AL WAKRAH, Qatar -- In the end, Croatia's victory on penalties against Japan came in the most brutally unsentimental way. And yet, at the same time, it was all about sentiment and emotion... except it was the emotion that comes from the red and white chequers on the front of the shirt, not the name on the back of the jersey.
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There was a moment, nine minutes into the first extra-time period, when you wondered if you were witnessing another milestone. With the score deadlocked at 1-1 against Japan in Monday's Round of 16 clash, Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic had just summoned Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric to the bench, sending on Lovro Majer and Nikola Vlasic in their place. In a World Cup that may well be the last for a number of bonafide superstars -- from Cristiano Ronaldo to Luis Suarez to Lionel Messi -- you may have wondered whether you had just witnessed Modric's final moments on the biggest stage of all.
Modric is now 37. Four years ago, in Russia, he dragged Croatia to the World Cup final and won the Ballon D'Or. He's had his moments for Real Madrid in the seasons since, but you can only escape Father Time for so long. He's still a key part of Real Madrid, but as far as Croatia are concerned, Euro 2024 feels like a long way away.
When he realized he was being subbed off, Modric removed his armband and looked around, his expression a blend of confusion and exhaustion. Moments later, Domagoj Vida, the hulking defender who was a mainstay for Croatia at Russia 2018, enveloped both players in a bear hug. Modric looked to be sobbing, while Kovacic seemed apprehensive. For his part, Vida looked like a dad consoling two upset children outside the vet's office while they worried about a sick pet.
Dalic folded his arms and looked at the pitch. If Croatia were going to go out, they were going to do it on his terms: no sentimentality and no deference to the big names. It wasn't just about Modric and Kovacic, who didn't play in the 2018 final but featured heavily in the previous rounds. Of the 13 players who were involved in the 2018 World Cup final against France, just five made it to the 2022 squad. Vida was on the bench; Andrej Kramaric was substituted earlier, Ivan Perisic would come off later. Then there was Modric. In total, Dejan Lovren and Marcelo Brozovic were the only holdovers who lasted until the final penalty against Japan.
There are twin narratives at play here. One is of Croatia as some kind of nation of Balkan supermen whose grit and unity and fortitude and tough-as-nails mentality enable them to regularly punch way above their weight. The other is the cinematic tale of the veteran superstars joining forces for one last big score, riding their experience and mental toughness to the quarterfinal of a World Cup.
Dalic, evidently, bought the first, and why shouldn't he? Croatia won two penalty shootouts at the last World Cup (against Denmark and hosts Russia) before outlasting England in extra-time in the semifinal. They're not fazed when the game clock stretches past the 90th minute; their colors don't run and their knees don't tremble. "They are resilient, they reflect the nature of the Croatian people," said Dalic, speaking of his players. "We have been through so much pain, we do not give up. We are a small country with a big heart. We play for our supporters and the hope for a better tomorrow."
But as for the second, he put reason above emotion. Modric and Kovacic were spent, while Kramaric was ineffective. Perisic hung around until the last 15 minutes, but he too was yanked when the gas began to run out. And just as important, Dalic had faith in the replacements even though, frankly, none are household names or are likely to ever be household names, at least in the club game. Mario Pasalic, 27, and Lovro Majer, 24, are in and out of the starting lineups for Atalanta and Rennes respectively. Nikola Vlasic, 25, was a bust at West Ham and Everton and is now at Torino. Marko Livaja, 29, is back in Croatia at Hajduk Split. He was once a highly touted youngster; today you might say he has a brilliant future behind him.
And yet, on this day and for this match, these are the men in which Dalic placed his trust. This quartet replaced a Real Madrid legend and Ballon d'Or winner, a Chelsea mainstay, a guy who scored 91 Bundesliga goals for Hoffenheim and a Tottenham star whose resume includes Bayern Munich, Inter Mila and Borussia Dortmund. Four guys who had delivered for Dalic before, and who had given him their all. Four players who, crucially, would have all been among the penalty takers if they had still been on the pitch, as Dalic confirmed later.
And yet he was vindicated, though not necessarily for what they produced on the pitch: Croatia were unable to win it in 90 minutes or in extra-time, but three of the four (Livaja, Pasalic and Vlasic) stepped up to take the penalties, though Livaja missed. Majer would have been among those up next, but Japan's misses meant his services weren't needed.
Asked to contrast his newcomers with the players who performed so well in Russia, Dalic said: "I told them that this is their chance to make history, like the ones who came before them in Russia and tonight they did it."
Asked whether the penalty kicks were about luck or about preparation, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said: "I think it's both... I think it was about luck, but also about training." Yet Moriyasu missed something there; it's also about mental toughness and sheer bloody-mindedness. And, above all, their belief.
"Do not underestimate Croatians, we never give up," said Dalic. "We are true believers. And God is with us."