By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | December 13, 2022

Croatia is two matches away from clinching the World Cup. Four years ago, they let it slip past their hands as France won 4-2. Croatia won the hearts of millions of soccer lovers. But that is history.

“Whatever we’ve been through during the 2018 World Cup was an unforgettable experience but we need to put it aside and focus on what is ahead of us,” Croatian skipper Luka Modric is quoted to have said ahead of Croatia’s opening group match against Morocco on November 23. That also is history. It was a goalless draw.

If they put it past Argentina in the Semi-final today at the Lusail stadium, it could be a rematch of last World Cup’s final. Provided France beat Morocco in the other semi-final.

Luka Modric and his hunger for football

Argentina was hammered 3-0 by Croatia in their Group D match in the last World Cup, sending the Argentines into a shock. Goals from Ante Rebic (53) Luka Modric (80) and Ivan Rakitic (90+1) set the tone for Croatia’s Russian campaign after they had beaten Nigeria in their first match. Denmark, Russia, and England all felt the heat as their brand of soccer and the calm of coach Zlatko Dalic was suddenly the talk of the world. Then, however, Didier Deschamps and his brand of uninspiring soccer happened. That also is history.

In his Autobiography, Luka Modric recounts his childhood when he along with his friends would play football until they dropped: He was obsessed with football. Against Japan in the round of 16, coach Zlatko Dalic saw his skipper running on reserve. He substituted him in the 99th minute along with Mateo Kovacic with the scores level 1-1. Would Modric want to come off the pitch? Your guess is as good as mine. One must read his Autobiography. He would rather die on the pitch than watch Croatia battle from the sidelines.

For Croatia and Dalic, the team matters

In all likelihood, this could have been Modric’s last appearance on the World Cup stage. An individual did not matter; the team as a whole did and Dalic knows best. In Russia, he sent Nikola Kalinic back home for refusing to come on as a substitute against Nigeria. For Croatia, individual genius is a bonus, not a ruse to bring cracks into the unity of the team. Egos have to be set aside if the pinnacle of soccer glory is what they have set their eyes on.

The collective genius of the team has to shine on the field rather than putting the spotlight on individual brilliance. Modric has proved that he has mastered his ego. We all have to. As he walked off at the Al Janoub Stadium, his expression, a blend of confusion and exhaustion, Domagoj Vida stepped in. He enveloped both, Modric and Kovacic in his arms. He knew what this moment could mean for his captain.

Croatia-Argentina semi-final
Croatia-Argentina semi-final: If further proof was needed of Croatia’s unity on the bench, then one look at the whole of the bench celebrating Bruno Petkovic’s equaliser against Brazil is the answer. Vida in particular was like Hulk Hogan. Image Credit: GNK Dinamo/linkedin

What strikes out here for the knowledgeable viewer is Vida’s large heart and ‘team-comes-first attitude’. A mainstay at the 2018 World Cup, Vida has yet to start in Doha 2022, his place taken by the younger Josko Gvardiol. That has not sullied his mood or the mood on the bench. Vida knows Dalic knows what is best for the team and country.

Croatia is a united team even on the bench

And if further proof was needed of Croatia’s unity on the bench, then one look at the whole of the bench celebrating Bruno Petkovic’s equaliser against Brazil is the answer. Vida in particular was like Hulk Hogan. Pure emotions in his cry and delight in his eyes. And this ‘star-in-his-own-right’ has yet to play a match!

Rewind this to Cristiano Ronaldo’s expressions when Portugal beat Switzerland 6-1. A great player, but his light has blinded the team and left no room for the others to shine in a team sport. That is the sorry part of Portugal’s football. Methinks, Fernando Santos, Portugal’s boss, woke up too late to unite the team. He not only had Ronaldo doubt his prowess and place in the team as he got him on the field in the second half against Morocco, but also had the team in disarray with the focus shifting to Ronaldo and the Moroccan players capitalising on this. That’s the difference between Dalic and Santos. While Dalic has Luka Modric, Santos had to carry the extra load of stardom of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Argentina, the Netherlands, and Messi making a mess

Argentina survived by the skin of their teeth to put it past The Netherlands in their quarter-final. A match that was sealed was suddenly brought alive by the Dutch, throwing long balls into the Argentine box, something Leo Messi found ‘appalling’ and derided Dutch coach Van Gaal at the end of the match for. “Van Gaal sells that he plays good football and then he puts his forwards in the box and starts throwing long balls. We deserved to go through and that’s what happened,” Lionel Messi is quoted to have said.

Now, this here is a rant from a player desperate to win the World Cup at all costs. No Messi, Argentina did not deserve to go through. No team that cannot protect their 2-0 lead with eight minutes to the final whistle, deserves to win. What’s wrong with throwing long balls? That’s the way you score goals. Create openings and keep the opposing defense on their toes. You and Argentina were plain lucky in the shoot-out. Ask Roberto Baggio. Ask Aldo Serena. Ask Gareth Southgate. Penalties are a game of Russian Roulette. It’s high time, FIFA knocks out shootouts.

Methinks Messi’s “we deserved to go through” statement will come back to haunt him at Lusail Stadium tonight. “Pride comes before downfall, humility precedes honour.”

Modric knows he is not bigger than the game

“Anyone who likes football wants to see a player like Modric on the pitch. Not only because of his talent but because of his respect… the respect he gives others,” says Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni of Modric’s humility.

The respect he gives himself, the respect he gives his teammates, the respect he gives his coach, and the spotlight he keeps away from him. Modric knows he is not bigger than the game. 

That is the game-changer for Croatia.

Croatia-Argentina semi-final
“A phenomenal player is not enough; the whole team must put in an outstanding performance and only then can we expect everything to fall in place for the ultimate victory. And even if all these pieces are in place, events can still take a wrong turn. Beating Argentina wasn’t as simple as it may have seemed, and it gave us faith… those on the pitch and those on the bench, all played our part. This is the unity that matters; without it, even getting in the position to think about outsmarting your opponent on the pitch is impossible.” The above is an extract from Luka Modric’s Autobiography. This is written in the chapter after they beat Argentina 3-0 at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. The above image of all the 26 players at Doha 2022 after they beat Brazil on penalties. Image Credit: brunopetkovicofficial/Instagram.

Croatia-Argentina at the World Cup

1998: Croatia-Argentina 0-1
2018: Croatia-Argentina 3-0

Cover Picture Credit: GNK Dinamo/Linkedin

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