Football fans, sports writers, and pundits share a common love for statistical paintball. More often than not, one game will be compared to another, parallels will be drawn and similarities are pointed out to prove a point. This Croatian football team’s run to the quarterfinals has been constantly compared to the legendary Davor Suker-powered side’s run to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals in France 20 years back. There is strong case to be made that this is the most talented Croatian side to have come to the world stage since the one that lost to France in 1998.
In their game against Denmark, pundits were keen to stress on another parallel -- the Croatia vs Turkey match from Euro 2008.
Croatia had impressed in the group stages, taking all nine points, including an impressive 2-1 victory over Germany, playing beautiful football. Then they froze in the Round of 16 against Turkey. They looked hassled, and laboured in the match, and it took 120 minutes for Ivan Klasnic to find the opener. Incredibly though, Turkey found an equaliser in the 122nd and then in the penalties, Croatia crumbled. For the record, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic both missed their spot-kick.
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It was a defeat that scarred almost an entire generation of Croatian footballers. If England’s penalty woes are well documented, it is also worth remembering that Croatia won their first knockout game at a World Cup or European Championship since 1998 when they beat Denmark last week. Which is an incredible statistic given the talent in their ranks.
If the 2008 parallel seems too far back in time, rewind to 2016, when Croatia breezed through their Euro group stage in France. They took seven from the available nine points, beating Spain 2-1 in their final group match. Finally, it seemed a golden generation had stood up to be counted. Not so. In the Round of 16 against Portugal, they hit a wall, and then succumbed to a 117th Ricardo Quaresma winner.
Considering all this baggage, imagine the pressure on Modric when he stepped up to take the penalty against Kasper Schmeicel in the 117th minute of extra time last week. Of course, he missed. Imagine the demons that circled overhead as the game went into a shootout.
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Credit to him though. He stepped up again. He did not hide. And this time he scored. Barely. But the ball went in, and when Rakitic put away his attempt, Croatia finally washed their past away. Rakitic later spoke about how the team had wanted to save Modric, as he had often saved them.
Now, the monkey is off their backs, and in a pre-match press conference, Modric was keen to stress this point. "We have not got past the first knockout round since 2008 and it was very important for us to get past that. We have finally got a good result after many years of trying and that means a lot to me. I started playing for Croatia in 2008 and we have had a lot of unlucky defeats, we needed a bit of luck to get through, but we have worked for it," said Modric.
Now with that done, a sterner test awaits the Croats – in the form of a Russian team riding a confidence wave that host nations thrive on. Despite being the lowest ranked team left in the draw, no one can underestimate them anymore. In 2002, a similar wave of fan fervour and self belief carried South Korea to the semi-finals, and Russia will surely draw inspiration from that.
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It will be a match to savour, without any need to bring in historical geopolitical implications. Russia is likely to line up tight at the back and be happy to give Croatia full control of the ball. Modric, Rakitic and Co. will have to do something with it. The ’98 generation were a surprise package. This Croatian team has the burden of expectations.
“We have shown in this World Cup that we have the right to hope for big things. We are playing really well and we have such players that we certainly should believe can go to the very end,” said defender Domagoj Vida.
Now it is time to prove it.