If only someone had warned England before its 2–1 semifinal loss to Croatia about the dangers of racing to a fast start and then easing off the gas when you thought you had it clinched. There must be some old story about consistent effort overcoming a fast start, a fable of sorts that touts the virtues of aerobic over anaerobic fitness …
Ahh yes, that’s the one, the 1974 World Cup final, starring the most beloved losers in soccer’s history. Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands team famously roared out of the gates, scoring its first goal, a Johan Neeskens penalty drawn by Cruyff, before a West German player had even touched the ball. So enthralled were the Dutch players with their own dominance that they forgot to score the second goal. West Germany equalized with a penalty of its own and scored a scrappy winner through goal-poacher extraordinaire Gerd Müller. The Netherlands won the first two minutes. West Germany won the game.
England, to its credit, held onto its lead for a whole hour after Kieran Trippier scored in the fifth minute. Croatia played tired and irritable through the first half, like a parent who’s just gotten off a pair of back-to-back overtime shifts. (Two games’ worth of extra time has a tendency to do that to you.) While hindsight revealed Croatia to be a squad full of indomitable marathoners, in the first half its players looked two crucial steps slower than their English counterparts. They played desperately from the moment Trippier scored the opener, as if his free kick goal had been taken in the 85th minute and not with 85 minutes left. They kept making two plays in a row but not the crucial third, as if they were impatient to get to the center of the Tootsie Pop.
The herky-jerky rhythm of the game favored an England team that proved throughout this World Cup that it can only score from dead-ball situations. Croatia’s defense spent much of the first half trying to gift England with a second goal, and England’s players took turns politely refusing the opportunity. (“Oh, no. Please. You shouldn’t have. I really couldn’t.”)
Harry Kane blew two chances in the span of about five seconds and had his blushes spared only by an offside flag that no one could explain. Jesse Lingard scuffed a shot wide with a clear lane to either corner of Danijel Subasic’s goal. Raheem Sterling—England’s best player of the night—consistently got into very dangerous positions and then stopped and looked around as though unsure what was supposed to happen next. Croatia weathered the storm, like the one house that’s left standing when a tornado flattens the rest of the block.
At halftime, England fell asleep, and Croatia’s slow and steady pace took over. The Three Lions had controlled the midfield in the first half with the speed and energy of Lingard and Dele Alli, but as those two flagged, the skill of Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic took over. Modric began to push higher, less bothered by the English thrusts forward and less consistently shadowed by Alli and Jordan Henderson. Kyle Walker was beaten to Sime Vrsaljko’s hanging curve of a cross by Ivan Perisic’s outstretched leg, which knocked the ball home with an abbreviated hurricane kick of a finish.
That move apparently used up Perisic’s finishing mojo. He had a great chance to win it moments later that rebounded off the post.
He then skied a volley with Jordan Pickford out of his net a few minutes after that. Regardless, the game had by this point become a one-way contest. England coach Gareth Southgate failed to make the kinds of drastic changes that could’ve provided a jolt. Kane misfired badly on a free header off a free kick just before the end of regulation.
England had another chance, on yet another set piece early in extra time, but Vrsaljko, whose presence was in doubt after he suffered a knee injury against Russia in the quarterfinals, backpedaled into his goal mouth to head a John Stones effort off the goal line. Croatia’s winner came on a similar heads-up play, with Mario Mandzukic beating Stones to a bouncing Perisic header to finish past Pickford.
Now Croatia faces France in the World Cup final. Surely this time its players will have to be tired. They have gone to extra time in all three knockout round wins, playing the equivalent of one full 90-minute game more than the French players. N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé will run literal circles around them, right?
Maybe. And maybe that’s just how the Croatians want it.