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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Croatia, the fiery-hearted heroes, can stand tall after coming up short in World Cup final

A 4-2 defeat to France in Sunday's final denied the team a remarkable ending to their campaign

Luka Modric, centre, and his Croatia teammates had to settle for second-place at the 2018 World Cup. Felipe Trueba / EPA
Luka Modric, centre, and his Croatia teammates had to settle for second-place at the 2018 World Cup. Felipe Trueba / EPA

MOSCOW // “Minutes are important … the sky will know what we need ... together with us it can cry.” The lyrics to “Fiery Heart”, the song selected by Croatia to be played inside the stadium each time they appear on the world’s grandest stage, may not be as well-known as England’s “Three Lions” or as universally recognisable as Spain’s “Ole”, but for a brief period shortly before half-time in Sunday night’s World Cup final defeat to France, they seemed perfect.

Poised at 1-1, a harmless corner from Antoine Griezmann cannoned off the falling hand of Ivan Perisic before Ivan Rakitic could head the ball to safety. France immediately threw their own hands in the air and, as a thunderstorm brewed above the Luzhniki Stadium, Argentine referee Nestor Pitana signalled he would revert to VAR.

“Minutes are important.” For Perisic, the minutes felt like hours. As Pitana, on his pitch-side TV, reviewed and reviewed and decided and then decided to review once more, the atmosphere ominously rumbled and grumbled, offering up a gratis light show in the Moscow sky. Everything looks worse in slow-motion and what had appeared accidental, slowed down and picked apart, started to look like a deliberate handball. It was not.

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“The sky will know what we need.” The 78,011 spectators squeezed into this humid cauldron of hope also knew. Croatia had dominated the opening exchanges, but conceded from the first shot at goal when Griezmann’s free-kick skimmed off the top of Mario Mandzukic’s head and past his own goalkeeper. It was the 12th own goal of an enthralling tournament, double that of Golden Boot winner Harry Kane.

Together with us it can cry.” When Pitana finally returned to the field, signalling to the spot, it proved the pivotal point of a captivating match; the moment when, a favoured French team that had played 120 minutes less than their opponents, took control. Griezmann converted, France celebrated and Croatia’s dream, like the storm, started to dissipate. Only when the final whistle sounded and Pitana was booed on collecting his medal, did the heavens open and the sky start to cry.

Tears are inevitable when emotions run so high, but Croatia and coach Zlatko Dalic can leave Russia with their chins pointing to that same stormy firmament. They played to more than the sum of their parts and in having a hand in four of the six goals, contributed more than they would have liked to a final that, like the tournament itself, will live long in the memory.

After three successive finales having gone to extra-time, this proved a match for the ages; a game in which both sides attacked with verve, left themselves exposed at times, and thrilled the world.

Dalic’s side, composed and creative, became the first team in 32 years to score twice and still lose. Perisic had thundered home an equaliser in the 28th minute to cancel out the own goal and, after Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe struck twice in six second-half minutes, Mandzukic capitalised on a rare Hugo Lloris error to pull one back. It was the first final in 16 years to be decided in normal time.

As the rain fell, soaking all and sundry, it served to hide the tears of players, coaches and fans alike. Croatia may have been underdogs, written off at every turn, but this defeat will hurt. Had it not been for the penalty decision, which Pitana had initially not given, there is every chance they could have left Moscow with the ultimate prize.

The tireless performance of Perisic, face etched in pain on the final whistle, will be recalled as much for a ball hitting his hand as his relentless running and rasping half-volley.

Yet it should not. As the chorus of Croatia’s song goes: “White-red, fields of Croatia, on the jersey they remind me, that I love you.”

Each of their 23 players will be well aware of that adoration when they return home on Monday. Defeated but not diminished. Fiery-hearted heroes.

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