Zlatko Dalic said Croatia will never surrender and had given their people “faith in a better tomorrow” after overcoming Japan in a penalty shootout to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
The 2018 runners-up, and the smallest nation left in the tournament, prevailed 3-1 on penalties to deny Japan a first appearance in the last eight. Six of Croatia’s past seven games in the knockout stages of a major tournament have gone to extra time and their head coach insisted it was the mark of a resilient nation that should never be underestimated.
Dalic, speaking before Brazil were confirmed as Croatia’s opponents in the quarter-final on Friday, said: “We will wait for Brazil or Korea and we shall not surrender. We will keep fighting to achieve our dream. If it’s Brazil then let’s break the game open, give our best and play our heart out.
“This generation is a resilient generation, it does not give up, and they reflect the spirit of the Croatian people who have been through so much pain. The Croatian national team brings so much pride and joy to our people. We give them faith in a better tomorrow.
“We are a new generation of Croatian footballers, 18 were not at the World Cup in Russia, and I told them: ‘This is your chance to make history.’ We did it and the new players have their chance. I always say, do not underestimate the Croatian people.”
The Japan head coach, Hajime Moriyasu, said his team could take pride in defeating Spain and Germany and proving they belong in elite company at the World Cup.
However, he conceded: “We cannot do everything at once. We cannot become superheroes in one go. We need to improve step by step but there’s no doubt that Japan is reaching a level where we can play on the world stage and individual players have also grown.”
Japan froze in the shootout with Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and Maya Yoshida all having penalties saved by the Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
Moriyasu said: “I think it’s luck, but also training. It’s both. In terms of hitting the target there is still a gap between the top European teams and Japan.
“Croatia’s goalkeeper was wonderful today but the Japanese players also need to be better at penalties. This is something else we need to improve for the future.”
As Croatia’s players tore across from all directions to mob Mario Pasalic it was tempting to wonder how many of them had recorded their highest speed of the night. Their victory on penalties had been on the cards as soon as the clock ticked into extra time: as Japan’s fire fizzled out, the muscles tightening and knocks mounting, the triumph of deliberate knowhow over slick, joyful but sometimes loose entertainment came to feel as inevitable as the rising sun.
Croatia showed once again that they are the masters of walking football. It is an observation, not a slight: no other top international side lacks pace to such a marked degree but they invariably contrive to make sure it does not matter. That takes a preternatural collective knowhow, an assuredness that the first yard or two are in the head, a confidence that nobody should be putting in more miles than the ball itself. With it comes a pronounced lack of fear about the prospect of taking things the full distance.
At times during the 90 minutes Japan had run Croatia ragged, their right wing-back Junya Ito proving the most exciting player on the pitch while Ritsu Doan took the breath away with his close control and masterful range.
Logic might have had it that a team with this much energy and speed, this keen an ability to break instantaneously from a compact defensive shape into a flurry of moving parts, would be able to run its adversaries into the ground during an added half-hour. But they faced opponents who come to life in slow motion: Zlatko Dalic’s side dug in, dialled things down and did what they generally do.
The mind drifted back to their extra-time win over England in Moscow four years ago, even if that brought a more entertaining spectacle. Back then, Luka Modric put in perhaps the greatest midfield performance of that tournament, dragging an already tired team along and managing to materialise everywhere while giving the appearance of wading through treacle. Modric was less influential here, even if Ivan Perisic’s picture-perfect header was delivered at a time when his general involvement had noticeably stepped up.
He almost scored from a half-volley and, in the first half, bent a delightful ball into Perisic’s path with the outside of his foot: those were the only highlights-reel moments. But Croatia have a habit of wearing you down while leaving you blissfully unaware in the process: here their technical and physical ease produced a lulling effect, an unspoken agreement that this is the way things always are.
Perhaps the way they always will be, too, judging by the run that has seen six of their last seven knockout ties continue beyond regulation time.
Croatia’s confidence that, however long and laborious the process, events will turn out to their liking is well earned. The thought upon marvelling at Perisic’s equaliser was that, for all the enterprise and initiative of Hajime Moriyasu’s side, only one player on this pitch had scored in a World Cup final. That experience grants you the vision needed to distil a match to your terms, your tempo, your way of pulling through.
The encouragement for Japan is that they are getting closer. This was their fourth round of 16 exit, all of them achingly close and two having been inflicted by spot kicks. The earlier agony from 12 yards came in 2010 at the end of a historically dreary face-off with Paraguay in Pretoria: that Japan team was tough, adept, a handful in most departments, but had little of the brio this vintage displays.
