Bengaluru: The Indian hockey league introduced a new rule a couple of years ago: a field goal was equivalent to two goals scored from penalty corners. The innovation was aimed at bringing some of the old magic back into the game, which had got stultified into set pieces. Team managers responded by hunting for players with the skills to score field goals.
A field goal calls upon a player to produce something beyond a set routine. The way Mario Mandzukic reacted to an opportunity in the final period of extra time to score the winner that sent Croatia into the football World Cup final in Russia illustrates this well.
England defender Kyle Walker misplaced a clearance, Croatia’s Ivan Perisic lobbed a header backwards, and Mandzukic visualized the chance in an instant. The Croatian centre-forward reacted to it before his marker John Stones could, and darted into a momentary open space to control the ball, and slammed a left-footer past the advancing goalkeeper into the far post. The 32-year-old had been seizing up with cramps and fatigue before that, as Croatia were playing their third consecutive game in extra time. So it was also an act of sheer will to overcome all that and deliver the killer punch in the 109th minute.
Goals such as these are exhilarating for a neutral fan like me. Croatia’s first goal also came from a cross that Perisic rushed in to reach with a karate kick before Walker could put his head to it.
England’s only goal came predictably from a free kick early in the game. The Croatian captain Luka Modric made the mistake of tackling Dele Alli from behind near the top of the penalty box. Croatia then became the latest team in this World Cup to realize the folly of presenting England with such an opportunity.
English players crowded the wall to confuse the Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić into thinking the ball could be drilled through a point on the left. Instead, Kieran Trippier’s shot curled over the wall into the top right corner of the net. Subašić seemed off position, and flat-footed too, with a strained hamstring from the previous game. But it was a great free kick and deserved a goal.
There’s no denying England outdid every other team in dead ball situations. Nine out of their 12 goals in the World Cup came from set pieces, the highest for any team since 1966.
England coach Gareth Southgate deserves every plaudit for bringing a young, inexperienced side to the verge of being world beaters. He borrowed tricks from American basketball on creating space and blocking defenders. He found the right people to drill these routines and execute them with telling effect on the biggest stage of football.
But there has to be more than that for a team playing in the semi-final of a World Cup. And that was glaringly absent after England went 1-0 up in the 5th minute.
Croatia were in disarray and England could have driven home the advantage. But captain Harry Kane, who looks so assured when trotting up to take a penalty kick, froze when he found himself in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper. Jesse Lingard sent a timorous shot off target, in stark contrast to the thumping goal he scored against Panama from a similar position.
Croatia regrouped after the half-time. Their world-class midfield took control. They began to make persistent thrusts into the English half without losing possession with hurried passes and crosses like in the first half. From then, England were reduced to defence and long passes forward.
The inevitable Croatian equalizer finally came in the 68th minute. And Perisic came close to scoring again within regulation time with a shot that rebounded from the right post.
Only another set piece wonder could have pulled this off for England. But the Croatians appeared to have wised up to this, and tried to avoid giving away free kicks near the penalty box.
This should have created more opportunities for the English forwards to exploit. But Raheem Sterling looked weak and ineffectual despite all his running with the ball. Kane’s presence was rarely felt except in a dead-ball play. In the end, England looked like a side that had overachieved in the tournament, thanks to a draw that helped them to avoid heavyweights.
Croatia, a nation which only came into being in 1991 and has a population of 4 million, overachieved too. But they did that with a bunch of classy players from top European clubs, led by Modric of Real Madrid, Rakitic of Barcelona, and Mandzukic of Juventus. From half-time, they produced the kind of football that attracts half the planet to the World Cup. Can their tired legs turn it on one more time on Sunday to make Croatia the ninth nation to lift the World Cup?
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.