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13 Nov 2019, Edition - 1583, Wednesday

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Sports

Croatia punched above their weight but could not beat fate and France

theguardian

Ivan Perisic has done more than most to ignite Croatia’s World Cup adventure, to carry them into uncharted territory and to allow this small nation with big hearts to dream of the ultimate triumph.

The imposing winger gilded his legend with a lovely first-half goal that showcased not only his touch and ruthlessness but the never‑say-die attitude of him and his teammates. Croatia were level at 1-1, they were the better team at that point in the final – around the half-hour – and it was easy to imagine the frenzied scenes back in Zagreb.

Fate would then deal the card that broke Perisic and each one of his four million compatriots. When Blaise Matuidi jumped for and missed an Antoine Griezmann corner, Perisic was about a yard behind him and in no position to whip his arm back. The ball‑to‑hand contact was there and when the impassioned French appeals came, the referee, Néstor Pitana, agreed that he ought to have a second look.

The slow-motion replays looked bad for Perisic and it became clear what kind of a conclusion Pitana would reach. Griezmann scored the penalty and Croatia could smoulder with injustice. It was a borderline decision and, this time, there would be no way back for Zlatko Dalic and his band of fighters.

Didier Deschamps’s team are not in the business of relinquishing leads. They might have done so once but, with the game tailored to their counter-attacking style, they were not going to do so again. They expertly moved it beyond their opponents and, when it was all over, the heartbreak belonged to those in the red-and-white check.

Dalic called a huddle of his players, speaking to them from the heart of it and, when they broke, it was to a tremendous ovation from the Croatia supporters behind the goal. There was barely a dry eye, even from the tough guys such as Dejan Lovren.

It was impossible not to be moved during the post-match ceremony in which Luka Modric, deservedly, collected the award for player of the tournament.

The Croatia captain looked shattered, choked. There would no smiles from him upon an individual honour.

The Croatia fans reserved their fury for Pitana, when the Argentinian went up to collect his medal and there will doubtless be mutterings of conspiracy from them. Why do the small nations find themselves on the wrong side of the big decisions?

In the end, though, as the rain lashed down, the golden confetti settled and the fireworks exploded, there could be pride. Dalic and his players had been shadowed during the tournament by the achievements of the Class of 98, the great Croatia team that reached the semi-final of the France World Cup. They had consistently said they would emulate them. They did more than that, tearing down psychological barriers in the process. Not since 1998 had Croatia won a knockout tie at a major tournament.

It was a final that pulsed with colour and noise, with the tone set by the pre-match show which featured Will Smith, Ronaldinho banging the samba drums and all sorts of capering about. The energy crackled and even the elements appeared to reinforce the feel of a primal epic. The rain teemed down in bursts while the thunder rumbled and the lightning flashed.

Croatia’s progress through the knockout rounds was characterised by slow starts. They conceded early against Denmark and, although they equalised immediately, it took them time to find their stride. Against Russia and England, they were second best in the first half. Not here. Dalic’s players pressed and hustled during a stirring opening and the first concession was a bitter pill.

Croatia knew all about France’s set-piece threat. But Mario Mandzukic would wear a crazed kind of expression after Griezmann’s free-kick skimmed off the top of his head and went in while France’s crucial second also had its roots in a deadball. There is no question that Griezmann had bought the free-kick off Marcelo Brozovic for the first. Worse would follow for Croatia.

Dalic’s team have thrived in adversity, harnessing a warrior spirit that several of their players have said runs through the country – a product of being forged in war and enduring so many extreme difficulties. National pride has tracked their every move and it has helped them to mine fresh depths of resolve.

At no point did their heads drop, even after Kylian Mbappé had made it 4-1, and at no point did they stop pushing. This, remember, was a team who had played extra time in their three previous ties. Perisic’s goal followed his equaliser against England but, this time, there would be no comeback. France would show all of their know‑how and class.

The last time that such a small country made it to a World Cup final was Uruguay in 1950 – they defeated Brazil – and there is a reason why Croatia’s population has been a prominent theme. Nations of four million are simply not supposed to punch this strongly.

The journey had begun amid crisis last October, when Ante Cacic was replaced by Dalic as qualification hung in the balance. Dalic would win the decisive final tie in Ukraine and then a play-off against Greece before he and his squad clicked in Russia. With Modric and some of his teammates into their 30s, there has been the feeling that it could be now or never for them in terms of football’s greatest prize. There could be no masking the pain.

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