case. This is a young country; the older half of Dalic’s squad, in particular, were shaped by the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia. “This generation is a generation which is resilient and does not give up, they reflect the spirit of the Croatian people,” Dalic said. “We have been through so much, through so much pain.”
The football team have an ability to dig in. They don’t panic, which is perhaps an advantage of experience in general and increasing experience of staging comebacks. They trailed for 63 minutes in a World Cup semi-final four years ago and advanced to meet France. There is a sense that, for all the Spanish-style passers in the midfield who can wrest back control of games, they are personified by Ivan Perisic. He got the leveller against England four years ago and Japan now.
Only Davor Suker has more goals for Croatia and Perisic’s 33rd for his country felt quintessential of an idiosyncratic winger. Tottenham’s summer signing brings few flicks and tricks to a position often occupied by flair players but he offers ruthlessness, directness and aerial ability. His was the header of a target man, but he is a wide man.
That Croatia’s response was powered by a 33-year-old felt both illogical and illustrative. Dalic fielded the oldest team in a World Cup knockout match since France in the 2006 final but old-timers have a capacity to outlast younger groups who seem fitter and faster. Japan brimmed with energy before the break. Croatia came on strong after it. They often do.
It was only, with 99 minutes on the clock, when Dalic started to substitute his veteran core. Croatia finished without Modric, Perisic and Mateo Kovacic, looking unrecognisable from their second golden generation. Instead, younger figures showed their prowess at penalties. Dalic had to rejig the pecking order in the absence of some of his preferred takers. Had they proved erratic from 12 yards, it would have symbolised the end of an era.
But Modric’s World Cup career has been in sudden death for a couple of games now. Neither Belgium nor Japan could finish it off, not Lukaku in open play nor Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma or Maya Yoshida in a shootout.
And so this nation of 4.5 million will be represented in the quarter-finals for the second successive World Cup and the third since 1998. “We had the third such outcome in the history of our country,” Dalic added. “We had the bronze medal and the silver medal and our World Cup is not nearly over.”
They will be the underdogs against Brazil, but they are likely to be undaunted. They may go behind but they will be unworried. Because Croatia, the warriors with the never-say-die spirit and the penalty-saving goalkeepers, are becoming the team who can stay in games and stay in tournaments. They are the World Cup’s zombie side; even when they look dead, they are still alive.