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World Cup 2018: How Croatian players survived hardships to reach final

Croatia’s dream run is inter-woven with that of their players, most of whom had to chart their own unconventional paths to reach where they’re now.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: July 13, 2018 10:24:24 am
croatia football Croatia beat England 2-1 in the semi-final of World Cup 2018. (Reuters Photo)

The narrative of Croatia’s dream run is inter-woven with that of their players, most of whom had to chart their own unconventional paths to reach where they’re now. We capture their struggles and idiosyncrasies.

From chicken farm to a national hero
Ivan Perisic has worked on chicken farms and competed in a beach volleyball World Cup. Sandwiched between these two spectacular events of his life is a whirl-winding footballing career that’s littered with personal disappointments and fleeting moments of glory. The Perisics, like most families from the seaside Croatian town of Split, were die-hard supporters of local club Hadjuk. They ran a chicken farm, where a young Ivan worked with his father. Koka, they called him. Koka means hen. But Perisic’s eventual goal was just one: to play for Hadjuk. That never happened, even though he was one of their brightest youth academy prospects. Perisic, in a way, was an example and victim of Croatia’s transfer model, where foreign clubs scavenge for talented No. 10s that the country routinely unearths. So in 2006, Sochaux, a French second division club, came calling for him.

Perisic wasn’t quite the player who’d score Shaolin Soccer-esque goals like he did against England on Wednesday. His physicality and box-to-box style of play, though, earned comparisons with Croatian legend Aljosa Asanovic. Sochaux sent a private jet for him and offered Hadjuk 360,000 euros (approximately Rs 2 crore, 88 lakh). Hadjuk opposed the transfer; their biggest prospect, after all, hadn’t even played a match for them yet. But the 17-year-old reluctantly left his home, and has never found one since.

Croatia players celebrate the win over England. (Source: Reuters)

In truth, the decision to leave wasn’t his. Just when Sochaux came calling, Perisic’s father had run into debts so steep that the chicken business was on the verge of bankruptcy. With this money, his father believed, they could keep the business afloat. So he convinced his son and rest of his family to move to France. “I wanted them to move away from me and my suffering,” he told Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija in 2014.

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But Sochaux never played him. In the three seasons he spent there, Perisic only played a handful of matches for their ‘B’ side. Frustrated at wasting the prime years of his career warming the bench, Perisic did not oppose when Sochaux loaned him to a low-key Belgian club Roeselare in 2009.

The move to Belgium turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him, as it was here that he finally came into his own. The same year, he joined Clube Brugge and by 2011, he was Belgian league’s top scorer. That year, he almost pleaded with Slaven Bilic to give him a chance with Croatia. “If need be, I’ll collect stray balls during the training sessions,” he said. As it turns out, he’s done a lot more than merely collecting stray balls. Ten years after working on a chicken farm, Perisic earned a $20 million move to Inter. Last year, he competed in the beach volleyball World Cup. Nothing he did on sand, however, matched the volley he scored against England that set Croatia on the path to the World Cup final.

Not so super Mario: tattoo gone wrong
Mario Mandzukic, who scored the winning goal in the semifinal, wanted a tattoo on his back, in Hebrew, that read: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” The final product is a contender for the biggest tattoo gaffe ever. When he stepped out of the parlour, the quote was not only incorrect but also written backwards. It reads: “If it’s not to kill me, it will make me strong.” And it doesn’t end there. The quote is written from left to right, and not right to left as Hebrew is written, and is backwards. So it reads: “Regnorts em ekam lliw ti, em llik ot ton s’ti fi.” Little surprise, then, that he has his shirt tucked in all the time.

Croatia players in the team huddle during extra time against England. (Source: Reuters)

When Brozovic’s father asked him to skip school
Marcelo Brozovic was 16 when his father made a life-decision for him. Unlike the parents, who would want their kids to have basic education as a back-up, Brozovic’s father — a butcher — asked his son to drop out of school. His reason. School would not let him focus on football. Brozovic was with the youth academy of local club Hrvatski Dragovoljac at the time, and looked up to Croatian pop singer Nives Celzijus for inspiration (life coach, as he has described). Luckily for him, the move worked out.

Going digital, with a little help from Rakitic
A couple of years ago, a video of a small group of children manually changing the digits on a makeshift scoreboard went viral in some parts of the Balkan belt. It wasn’t anything unusual, except for the fact that the wooden scoreboard belonged to Radnik Bijeljina, a small team in the Bosnia and Herzegovina domestic league. That video landed in Ivan Rakitic’s mobile. And the Barcelona man decided to help. He called the club’s chairman Mladen Krstajic, a former Serbia international and Rakitic’s teammate at Schalke. And within days, the scoreboard was replaced with a brand new digital one.

Corluka, a stingy defender with a big heart
Vedran Corluka may be stingy when it comes to conceding goals, but the defender has a big heart the moment he steps off the field. During his time at Tottenham Hotspur, he was dining at a restaurant in the upscale Mayfair are in the West end of London. A waiter complimented him on his diamond-encrusted wrist watch. Corluka instantly took it off and gifted the £36,000 worth watch to the man he never met before and took his watch in return. Heavy tipping, that.

Vida, the anti-hero in a team of superstars
In his hometown Slavonia, they jokingly call Domagoj Vida ‘becar’. The slang bears phonetic similarity to a Hindi word, but has a slightly different meaning. “(He is) a mischievous man who loves to party, drinks rakija, and flirts with women,” a Croatian website notes. Vida, credit where due, doesn’t take objection for this character sketch. In fact, his teammates mock him even today for paying 100,000 euros (close to Rs 80 lakh) for a can of beer. It happened in 2012, when Vida, then with Dinamo Zagreb, was travelling on the team bus for a cup match against a lower-league opponent.

On the way, he opened a can of beer and took a couple of swigs. Ante Cacic, the team manager, got so incensed that he kicked Vida out of the bus. The club later fined him a hundred thousand euros. He made light of the issue. “What are the three things I would take on a deserted island? Hmm, girl, ball and beer,” he joked.

Vida — the tough, hot-headed defender — is the pony-tailed anti-hero of a team that’s overflowing with superstars. Controversies have followed him throughout his career. Just this week, he escaped a FIFA sanction after he made pro-Ukraine statements following Croatia’s win over Russia in the quarterfinal.

Vida argued he’d done it without understanding the consequences, although it was never forgotten that he has played majority of his club football in Ukraine.

His five years at Dynamo Kiev (“Kiev has most beautiful girls in all of Europe,” he said upon joining the club), which ended last January when he joined Besiktas, are perhaps the most fruitful of his career, calming him down and bringing the focus back on his exploits on field. It was necessary, especially because he had joined Kiev on the back of a controversy that almost derailed his career.

Croatia’s Domagoj Vida celebrates with child after the England match. (Source: Reuters)

In December 2011, a few months before the beer incident with Zagreb, he was at the centre of a match-fixing scandal. There were suspicions over the Dinamo Zagreb’s 7-1 defeat to Lyon in a Champions League tie, and Vida faced the maximum brunt as he was caught on camera winking Lyon’s Bafetimbi Gomis after one of the goals was scored.

It damaged Vida’s reputation so much that most top clubs have stayed away from signing him even though he is one of the toughest defenders and a ferocious header of the ball. The second attribute – heading – was drilled into him by his father Rudika, a former player himself.

He scored a crucial header against Russia in the quarterfinal and in the last-four encounter, his defensive work almost negated the Harry Kane factor that England so heavily relied on. As Vida walked off the pitch, he left little doubt over how he would celebrate. “With music, beer… we deserve it.” This time, he wouldn’t be paying 100,000 euros for it.

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