Croatia lost a World Cup final, but at least they played like Croatia, the remarkable little strife-ridden football nation of four million people that went all the way to the greatest game of all, writes the Telegraph.
They walked straight into the France game-plan, that was always going to be the France way – a rigidly unambitious counter-attacking style that would have left Didier Deschamps without a leg to stand on had it failed. France relied on their capacity to shut down their own defensive third while waiting for their opposition to cough up the advantage and when finally Croatia did so, it was never coming back.
There was the VAR decision by the Argentine referee Nestor Pitana for the penalty that might have gone away had he not been called over the review screen. Before that there was the soft free-kick he awarded to Antoine Griezmann from which France scored their first. Yet even when the second half started it still felt like Croatia were in this game, and capable of going up a gear as they had in the semi-final against England after half-time.
At 2-1 down and an hour played, Croatia were still in it before Paul Pogba scored France’s third. The Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, carrying an injury since the second round win over Denmark, looked static and immobile, and was nowhere near a shot struck by Pogba with his instep. There were questions too over the fourth from Kylian Mbappe, driven sharply but by means unsaveable for Subasic. Suddenly, the final was over.
Between them, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and the rest had 61 per cent of the possession, the kind of control of the game that Pep Guardiola would consider adequate, yet very few of the decisive moments. They needed to be lucky, and aside for one howler from Hugo Lloris for the second of their two goals, that part eluded them.
It meant that Modric stepped up to receive the golden ball trophy for the tournament’s outstanding player looking like a very sad Year Seven in assembly who has won the award he did not want. He was embraced for some time by the Croatia president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovia who was soaked by the thunderstorm that struck in the delay before the trophy parade but determined to enjoy her moment on the world stage.
Whether this performance, like the six that have preceded it, will affect Modric’s precarious legal situation in Croatia remains to be seen. He is charged with having perjured himself in the case of Zdravko Mamic, the former Dinamo Zagreb executive now living in exile in Bosnia, which carries a five-year jail sentence if he is found guilty and the country is divided over their greatest player.
World Cup finalists and an administrative mess: Croatian football is like no other in Europe. The Uefa Nations League game against England in October will be played behind closed doors as a consequence of their supporters’ own attempts to sabotage the team over the Mamic case. The swastika cut into the pitch and the organised violence at Euro 2016 was unforgivable, a football nation out of all control and yet its team is still improbably competing among the elite.
This was a defeat in the biggest game of their lives but it was also an end to the suspension of reality that these players will have enjoyed as they progressed through this tournament. There were some hard stares among the Croatians as they waited interminably for the trophy presentation – the faces one might expect of the losers on an occasion of this magnitude but also suggesting bigger issues at play.
For the last four years, right up to the aftermath of the first game of this tournament, all the signs have indicated crisis and yet somehow they kept going. Against England in the semi-final, the midfielder Marcelo Brozovic broke the tournament record for distance covered, 16.33km. Ivan Perisic has announced himself to be more than the player many thought he was.