Final a triumph in itself given Croatia's off-field turmoil

France emerged victorious in Sunday's World Cup final in Moscow, but just getting to the last two was a success for Croatia.

Published : Jul 16, 2018 00:12 IST

Croatia's run to the World Cup final was a sensational achievement given its regular brushes with turmoil, but the 4-2 defeat to France surely ends something of a 'golden generation' for the nation.

Zlatko Dalic's men are not a surprise package because of the players they have available, or the small size of the country's population. No, its charge to Moscow was a shock because of what it has been through in the last year.

On October 7 in 2017, the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) decided to take drastic decision, sacking coach Ante Cacic following a 1-1 draw with Finland, leaving the team in a tense position with just one group game remaining in qualifying.

"Zlatko will lead the team in the crucial game against Ukraine and we are hoping for a positive outcome," HNS president Davor Suker said at the time, in something of an understatement.

At the end of the disappointing draw with Finland, captain Luka Modric appeared on the verge of tears, trudging off with head in hands while pondering the possibility of missing out on the World Cup entirely.

Luckily for Croatia, an Andrej Kramaric double in Dalic's first game in charge secured second place in Group I, and a 4-1 aggregate play-off win over Greece followed, as the new coach succeeded with the minimum expectation of getting the team out of jail and into the World Cup.

Yet things failed to run smoothly once the side arrived on Russian soil, as Nikola Kalinic was sent home. Although the official reasoning was an injury, reports suggested the striker was actually disciplined for a poor reaction to not playing in his side's opener against Nigeria.

It's also worth remembering that Modric and Dejan Lovren – arguably their most important players in Russia – have endured a lot off the pitch in the last year.

Both players have been drawn into the corruption case of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic, who was found guilty of taking shares of transfer fees while in charge of Croatia's most famous club and sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Modric and Lovren face perjury charges themselves after they allegedly gave "false testimony" in the case, with the former's reputation at home nosediving as a result.

There have been no signs of such issues causing distraction, however, with both players performing admirably. Given the furore that has swirled around it in the year before the tournament, it is quite remarkable how much of an impact Croatia has made on the World Cup.

The result of Sunday's final is a harsh reflection of the game, too. Croatia was, for much of the 90 minutes, significantly more threatening in attack than France, while it was also dominant in midfield.

In a World Cup which has been characterised by an enthralling and charming chaos, on the pitch Croatia has been structured, organised and generally well-drilled, traits that have rarely – its quarterfinal slog with host Russia aside – impacted negatively on the entertainment it has whipped up.

Modric - as is often the case - has been its key cog, the same man who was so visibly shaken on the pitch against Finland last October often running the show, his performances leading to calls for him to be considered for the Ballon d'Or to add to the Golden Ball gong he received after the final.

Again in Moscow on Sunday, he was a cool and calm presence, albeit Croatia ran into probably the one team at the World Cup which has looked more solid than it.

There can be no getting away from the fact the VAR decision for France's penalty – from which Antoine Griezmann made it 2-1 to the eventual champion – had an impact.

Croatia's show of character was admirable in the second half, as it poured men forward before the expected rain finally arrived, but it was little surprise France's gifted side ultimately picked it off.

For Croatia, getting to the final is a triumph in itself. Despite its undoubted star quality, few would have predicted it to get so far given its rather tumultuous backstories.

But at the same time, Croatia may not have such an opportunity again for a generation.

Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Lovren are all 29 or older, meaning another World Cup showing could be beyond the realms of possibility for 2022.

Reaching the 2018 final is still an almighty achievement for a Croatia squad which defied the chaos surrounding it to punch above its weight.

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