How to win friends and not influence people, Croatia style

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book promised, among other things, to boost your popularity, teach you how to win people over, and increase your influence. With such magical tips available, it's no wonder it quickly became a best-seller.

On Thursday Croatia did a pretty good job of writing the footballing equivalent ... of about half of it.

Before the match even started, Croatia were already working their charms. Fans of La Liga knew that, with Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić, they'd be capable of providing plenty of flair and trickery. Goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa provided Twitter with plenty of jokes referencing obscure R.E.M. songs. And the majority of neutrals were taken in by their red-and-white checked shirts, which only goes to show there's a high percentage of secret chess fetishists out there.

Then, eleven minutes into the opening game of the World Cup, Brazil gifted Croatia the lead. Marcelo was unable to pull back after Nikica Jelavić whiffed on his shot, and the world celebrated -- there's almost nothing sports fans enjoy more than watching the underdogs take a surprise lead. Unless you're a rabid supporter of the big bad bullying global megabusiness masquerading as a team, of course.

Had Croatia held on to win (or even drawn) the game, non-Brazil fans would've applauded, then moved on to cheering Australia against Chile in Group B's second match. Instead, the referee provided the perfect opportunity for the vatreni to permanently boost their popularity. With 20 minutes left to play and the score level at 1-1, Fred hit the ground after a tap from Croatian defender Dejan Lovren. Yuichi Nishimura blew the whistle, Neymar stepped up to the spot and executed a jittery runup that really shouldn't have worked, but Stipe Pletikosa could only push the ball into his net.

That probably would've been enough. By this point, even Croatia's biggest enemies were howling in outrage. Serbia and Croatia were drawn together in UEFA qualifying, and, to avert almost-certain crowd trouble, each match was closed to visiting fans. The animosity runs deep, yet the Serbs at the table next to mine were cursing the referee, and online forums were full of members switching from rooting on Brazil to pulling for Croatia.

Croatia's popularity further soared after they'd put the ball into the back of the net once more, only to have the goal ruled out. Ivica Olić was adjudged to have fouled Julio Cesar when going up for a cross and, although the decision fell -- maybe -- under the letter of the law, it was another call that seemed ridiculously harsh against the visitors.

Brazil emerged with a 3-1 win, but it was Croatia that had won over the crowds (well, those outside the stadium, anyway). They'd looked plucky right from the start, playing without a holding midfielder, surging forward in quick attacks, and making fools of Dani Alves. Then they'd been cheated by the referee. Plus, their kits still looked sharp.

In a way, Niko Kovač is fortunate the referee awarded that spot-kick. The clamor's being raised around the unfairness of it all, and in the process, his questionable decisions are being overlooked. Croatia's newfound friends are only skimming the surface, while underneath, there are deeper matters to attend to.

Even without the penalty call, Croatia could've easily been caught out. At the start of the second half, their tempo was notably slower, allowing Brazil the majority of the possession. It was evident Croatia would be content with a point, and that assumption was confirmed when, exactly on the hour mark, Kovač replaced creative midfielder Mateo Kovačić with the defensively-minded Marcelo Brozović. Jelavic was struggling, but Kovač waited until the 80th minute to remove Jelavić. His replacement, 20-year-old Ante Rebić, provided a burst of energy and liveliness. But with Croatia now chasing the game, it was too little, too late.

With just two games left and no guarantee of advancement, Kovač can't afford to play it safe again. Conservatism cost Croatia, and with goal difference a possible factor in who makes it out of the group, they must be prepared to go full-out against Mexico and Cameroon. It will help to have Mario Mandžukić back from suspension, but if the wantaway Bayern Munich man is too preoccupied with other matters, Kovač must be prepared to take risks.

Croatia's captured the world's attention, and their popularity is on the rise: who knows just how much money Nike will make off new kits ordered? But the goal of the World Cup is not to make friends. Brazil know that well. They don't worry about being labeled as divers. They don't hesitate to throw an elbow in their opponent's neck -- after checking to ensure the referee isn't looking, of course. It's not love they're after; it's influence.

And in the end, it's the influence that matters more than the friends. Nishimura and Modrić were chatting it up before the second half began, but it was Brazil that got the calls. Was it down to palms being greased? Was there a conspiracy orchestrated, in which FIFA ensured Brazil won to appease a restive population?

Perhaps. Or perhaps it's simply down to the gentle swaying of the referee's mind. Brazil have the strength and the reputation. They've already won five World Cups. They're the hosts, for goodness sake. They're meant to win.

Unlike sudden bursts in popularity, influence typically doesn't spike overnight. It must be developed. Should Croatia want to be the ones earning the favorable calls come 2018 or 2022, they'll need to make a deep run in the tournament, surprising many and turning heads. Add an impressive performance in Euro 2016, and they'll be well on their way to influencing people.

They may have lost a few friends, however. Because as Brazil knows well, in soccer, making friends and influencing people don't often go hand-in-hand.

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