Self-deception, lies the secret behind Croatia's run to World Cup final
MOSCOW -- They tell you it's about who wants it more. It's not. You don't get to a World Cup semifinal -- via a combined three penalty shootouts -- if you don't want it desperately, as much as the air you breathe and the affection you crave. Nobody could look the players from England or Croatia in the eye and judge who was hungrier, not after seeing them battle for 120 minutes Wednesday night at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Rather, it's about lies and deception. The lies you tell your body in an attempt to deceive it into thinking your hit points aren't down to zero. And the lies you tell yourself when you convince yourself that, yes, you can reach that stray ball and, no, you won't let that opponent pass. Most of all, it's about believing that you can keep going through heavy legs, searing pain and shortness of breath.
And do it all with clarity of mind. That last bit is crucial and, perhaps, the reason Croatia will be back here on Sunday to take on France in the World Cup final. England's collective mind got fuzzier as the game went on. Croatia's, somehow, seemed to grow clearer, scything through the pain, fatigue and inevitable errors.
Just ask England boss Gareth Southgate, who called them "hardened warriors" whose "decision-making" made the difference in a 2-1 victory in extra time.
As far as fooling yourself into thinking you are strong when, in fact, you can barely stand, ask his opposite number, Zlatko Dalic.
"I wanted to make substitutions earlier because I knew they were tired and hurt, but every time I tried, the players on the pitch told me they were fine, they felt fine," he said. "So how could I do it? How could I tell them that what they felt was not real?"
See? They lied to their manager as well as themselves. As the match wore on, Croatia seemed to feed off each other and their surroundings, as if energy and belief and the grand deception were something they could pass on.
There was Domagoj Vida, mercilessly booed by the Russians in the crowd -- who filled nearly half the ground -- for his controversial video supporting Ukraine, smiling and taking it in stride.
There was Ivan Rakitic, approaching Croatia's stand with arms waving furiously, wanting supporters to make even more noise, then stopping for a beat or two to let the wall of sound envelop him before jogging back on to the pitch.
There was Luka Modric, giving possession away to Marcus Rashford, yet somehow willing his body to catch the fleet-footed Manchester United forward and knock the ball out of play. As Croatia's captain lay on the ground, there was Sime Vrsaljko trotting over, touching his face, urging Modric to push on.
With a minute to go in extra time, with play dead to allow treatment for a prone player, there was Dalic manhandling Ivan Perisic by the touchline. Perisic looked away, hands on hips, almost childlike, only for his manager to grab his arm time and again. Perisic then looked to him, nodded and gave a fist bump.
Little things. Details that occupy the mind -- maybe just for a second or two -- but are enough to regain focus, distract from pain and fatigue, and remind that you are not alone.
Sure, there are the tactical and technical sides that matter, and in this case, it was rather simple.
The start of the game was straight out of the Southgate game plan. We don't know if the England coach is a fan of "positive visualization" -- he does employ a sports psychologist -- but he likely couldn't have planned things any better.
After four minutes, Croatia conceded a free kick that was central and just beyond the "D." Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic lined up a huge wall that was made even denser by half a dozen England players, who clearly wanted to stop Subasic seeing Kieran Trippier strike the ball. And it worked: The free kick was accurate, if slow, but Subasic moved even more slowly, and it nestled into the net, like a dead leaf propelled by the wind.
It was England's 12th goal in this World Cup, the ninth off a dead-ball situation (the three from open play include Harry Kane's wacky deflection against Panama).
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Dalic's reaction was counterintuitive, and he nearly paid dearly. Despite the greater vigor and energy of the opposition, Croatia went for it, pressing high and leaving gaps at the back. It was the sort of approach you might take in the final 15 minutes of a game when you're a goal down.
It offered England plenty of opportunity, and Harry Maguire and Jesse Lingard both failed to convert excellent chances. At the other end, Southgate's defence did exactly what they were supposed to do, with wing-backs sliding back to form a defensive line of five, plus Jordan Henderson in front to mop up where needed.
Croatia grew increasingly nervous and edgy. Fatigue began to show. Half-time came as a relief and a chance to hit the reset button. After the break, the frenzy of the first 45 minutes was gone, as if Dalic had told his players to forget what had gone before and the fact that their World Cup was slipping away. Focus instead on winning the second half. Do that, and you live to fight another day.
"I told them to slow it down, to not lose their heads," Dalic said. "Pass the ball calmly, and make your quality count."
Croatia entered the zone, playing with a calm intensity, maintaining defensive shape so as to deny the counter and picking their spots with patience. So when Vrsaljko's cross -- the first to hit the target after 18 attempts -- found Perisic's karate kick inches from Kyle Walker's head, the ball deflected past Jordan Pickford.
Now it was a new game, and now things got ragged, particularly in the England defence, as Perisic's shot cannoned off the post, and Mario Mandzukic's effort sailed into the arms of Pickford. England had their opportunities too: Harry Kane headed wide from a 90th-minute free kick, and then, in the first extra-time period, John Stones' powerful header was cleared off the line by Vrsaljko.
Then, in the 109th minute, Perisic's header, following Walker's uncoordinated clearance, sent the ball into the space behind a static Stones. Mandzukic was making his umpteenth "just in case" run of the game and, having found the space, beat Pickford to send Croatia to their date with history.
This was the third straight game in which they conceded first and the third straight time they managed to dig themselves out of the hole before playing 30 minutes more than the game's inventors intended to emerge victorious.
In reaching the final, Croatia already have surpassed the country's legendary generation from two decades ago, which reached a World Cup semifinal against the team they will face this Sunday. Dalic knows that well. He was a professional footballer at the time but traveled to France and watched all three group games in the stands as a fan.
They have made history. Now they want to move into lore.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.