“I wanted to make substitutions earlier because I knew they were tired and hurt, but every time I tried, the players on the pitch told me they were fine, they felt fine,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said. “So how could I do it? How could I tell them that what they felt was not real?”
And isn’t that what it really came down to? A brave, unyielding spirit. That was real and it was clear to all those watching. It was inspiring.
Croatia have been independent for 27 years, they have a population of 4.2 million (London alone is home to 8.17 million), they have a premier league which has an average attendance of 4,000 and yet, they’ve reached two Euro quarter finals, two World Cup semi-final and now one World Cup final.
Croatia are the smallest country to reach the World Cup final since 1950, as well as the lowest ranked (20th).
They’ll tell you that England were poor — that they managed just one shot on goal in 90 minutes. They’ll throw in a multitude of tactical explanations. They’ll talk about the first half. They’ll talk and talk and talk. They’ll try and soften the blow but Croatia wanted this more than England; they put their bodies on the line; they put their souls on the line. England, by comparison, seemed to be saving themselves.
The Three Lions started brightly… getting the goal in the fifth minute and even though Croatia had better possession, England had looked far more threatening. But after the goal, they chose to sit back. They had chances but they didn’t push forward as they should have. They sat back confident in their ability to hold on. They shouldn’t have.
At half-time, Croatia needed a pep talk. They had played two back-to-back 120-minute games. And given how flat they looked in the first half, it was clear that those efforts have extracted a heavy toll.
But Dalic’s message to them was a simple one: “I told them to slow it down, to not lose their heads. Pass the ball calmly, and make your quality count.”
No looking back
And slowly, they crawled their way back into the match. The second half started a bit flat. But then Croatia suddenly sparked to life after Perisic’s wonderful finish in 68th minute. And from that point on, they didn’t look back.
“These guys are not normal! It was fabulous, after twice playing 120 minutes!” said Dalic who was only brought in for the final two qualifying games. “Some players played with minor injuries with which they would not have played some other games. Two players played with half a leg, but it didn’t show!
“Nobody wanted to give in when I was preparing the first eleven, nobody wanted to say I was not ready in extra time, no one wanted to be subbed and this shows character and what makes me proud. Nobody gave up,” he added.
If anything, not giving up has become something of a Croatian trademark in this tournament. Three times Croatia have fallen behind in a knockout game this World Cup... three times they have come back. It is a feat of great mental strength and do it over and over again shows the strength of not only the individuals but the group as a whole.
Ivan Perisic did it all – he ran, he tackled, he created, he scored. But at the end of it, he too was a little surprised.
“It was a very difficult game, we all know what was at stake and how important a semi-final is for a small country like Croatia. We started slowly but we’ve shown our character, just as we have in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We didn’t used to be that resilient.”
Point to prove
And much of that strength comes from the realisation that they have the players to beat virtually any team.
“People were talking ... English journalists, pundits from television,” Croatian skipper Luka Modric told ITV. “They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired.’ They should be more humble and respect their opponents more.
“We showed again that we were not tired – we dominated the game mentally and physically. We should have killed the game even before extra-time. This is an amazing achievement for us - it’s a dream come true after such a long time. We are in the final and that is the biggest success in Croatia history. We have to be proud.”
Indeed, let no one tell you that Croatia don’t deserve this. They beat Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland in the group stage – and have worked their way past Denmark, Russia and England in the KO rounds. This has not been an easy journey.
But now that they are in the final, can they rouse that undying spirit in time and bring it to the party when they take on France on July 15. It won’t be easy but if anyone can do it, Croatia can.