Croatia buries England's World Cup dream

Maswood Alam Khan | Published: July 12, 2018 21:35:33


Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic (left) celebrates after scoring the winning goal in 109th minute in his team's 2-1 World Cup semi-final victory over England. — AP

Croatia among the quarterfinalists were the most tired team. They were extremely worn-out of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs in their previous matches. After England scored their opener, at the 5th minute into the second semi-final of World Cup on Wednesday night, frustration was already noticeable on every Croat player's face.

Croatia were tired in the first half, their heart-beat visibly sped up, perspiration profusely ran down their faces, but they forgot to be tired in the second half. Croatia ran, ran, and ran till their lungs could harness the last drop of energy to breathe. Those, as the saying goes, who run for life never get tired.

When your team concedes the first goal of a match your opposition are in huge advantage morally and physically. And, if the goal is scored in the quickest possible time after the game starts it is assumed, and theoretically proven, that the scorer would score more. Of course, if your team earn an equaliser, the game instantly becomes a drama. But, if your team fail to score any goal and then if the second goal of the match is also scored by your opposing team that is 'the last straw that breaks the camel's back'. A first goal occurrence can either expedite or impede the next goal scoring, depending on the time it is scored. Attacking abilities and defensive attributes are also related to the occurrence of the first goal.

The number one disadvantage of the team that concedes the first goal of a match is they get their frustrations cooped up in their mind and thus get their energy easily drained. Any negative emotion such as sense of defeat, anxiety, resentment, etc. sap your team's energy at an accelerated pace.

How did Croatia survive those traumas and frustrations and resurrect from near-defeat to victory on Wednesday night? The answer is simple: It was their iron will to survive and win.

The second semi-final match between England and Croatia on was, metaphorically speaking, much more theatrical than any Shakespearian drama of suspense, thrill or tragedy.

It was a night of tragedy for England. It was a long and tortuous wait for England and it was the best chance for them to win the trophy after 52 years since they had won this treasure back in 1966. England's football fans have long cohabitated with the pain of this nagging absence of World Cup and reasonably hoped to bring the trophy home this time.Such a glorious chance, with no Titan standing in the way, comes once in 100 light years.

Your brain has a 'delete' button to erase painful memories. But, English memories of defeats in World Cup were too strong to be obliterated by a 'delete' button. When one can't expunge his unwanted memories he better should make a song to anesthetise his bitter memory. "Three Lions" is a such a football-themed pain-relieving song that was released in England in 1996. The song reappears whenever there is a major football tournaments involving England. The melody, with the refrain "It's coming home", has become the de facto "anthem" of English football. The lyric speaks not of unbounded optimism for victory, but instead talk of how, ever since 1966 every tournament has ended in dashed hopes. Their latest hope dashed was a defeat to Croatia by a dramatic 1-2 score in World Cup semifinal on Wednesday night.

TRIPPER MOMENT: Just 5 minutes into the game, England's Kieran Tripper rekindled English hope by a brilliant goal. What a blitzkrieg! What a lightning attack that broke through the Croatian line of defence! Tripper scored his first goal for England by taking the free kick, then whipping the ball over the wall, and back down into the top right. Danijel Subaši?, the Croatian goalkeeper, had no chance! That was the moment when Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow was swept by a tsunami of cheers, arousing once again the British hope to lift the trophy after five decades. The nocturnal sky of England was instantly studded with stars of joy twinkling.

PERISIC MOMENT: England were stunned in the 68th minute when Ivan Perisic, the Croatian winger, emerged as a bombshell. 26-year old ŠimeVrsaljko lobbed in a better cross from the right, and Perisic ran around both Tripper and Walker and stabbed the swirling ball home with his left foot. What an acrobatic feat that gifted 4 million Croats a cherished equaliser -- a dazzling moon right on palms -- against mighty England! The drama started! Adrenaline hit all the 22 players on the field. Fatigue fizzled out from the bodies of Croatia. Blood of zeal rushed through the veins of England. Dreams to reach the final were reenergized. The stadium was alive once again with jubilant fans!

MANDZUKIC MOMENT: At 109th minute, when England were literally napping at the back, a 32-year old, 1.9-meter-tall Croatian called Mandzukic had suddenly appeared and given up the play hanging his head down as a poor cross was cleared, but Perisic, the first scorer of Croatian goal, was stubborn and fought for the header to send it back in. And when Mandzukic saw what was happening he reacted first and beat Pickford, the England goalkeeper, from point-blank range. Mandzukic earlier missed a number chances and showed his agonised face with startled eyes, as if terror-stricken, for several times. Who could imagine this Croatian goal only a few minutes back?

John Stones of England, who has all through been a rock in defence, almost scored with a header in the 99th minute to ease the nerves of millions but it was tragically cleared off the line.

When the final whistle blew after two periods of extra time and Croatia's 2-1 victory was confirmed, England's luck finally ran out when they deserved it most. What a victory! Croatia 2-1 England.

The Croatians poured out of the dugout and the entire squad collapsed onto Mandzukic. Some photographers were also buckled in the free-for-all celebrations and then several fans started kissing one poor cameraman uncontrollably.

Only France now stands between Croatia and what we would watch on Sunday. If a similar drama unfolds in the final, that would the most remarkable World Cup victory in history.

England, however, played to their limits, as they had against Colombia and against Tunisia. In the end, England found a grander opponent in Croatia, a team which does not fatigue despite being fatigued, a team which run for life, a team which is equipped with deeper gears.

England were aggressive for a while after the Croatian equalizer, but Croatia were like warriors all through. At times, England looked ragged like a boxer on the ropes, praying for the bell.

Yes, Croatians were tired, but they were not shorn of spirit. Their muscles were fatigued, their bones were weary but their souls were not. They ran for survival, so they had to tap energy stores reserved only for emergency. A soldier in a battlefield, a deer being chased by a cheetah, a mother desperate to salvage her baby from being drowned, use that source of emergency energy.

What a nerve-shredding, fingernail-bothering, edge-of-seat-teetering, stomach-churning, and hand-wringing match it was! What an epoch-making semi-final the World Cup 2018 gifted to the enchanted world on Wednesday, late at night!

Only France now stands between Croatia and what we would watch on Sunday. If a similar drama unfolds in the final, that would the most remarkable World Cup victory in history.

maswood@hotmail.com

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