It hurts more when you walk away from the pitch feeling that you were the better team. It hurts more when you feel that luck had a major part to play in the result. It hurts more when that match was the final of the World Cup. Yes, that’s football but it hurts. It’s gotta hurt.
Coming into the final, Croatia had played extra time in all three of its knockout-round games and that meant its players had played 90 more minutes than France’s. But by the time the final kicked off, it was clear that all thoughts of tiredness had been banished from their minds. They were up for it and dominated the initial few minutes.
There was an urgency to their game that was often lacking in their earlier matches. The ball movement was sharp, the passes were incisive and the interplay was sparkling. It might be no exaggeration to say that Croatia didn’t play a better match at the World Cup.
This was Croatia. The real Croatia… playing the football that they should have played all along. Their midfield was buzzing, the forwards were making darting runs all over the place and defence employed a high press. At that point, France just wanted to hold firm and they did that.
Then, luck made it’s presence felt for the first time. The referee awarded Antoine Griezmann a free kick just outside the box. Replays showed that he had perhaps gone down a bit too easily. There was contact no doubt but by the time it happened, Griezmann was already on his way down.
The striker floated the free kick into the box, everyone jumped for it but the only man to get a touch was Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic. Croatia were a goal down — they were used to that but this was the final. You would rather have a winner than an equaliser.
Ivan Perisic brought the teams level with a stunning effort from the edge of the penalty area, but then handled the ball in the box. The referee consulted VAR, had multiple looks at the replays and then pointed to the spot. To Croatia supporters, it was a hard decision to swallow.
It was a clear hand-ball. But the decision the referee had to make was whether it was deliberate. Perisic was marking Blaise Matuidi — but the French midfielder (who was in front of Perisic) ducked at the last moment as he looked to flick the ball into the six-yard box.
And that is where doubt comes into the equation. Could Perisic have known that Matuidi would duck? Could he have raised his arm in anticipation of the ball being flicked on ever so subtly? Or was it a natural action — have you ever tried jumping with your hands by your side?
The whole point of VAR was to cut down on howlers. The Argentine referee Nestor Pitana did not award a penalty initially but if there is so much doubt, should it have been given? Griezmann stepped up to the spot and converted easily.
“I will not comment on the refereeing but let me say that in the World Cup final you don’t give such penalties,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic. “Don’t think I am saying anything bad about the referee. He did what he thought was fair from his view point. I just said what I thought.”
At this point, France were leading 2-1 and they hadn’t had a shot on target from open play. Luck for France. Bad luck for Croatia.
And then, as Croatia chased goals — a thrilling run from Mbappe cut them open for Pogba to eventually score. Six minutes later, Mbappe got onto the scoresheet himself with a classy finish from outside the box. At 4-1, even their most ardent supporter would have known that it was over.
“We played well in the first 20 minutes, we controlled the game. Then, there was an own goal from a set play. We came back to life, dominated and then the penalty was given,” said Dalic after the game.
“We lacked the luck that we had throughout the tournament. The first two goals went against us as we conceded twice from set pieces. It’s difficult for players to find the energy to get back every time. It’s difficult to come back against such a good France side.”
For Croatia, though, this defeat will be hard to swallow. Luka Modric is 32, Ivan Rakitic is 30, Ivan Perisic is 30, Danijel Subasic is 33, Ivan Strinic is 30, Domagoj Vida is 29, Mandzukic is 32 — a golden generation might have missed it’s last chance to bring home the World Cup. A new generation will have to rise now and in a sense, 2018 might have done for the future generations what 1998 did for this.
“We were the better team in the first half, we were attacking, but we were unlucky tonight. They scored four goals from their three shots on goal. But I congratulate France, they deserved it,” said Rakitic.
France were clinical but Croatia will go away replaying the first two goals in their heads over and over again for the next few days at least. It could have been so different. Skill is supposed to account for bad luck but when it strikes twice in the final of the World Cup, the mind falters.
But still Croatia’s display allowed all of us to dream and as deserving as France were, there is no denying that Vatreni were the team of the tournament.
“The message in our team bus reads ‘A small country with big dreams’. You have to believe its possible and then many things need to fall in place,” said Dalic in his final press conference at the World Cup. “You need an ambition and dream and then the drive to follow it. Maybe one day it will come true, much like it did for us. In football and life you should never give up. When it was 4-1, I was not out, not defeated. And Croatia has shown that any team can achieve their dreams whether big or small.”
Correction: The article originally said Perisic was marking Samuel Umtiti during the handball decision, when it was in fact, Blaise Matuidi. This has now been updated.