Their best players operate at top European clubs and most are young enough for another crack. If Croatia are proof that lived experience gives you the edge to navigate those fine margins, the shared journey Japan have undertaken in overhauling deficits against Spain and Germany before falling short will surely be archived as a priceless resource to delve into when inspiration is required in future. They are not yet in the top bracket of international sides but the road there is becoming increasingly clear.
Croatia point the way. Perhaps they will have to evolve once Modric, still a peerless traffic director at 37, opts to stand down. That day is, according to Dalic, not coming any time soon.
Modric’s 24-year-old replacement in extra time, Lovro Majer, was a spark after his arrival and dragged a presentable opening wide at the end. But this was another evening for the methodical and the metronomic: Croatia did not quite walk Japan into submission but they led them expertly to the cliff edge.
Modric fiddled with his hair as he walked off, not showing much sign of concern that his days on this stage could have been numbered. He and Croatia will do it all again against Brazil: reducing Vínicius Jr, Neymar and company to their pace could yet have this competition’s likely winners on the run.
Old habits die hard, as Croatia and Japan can testify. The 2018 finalists took another World Cup tie to extra time before triumphing over a Japan team that was condemned to yet another last-16 exit on penalties.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the Croatian hero with three saves in the shootout. Japan’s penalties were as poor as the previous 120 minutes had been as Livakovic saved low from Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and the captain, Maya Yoshida, before Mario Pasalic converted Croatia’s fourth and third successful spot-kick.
Six of Croatia’s last seven knockout games at major tournaments have gone to extra time, the only exception being their final defeat by France in Russia four years ago, and cool heads prevailed yet again.
Japan’s veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo had evoked the spirit of the Samurai on the eve of the game but this was less warrior and more hypnotherapist trying to cure insomnia. Incense burning in the corner. The game had penalties written all over it long before the painful reality arrived for Japan, who have now suffered four World Cup exits at the last-16 stage.
Hajime Moriyasu’s team had merited a half-time lead on account of sharper distribution, movement and intelligent set-pieces, although it was a low-quality affair. There was a subdued atmosphere in the stands where thousands of seats remained empty in the 44,325-capacity arena and 42,523 was given as the official attendance. Not a chance.
There was a sluggish first-half performance from Croatia too with Zlatko Dalic’s players showing signs of tiredness in their fourth game of the tournament. Their dulled edges allowed Japan to avoid punishment for several defensive errors. Samurai Blue took the game to Croatia initially. Shogo Taniguchi sent a glancing header wide from a well-worked short corner involving Junya Ito and Wataru Endo. The defender’s reaction confirmed he should have found the target after escaping the attentions of opposition centre-halves Dejan Lovren and Josko Gvardiol.
Ito frequently beat Borna Barisic for pace and his deliveries from the right unsettled the Croatia defence in the opening exchanges. Daizen Maeda and Nagatomo both just failed to connect with one inviting cross along the face of goal. Daichi Kamada squandered another decent opportunity, slicing over after Hidemasa Morita, Maeda and Endo had combined impressively to release him inside the Croatia area.
Croatia’s brightest moments of a flat first half stemmed from Japanese errors rather than their gifted midfield of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu committed the first when, attempting to turn a long clearance back to the safety of his goalkeeper, he received a slight push from Ivan Perisic and mis-kicked.
The Tottenham midfielder sprinted clear but was denied from a tight angle by the Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda. The lumbering Bruno Petkovic, handed his first start of the World Cup, was crowded out on the rebound. Petkovic found himself through on goal when Gvardiol’s long ball out of defence resulted in a breakdown in communications in Japan’s backline. The Dinamo Zagreb forward lacked the pace to execute a finish but had Andrej Kramaric completely unmarked to his right. A woeful attempt to find his fellow striker summed up Croatia’s first-half display.
Japan established a deserved lead shortly before the break from another smart corner routine. Ritsu Doan, rewarded with a start for his goalscoring substitute appearances against Germany and Spain, played it short to Kamada. He found Morita, who returned possession to Doan. Taniguchi met the attacking midfielder’s inswinging cross with a glancing header that struck Petkovic and fell perfectly for Maeda, and the Celtic striker gave Livakovic no chance from close range.
At that stage the World Cup was drifting away from Croatia and the 2018 runners-up were heading home with a whimper. But they produced the second-half improvement that was desperately required to drag another tournament knockout tie to extra time.
Croatia levelled 10 minutes after the restart and in style when Perisic met Lovren’s deep cross with a precise, powerful header into Gonda’s bottom left-hand corner. It travelled some distance too and brought Perisic his 10th goal at a major tournament, overtaking Davor Suker’s Croatian record of nine.
