IN MOSCOW, RUSSIA.
Led by hugely-experienced and no-nonsense Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic, Real Madrid midfield star Luca Modric and his Barcelona counterpart Ivan Rakitic, and pacy Inter Milan forward Ivan Perisic, Croatia have shown great mental strength that has carried them this far in the tournament.
Croatia have had to rally from behind to win all their three knock-out stage matches, one in extra time and two on penalties, pointing to a strong fighting spirit and hunger for success in coach Zlatko Dalic’s side.
The coach caused laughter in his post-match press conference on Wednesday when he said that some members of his squad were so determined to carry on they were ‘playing with half a leg’, never wanting to be substituted.
“My players have shown endurance, physical stamina and dedication throughout this match. Some of my players were playing with minor injuries. I wanted to substitute them but they could not hear of it as they wanted to fight on. Some played with half a leg in extra time and refused to be substituted,” Dalic said after the match.
After falling behind to opponents in matches here, Croatia seems always capable of finding their way back into matches when all seems lost after falling behind, sometimes on penalties.
On Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur defender Kieran Trippier’s goal from a free-kick put Croatia 1-0 ahead in the fourth minute, but Ivan Perisic levelled for Croatia in the 68th minute of second half.
And when the match seemed headed for penalties, veteran Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic lurched onto Ivan Perisic’s header to score his second goal of the tournament in extra time, sending his team through to Sunday’s final against France.
In their quarter-final match against hosts Russia played on Saturday in Sochi, Croatia were forced to rally from behind to win 4-3 on penalties in a match where Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida scored, then took to social media with ‘glory to Ukraine’ video that angered many Russians.
The match ended 2-2 after 120 minutes, and the referee blew the whistle to signal for penalties where Croatia, ranked 20th globally, won 4-3 to reach the semi-finals.
And in their round of 16 match on July 1 against a 12th-ranked Denmark side at Nizhny Novgorod, Croatia fell behind to their opponents in the first minute of the match courtesy of Mathias Jorgensen’s goal, but Mandzukic drew his team level in the fourth minute of the match which ended 1-1 after 120 minutes. Croatia won 3-2 on penalties.
It is Croatia’s fighting spirit that makes them formidable opponents against France in Sunday’s final.
Along the way, Croatia have had to survive two warnings and a Sh1.7 million fine from world football governing body Fifa.
Fifa officials fined Croatia’s national team Sh7.1 million for displaying ‘unauthorized beverage products’ during Sunday’s high-adrenaline round of 16 match against Denmark at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium which Croatia won 3-2 on penalties.
The Croatian federation was fined Sh7.1 million for breaching the 2018 World Cup marketing regulations.
Fifa also warned Croatia over infringement of Equipment Regulations after goalkeeper Danijel Subasic displayed a personal message on his t-shirt after the end of the match.
After the match, Subasic pulled his jersey over his head to reveal a t-shirt underneath with a huge image, understood to be a photo of Hrvoje Custic, Subasic’s former team-mate who tragically passed away just over ten years ago.
But that is not all. After Croatia’s 4-3 win over Russia on penalties after 2-2 draw in regular and extra time in their quarter-final match, Fifa issued a warning to Croatia player Domagoj Vida over the midfielder’s unsporting behaviour.
A video surfaced online in which the former Dynamo Kiev player is seen shouting ‘glory to Ukraine!’ in the company of Ognjen Vukojevic identified as a recently-retired Croatian international who also played in Kiev.
It is such distractions Croatia will want to avoid heading to the final match to determine who will be the world football champion.