CAPE TOWN – There’s a latent danger in disrespect, in that, invariably, it acts as inspiration for a football team to find extra reserves of strength. In essence, disrespect demands a response. It’s a bit like the idea upon which the green-figured comic book hero is based: when Bruce Banner becomes angry, he turns into The Hulk.
Much like Wednesday’s 2018 World Cup semi-final: after a build-up during which Croatia were disrespected and underrated, they used the disparaging words as fuel to fire up their engines, as motivation to drive them to victory.
As inspirational skipper Luka Modric said in a television interview afterwards: “We showed that we were not tired, and we dominated the game mentally and physically. People were talking, all the English journalists and pundits from television - but they underestimated Croatia and that was a huge mistake. All these words we were reading, and we were saying: ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired’. They should be humble and respect their opponents more.”
There, in a nutshell, from the mouth of the player most likely to win the Golden Ball award, is the answer to England’s demise: in the end, the English fell victim to their own hype, failing to understand that, in football, words have to be backed by action.
And Croatia, do I have to say it again? Wow, just wow. This time, it’s not so much for the football, but for the fitness and the depth of the reserves they were able to draw from. In short, the physical and mental conditioning of the team was simply unbelievable. They’ve played 120 minutes a game in their last three fixtures, yet still finished stronger than England. They’ve been in three tense, emotionally-sapping games, yet still had more thrust, more creativity than the English.
Modric is just super-human; he started a bit slowly as England’s midfielders squeezed his space - but, like any great player, eventually he got the better of them and was able to stamp his class on proceedings. Even towards the end, despite visibly tiring, he was still able to influence the game. A really special footballer, he is Croatia’s beating heart - and, if anybody deserves a place in the World Cup final, it surely is this man they should re-name Modric the Magnificent.
But there was just as much to admire about the rest of this Croatian team. I’ve always been a fan of the hulking Mario Mandzukic. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea, he’s awkward and in-your-face, but he’s the type of player who gives his last drop of energy in support of the team.
Central defenders Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren shut the back door, ime Vrsaljko was a marauding presence down the right, while Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic tirelessly covered every blade of grass.
And then there was the impressive Ivan Perisic, who scored one, provided the assist for the winner, and was a relentless threat, troubling the English defence all night. I actually remember Perisic quite well: he was in the Mother City in January 2015 as part of the VFL Wolfsburg squad that hammered Ajax Cape Town 4-1 in a friendly.
As for England, they paid the price for the lack of initiative and creativity in the squad. While they may have got to the semi-finals, there was always more than a suspicion that they didn’t have enough quality; big in heart and character, they were limited in ability. In fact, their over-reliance on set-pieces was a direct result of the players not having the necessary skill and enterprise.
But, in football, I always prefer to focus on the positive: this England team still deserves respect for what they have achieved and how they went about achieving it (they aren’t responsible for the words of gushing journalists or commentators, nor the inflated fervour of the fans).
This team may not be the best this football-mad country has produced over the years, but they will certainly have earned global respect and appreciation.