Modric, the mastermind, while Marquinhos misses as Brazil exited the World Cup on penalties from Croatia

The last shot of the game landed on the base of the left post; the ball rebounded powerfully into the distance. Marquinhos sank to the ground and let his tears fall on the much-trampled grass. Leaping and running past him, the ecstatic Croats swarmed around their hero. Their hero in successive matches, Dominik Livakovic, the unflappable, unbeatable iceman from Zadar, whose first save off Rodrygo and the Marquinhos failure was enough for Croatia’s unseemly progression to the semi-finals.

Few events capture joy and pain in one frame than the final stroke of a penalty shootout. One half of the ground in mourning, the other in delirium; joy sinks in, pain tears them apart. Both emotions, rather a stream of emotions, would take time to fully get into bed. But for what it was, Brazil again stumbled over the quarter-final hurdle (their third in their last four appearances); Croatia once again tore apart the stack of predictions.

Move over Germany, Croatia is the new tournament team. No team that ranks high on the celebrity quotient – ​​apart from Luka Modric – no team that has its players in the world’s elite clubs (Livakovic plays for Dinamo Zagreb); not a group with a well-defined, football-changing philosophy, but they do know how to topple better-rated opponents. And they do that wonderfully.

It could be that Brazil created more chances, played more sparkling football and satisfied the crowd. But it was Croatia that remained unperturbed in the relentless storm Neymar and Co unleashed in the second half. And much of extra time, who defended valiantly, often balancing on the tightrope between right and wrong, showing the determination to produce the equalizer just three minutes before extra time ended. The resolve of the once war-torn nation was remarkably brilliant. You’d say penalty kicks are a lottery, but winning two in as many games isn’t a fluke. It is pure expertise and conviction. Livakovic has both virtues in excess, so does the team.

When Neymar gave Brazil the lead five minutes before the final whistle, Croatia seemed exhausted. Ivan Perisic knelt on the floor; Marcelo Brozovic leaned against Luka Modric. They looked exhausted and exhausted, yet they did not surrender. After a few minutes of silence, their supporters also gathered their voices, and from nowhere, from the sky or from the underworld, they found a surge of energy, a glimmer of hope, like a hallucination of hope that you would see even if you drown in the seas. A savior would descend from the sky. That was Modric. Almost always.

It’s always Modric

Three minutes into what could possibly be his last three minutes on the biggest stage, the ball fell to his feet. With just a casual glance at the ground, he found an unmarked Mislav Orsic on the left. He slipped a simple ball – with Modric it’s always simple. Orisic ran the run of his life beating Bruno Petkovic who saw the light of his life before his eyes. His ears must have heard the imaginary hymns in his honor. He clattered the ball with all the power he could, and aided by a poor deflection from Marquinhos’ body, Croatia equalized.

You never see a more emotional Modric, not when his team lost to France in the final, not when he won the Ballon d’Or. He sobbed like a child, kissed and hugged everyone he saw, like a man on death row who was told he would live one more day. Despite all of Livakovic’s reflexes – he made 12 saves, the most spectacular of which was Josko Gvardiol’s deflection at close range – but the real hero was Modric.

The match was, in a way, more for the purists than the romantics, those with an affinity for the tactical layers of the game, of angles and lines, of Modric’s calm midfield control, who beat his old friend Casemiro with his passes and finesse. instead of power and speed. He instills a calm fear in Croatia or whichever side he plays.

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He’s that nice guy with a smile who would hug you and chat, maybe even joke, then stab you with the same smile and smile again, like nothing’s wrong, like nothing happened. His brevity is supernatural. Jorge Valdano once put it precisely: β€œHe doesn’t do impossible things; when he plays a pass, you see that and you think, ‘I would have done that.’ Some say he slowed down, but if he did slow down, he also slowed down the game, forcing the high-rhythm samba dancers to readjust to his pace. That is his immeasurable gift.

The game was like an old sodium lamp coming to life, the coils shivering and vibrating, promising to light up the room, but then going out. Indeed, Brazil picked up the pace in the second half, occasionally creating chances that could only be smothered by the watchful defenders or goalkeeper Livakovic. He tapped out a Lucas Pacqueta shot at close range, as a hockey goaltender would after denying it in a one-on-one situation.

Previously, Croatia’s plan was to strengthen the midfield, so they traded attacker Bruno Petkovic for the exhausting Mario Pasalic.
To neutralize the irresistible dance and song of the Brazilian attackers, an extra midfield screen seemed indispensable. Yet they didn’t just dig a trench and defend it. Taking advantage of the sometimes clumsy Brazilian pass, they plundered from the front and could even have taken the lead if Josip Juranovic hadn’t let the damp air of a evasive low cross from Mario Passaic blow over the goal.

Croatia felt an opening and roared and thundered, but eventually Brazil began to assert its supremacy, not so much with their trickery as with the understated riffs of grit and graft, the pace soft, but to reach the high notes it strung against was South Korea. A feint from Neymar, a fizzer from Vinicius, there were only sporadic moments that tantalized the senses.

Waiting for a magical moment took my breath away. For 105 minutes and 35 seconds, the shock of yellow spread across the gallery, dancing, singing and clapping their team to unleash a moment of magic, a burst of sorcery. The wait seemed endless, yet they waited, as if the wait would rule their lives. Seconds rolled over from minutes to hours, and yet they waited patiently, breathlessly.

And then finally came that magical moment, when the clock struck the 105th minute, when the talisman Neymar stole the ball from midfield and sprinted onto the pitch in a delightful one-two with Pedro, another one-two with Rodrygo, the first range nearly 30 yards from goal, the second just inside the box. He swung and winked down two desperately swerved legs, rounded Livakovic and coolly lifted the ball over him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Borna Sosa charging towards him, but he remained unperturbed when the Croat arrived a little late.

That moment seemed enough, before the belated drama kicked in and Croatia sent Brazil into another heartbreak. tears of joy; tears of pain. That’s how the match ended. one of the cruelest in Brazil’s history and one of the sweetest in Croatia’s life.

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