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How I fell in love with Croatia, the World Cup’s most indefatigable team

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An ode to the toughest, most courageous team at the 2018 World Cup.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Say there is a solid wall. It’s said to be unbreakable. You’re not sure if that’s true or not, but the thing is made of brick and looks pretty damn hard. And say you told Mario Mandzukic he had to run head-first through that wall in order for Croatia to win a game. Before you could finish your sentence, Mandzukic would ram his head right through that wall, and scream in victory as the blood dripped down his face.

Mandzukic was limping heavily at the end of Croatia’s quarterfinal against Russia, a thrilling match they won in a penalty shootout. Everyone on Croatia was exhausted, as it was their second consecutive game that went to extra time. But Mandzukic, who runs himself ragged and gets battered every game, was visibly injured as well as being tired. He could barely move when the game ended.

Yet, he started in the semifinal against England just a few days later, a game Croatia won in thrilling fashion (again) in extra time. It can’t be said he ran or worked harder than usual against England, because he always runs and works as if we’re in a post-apocalyptic world and he’s a servant of Immortan Joe. And at this point, I believe him to be completely indestructible. He can feel pain and he can be hurt and injured, but he will keep getting up and fighting.

But he kept running. For 90 minutes. Into extra time, the third (!) straight match Croatia played that was tied at the end of regulation.

Before Mandzukic scored the winning goal, he had a close opportunity that came from a cross on the left wing. Mandzukic made a run through the middle of the defense and the curling ball found him right in front of Pickford. He got a touch on it, but Pickford managed to block the shot. Pickford’s right foot also went through Mandzukic’s thigh during the save. Mandzukic stayed down for a while, the trainers came over, he was blessed with the magic spray, but it looked as if he would have to substituted. He was taken to the side of the field, limping, and a few minutes later, he ran back in to continue the game.

When he scored his goal deep into the third consecutive extra time that Croatia has played in, with his legs tired and his body bruised from the previous foul, in a game Croatia were rightfully expected to lose, I couldn’t believe it:

Mandzukic is the most visceral representation of Croatia’s spirit in this World Cup, but the same courage that is in him runs through the entire team. All of their wins in the knockout stages have been comebacks. They’ve won two penalty shootouts. They’ve taken everything their opponents had to offer, and they’ve stood on the field with their hands on their knees, tired and frustrated, and, yet, they’ve pulled through every single time.

Beyond Mandzukic, Danijel Subašić had suffered a hamstring injury against Russia, and played the last few minutes of the game in visible pain. Every time he made a save, he went down and was almost in tears. Because Croatia was out of subs by the time he was injured, he had no choice but to play through the injury. And so he did, and he even went on to make a save in the penalty shootout. He also played the whole game against England.

Ivan Strinić has come off injured in the last three games. His start against England was as surprising as Mandzukic and Subašić. Luka Modric had his hands on his knees for most of the extra time against England after giving everything he had against Russia. Ante Rebić and Ivan Rakitić were everywhere. Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren were pulled and stretched all over the place, and managed to contain England’s forwards. Ivan Perišić kept going at defenders and got his goal after England had dominated the first half, and were it not for the post, he would have got a much deserved second goal.

England were so comfortable in the first half against a visibly tired Croatia that it seemed like they were going to get a second goal and the game would be over before the second half was played. And had it not been for shots that missed by mere inches, they would have. But as the game wore on, somehow Croatia came to life. When they should have been on their last legs, the Croatian players started running, pressuring, dribbling, and shooting more.

In the last stages of the World Cup, the matches become games of attrition. Everyone is hurt and tired. The trick for teams is to somehow manage to keep players semi-healthy enough to be able to finish a game. The tournament comes at the end of a long and grueling club season, and it’s ridiculous to expect players to be at their best at that stage, especially after another grueling tournament campaign that sees them advance to the semifinals.

But the most wonderful thing about this Croatian team is that when the tactics and physical bodies have fallen to the wayside, when players are reduced to nothing more than their willpower to keep going, that’s when they get even stronger.

The ideas of spirit and bravery are often overplayed in sport, but this group of Croatian players just doesn’t stop. They fight through when the game devolves into players standing around with their hands on their knees or hips. Modric will go from being on the floor, trying to catch his breath, after failing to intercept a Jesse Lingard pass, to taking the ball 60 yards forward to initiate an attack for his team.

As well as the tactics, and the super-talented players on the team, Croatia has made it to its first World Cup final because they have pushed through every physical and mental barrier that they’ve come across. They are so courageous that it’s impossible not to be happy and inspired watching them come back against team after team, dragging their failing bodies and each other to the promised land. No matter how they do in the final, Croatia has been the most wonderful surprise of this tournament.