The last shot of the match thudded onto the base of the left-hand post; the ball rebounded powerfully into the distance. Marquinhos slumped to the ground, shedding his tears on the much-trampled grass. Leaping and running past him, the ecstatic Croatians swarmed around their hero. Their hero in successive games, Dominik Livakovic, the unflappable, unbeatable ice-man from Zadar, whose first save off Rodrygo and the Marquinhos mishit sufficed for Croatia’s unseemly progress to the semifinals.
Few events capture joy and pain in a single frame than the last stroke of a penalty shootout. One half of the ground in mourning, the other in delirium; joy sinking in, pain ripping them apart. Both emotions, rather a stream of emotions, would take time to bed in fully. But for what it was, Brazil stumbled yet again at the quarterfinal hurdle (their third in the last four appearances); Croatia yet again tore the pile of predictions apart.
Move over Germany, Croatia are the new tournament team. Not a team high on the celebrity quotient—Luka Modric aside—not a team that has their players in the elite clubs of the world (Livakovic turns out for Dinamo Zagreb); not a group with a well-defined, football-altering philosophy, but they do know how to topple better-rated adversaries. And they do that marvellously.
It could be that Brazil created more chances, played more sparkling football and pleased the crowd. But it was Croatia who remained unruffled in the relentless storm that Neymar and Co whipped up in the second half. And much of the extra time, who defended courageously, often balancing on a tightrope between fair and foul, and showed the single-mindedness to produce the equaliser just three minutes before the extra-time ended. The resoluteness of the once war-torn nation was remarkably brilliant. You would say penalty shootouts are a lottery, but winning two in as many games is no fluke. It’s sheer expertise and belief. Livakovic has both virtues in excess, so does the team.
When Neymar put Brazil in the lead, five minutes from the last whistle, Croatia seemed utterly tired. Ivan Perisic knelt on the floor; Marcelo Brozovic leaned against Luka Modric. They looked sapped and knackered, but yet they did not surrender. After a few minutes of silence, their supporters too gathered their voices, and from nowhere, from the skies or the netherworld, they found a surge of energy, a ray of hope, like a hallucination of hope you would see even when you are drowning in the seas. A redeemer would descend from the skies. That was Modric. Almost always.
It’s always Modric
Three minutes before what could be potentially his last three minutes at the grandest stage, the ball fell onto his feet. With just a casual ground-scanning rove of his eyes, he found an unmarked Mislav Orsic onto the left. He slid a simple ball—with Modric it is always simple. Orisic ran the run of his life and squared off Bruno Petkovic who saw the light of his life in front of his eyes. His ears must have heard the imaginary hymns in his praise. He clattered the ball with all the power he could, and aided by a wicked deflection off Marquinhos’s body, Croatia equalised.
You wouldn’t see a more emotional Modric ever, not when his team lost to France in the final, not when he won the Ballon d’Or. He was sobbing like a child, kissing and hugging everyone he saw, like a man on the death row who is told that he would live for one more day. For all the reflexes of Livakovic—he made 12 saves, the most spectacular being the deflection off Josko Gvardiol in point-blank range—but the real hero was Modric.
The match, in a sense was for the purists rather than the romantics, those with the affinity for the tactical layers of the game, of angles and lines, of the tranquil midfield control of Modric, beating his old friend Casemiro with his passing and finesse rather than force and speed. He imparts Croatia or any side he plays, a calm fearfulness.
He is that nice guy with a smile who you would hug and chat, perhaps even banter, then with the same smile, he stabs you, and smiles again, as if nothing has been amiss, as if nothing has happened. His brevity is supernatural. Jorge Valdano once put it precisely: “He doesn’t do impossible things; when he plays a pass, you see it and think: ‘That’s what I would have done.” Some say he has slowed, but if he has indeed slowed down, he slowed the game down too, making the high rhythm samba dancers re-adjust to his tempo. That’s his immeasurable gift.
The game was like an old sodium bulb flickering to life, the coils shivering and quivering, promising to light up the room, but then goes blank. Brazil, indeed, raised the tempo in the second half and created intermittent opportunities only for either the vigilant defenders or the goalkeeper Livakovic to smother. He palmed away a Lucas Pacqueta shot from close range, like a hockey goalkeeper would after he had denied him in a one-on-one situation.
Earlier, Croatia’s plan was to shore up the midfield, therefore they swapped forward Bruno Petkovic for the attritional Mario Pasalic.
To neuter the irresistible dance and song of Brazil’s forwards, an extra midfield screen seemed indispensable. Yet, they did not merely dig a trench and defend. Exploiting the sometimes clumsy Brazilian passing, they marauded upfront and could have even grabbed the lead had Josip Juranovic not wafted the moisture-ridden air from a swerving low cross by Mario Passaic across the face of the goal.
Sensing an opening, Croatia buzzed and badgered, but eventually Brazil began to assert their supremacy, not so much with their trickery as it was with the understated riffs of grit and graft, the tempo soft, yet to reach the high notes it had strung against South Korea. A Neymar feint, a Vinicius fizzer, there were just sporadic moments that tickled the senses.
The wait for a magical moment was breathless. For 105 minutes and 35 second, the shock of yellow spread over the gallery danced, sang and clapped their team to ignite a moment of magic, a burst of wizardry. The wait seemed endless, yet they waited, as if it were the wait that would define their lives. Seconds rolled onto minutes to hours, and yet they waited, patiently, breathlessly.
And then that moment of magic finally arrived, when the clock struck the 105th minute, when the talisman Neymar stole the ball from midfield and sprinted upfield in a delectable one-two with Pedro, another one-two with Rodrygo, the first sequence almost 30 yards from the goal, the second just inside the box. He wove and winkled past two desperately-lunging legs, rounded off Livakovic and coolly lifted the ball over him. From the corner of his eyes, he could see Borna Sosa skittering onto him, but he remained unruffled as the Croat arrived a little late.
That moment seemed enough, before late drama kicked in and Croatia consigned Brazil to another heartbreak. Tears of joy; tears of pain. That’s how the match ended. one of the cruellest in Brazil’s history and one of the sweetest in Croatia’s life.