The only unusual bit about the goal-kick, if you forcefully look for something, is how lazily Danijel Subasic takes it. It’s just the fourth minute of the match and Subasic, then with Croatian top-tier side Zadar, looks in no rush. His body language is of a man who’s out for an evening stroll. He spots his best friend Hrvoje Custic free on the left flank and, almost reluctantly, thumps the ball in that direction. What followed would change Subasic’s life forever.
The ball bounces slightly awkwardly for Custic to control it the first time. As he takes the second touch, a HNK Cibalia player clatters into him. It’s a routine challenge, nothing malicious. But in the follow through, Custic collided, head-first, on a concrete wall on the side of the pitch. An ambulance rushed on to the field and Custic was taken to a hospital, where an emergency brain surgery was performed. But he never recovered. Six days after that collision, Custic, 25, died.
Subasic was so traumatised, he slipped into depression. He even moved to the USA briefly, but the sight of his friend crashing into the concrete wall kept playing on loop every time he closed his eyes. “I told myself if I had not played it to him he would still be alive. I asked myself why I chose to play it to him, why I hadn’t gone down the middle. If I’d done that, he probably wouldn’t have been hurt” he has been quoted as saying by the Croatian media. “How could fate, destiny, have demanded that should happen?”
Ten years have passed since that fateful day, but Subasic is yet to completely overcome the shock of his friend’s death. It has been most evident during the two penalty shootouts he has been involved in. Every time, before a kick, he looks skywards and says a small prayer, sometimes raising both his arms, as if wanting to embrace Custic.
Beneath the Croatia jersey, he wears a t-shirt with Custic’s picture on it. “I decided that from then on, I would always wear his picture under my shirt. Every game to the end of my career,” Subasic, now 33, said recently. “I did it for Zadar, for Hajduk Split, now at Monaco in the Champions League and Europa League, and here in Russia.”
Against Denmark, after helping his team win a dramatic shootout, Subasic took off his shirt to reveal the t-shirt underneath. It earned him an official reprimand from FIFA, who have banned players from displaying private messages during the World Cup. That, however, hasn’t stopped Subasic. After leading Croatia to another win via tie-breakers, this time against hosts Russia, he almost did it again. The goalkeeper, overcome by emotions, was about to remove his jersey when the team manager rushed on to the pitch and stopped him.
The intervention by the manager now seems god-sent. As Croatia hope to go one-up on the legendary batch of 1998 when they take on England in the semifinals tonight, they will pin their hopes on a player who belongs to the Serbian minority.
This World Cup had one of the finest assembly of goalkeepers — De Gea, Neuer, Navas, Szczesny, Lloris, Courtois… the list is long. Subasic had slipped under the radar. Now, he is in the reckoning for the golden glove. When he saved Fedor Smolov’s penalty in the shootouts against Russia, Subasic became a part of World Cup folklore – he was only the third goalkeeper to save four penalties in shootouts, having already stopped three against Denmark in the previous round. His form in Russia has been an extension of his exploits with Monaco. He joined the French principality club a couple of years after the fateful match for Zadar and has been largely responsible for them marching from second division to first, and then to the Champions League in just four years.
He has an envious record of saving one in every three penalties, by far the best record among the goalkeepers in this World Cup. In the 2015 season, he went without conceding a goal in Ligue 1 for 842 minutes, a record, and was voted as the league’s best goalkeeper the following season. And Subasic doesn’t just save goals. He has scored one too.
The match is only 56 minutes old when AS Monaco earn a free-kick just outside Boulogne’s box, slightly to the right. The score is 1-1 and momentum’s with Monaco in this Ligue 2 match six years ago. Hardly a time, you’d assume, for a goalkeeper to venture out of his zone, let alone jogging 80 metres towards the opponent’s box. His teammates, too, aren’t expecting any daredevilry.
So you can sense the surprise on striker Valerie Germain’s face when his goalkeeper taps him on the shoulder, insisting he’ll have a go. But there’s no hesitation on Germain’s part. Subasic connects beautifully, hits it through the wall; hip-high so the goalkeeper’s vision is blocked. The ball flies into the side-netting and, in the background, you can see a young N’golo Kante, who’d make his senior debut minutes later, halt his warm-up routine and watch in amazement.
Even today, Subasic practises free-kicks. But against England, a team with a formidable set-piece record in this tournament, Croatia will depend more on Subasic’s primary skill – saving goals.