Gonda tipped over to prevent Modric edging Croatia ahead with a dipping shot from 25 yards and Livakovic did likewise to deny Endo at the other end. Otherwise there was precious little incident or finesse as the tie drifted towards extra time, where the miserable ordeal continued. Nikola Vlasic and Brozovic scored their spot-kicks before Marko Livaja casually hit a post but, with Japan losing their nerve and Livakovic excelling, it fell to Pasalic to send Croatia through.
Samurai Blue is more than just a nickname to Japan. To hear the veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo speak on the eve of their last‑16 tie against Croatia was to receive a rousing education in how it relates to the character of a national team fighting to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
“To use the analogy of the samurai,” the 36-year-old began, “before they go into battle they polish their weapons and improve their technique. But if they are scared in battle they will not be able to use their weapons or their technique properly. It is the same in football. Tactics and technique are important but if you are scared on the field they are useless. To maximise all the tactics we have been practising in the last four years we need courage. The Japanese samurai is famous around the world and we would like to fight like samurais. Tomorrow we would like to showcase how courageously we fight.”
No prizes for guessing who delivers the team talks in the Japan dressing room. The manager, Hajime Moriyasu, was considerably more restrained than the former Internazionale full-back, stressing the need for courage but also for his players to “be themselves”, adding: “They should not be so tense that they forget what they are doing. They have shown their ability and now they can see it produces results.”
Yet there is substance behind Nagatomo’s rallying cry. Japan have come from behind to beat two of the past three world champions in Qatar and did so with only 27% possession against Germany and 18% against Spain, the lowest figure in a World Cup match since 1966. To fight, to never give in, have been hallmarks of their progress to the knockout phase.
“There is an Italian word ‘coraggio’ which means courage,” Nagatomo said. “Before the first game against Germany I shook hands with all the players and we shouted ‘coraggio’ together. Coraggio has manifested itself in our play. We are united as one and that is Japan’s strength. I think we are the most united team at this World Cup. We came through the group stage as No 1. We are very confident now. We don’t need to shout ‘coraggio’ any more.”
Japan need to erase painful memories from their football history on Monday, however. Samurai Blue have reached the last 16 of a World Cup three times and three times they have tasted defeat, each one harder to take than the last. After a 1-0 loss on home soil against Turkey in 2002 came a penalty shootout defeat by Paraguay in 2010. In 2018 they led Belgium 2-0 but Nacer Chadli completed the Red Devils’ comeback with a 94th‑minute winner.
“I’ve never forgotten that battle with Belgium; it has always remained with me,” Nagatomo said. “Sometimes I will just suddenly remember something from that game. The last four years were very tough for me but we have overcome those challenging four years and we have grown mentally and physically. I have participated in a World Cup four times and as far as I can see this is the best and strongest Japan team in the history of the World Cup.”
Moriyasu said lessons had been learned since 2018 and that Japan have improved because of individual development. That in turn, he believes, has enabled Japan – along with South Korea – to be standard bearers for east Asia on the global stage. But his sights are much higher.
Japan’s manager said: “In order for Japan to win the World Cup we have been strengthening and nurturing youth players. At the same time the Japan football association has a target of contributing to Asian football by sending Japanese coaches to many countries in the region. It is great that Japan is contributing so much to the development of Asian football but unless we can win a World Cup we cannot lead other countries.”
Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia head coach, believes there are parallels between the teams in terms of character and as two proud football nations succeeding in upsetting the established order.
“We reached the final in 2018 because we believed in ourselves, we never gave up, we never surrender and we are prepared to fight,” he said. “I think we have similar mentalities and we are on equal ground. There are 4 million Croats and the results we have achieved in the last couple of years on the world stage is a miracle. We have become a world force and when we deliver great results at a World Cup we know we are bringing great joy to our country. We are the smallest country with the smallest population in the last 16. We are here against the odds.” And looking to bury the last of the samurai.
Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?
To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?
Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.
At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.
For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.
Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.
It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.
In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?
It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.
Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.
Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.
Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.
Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.
But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.
Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.
The truth is Romelu Lukaku probably should have departed the pitch cradling the match ball but the painful reality is the striker left empty-handed, his hat-trick of second-half misses condemning Belgium to a damning and premature World Cup exit. The worst one of all came deep into stoppage time. Thorgan Hazard crossed from the right and an unmarked Lukaku made a beeline for the six-yard box but instead of converting from close range the ball bumbled off of his chest and into the arms of the Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. Thierry Henry, one of Roberto Martínez’s assistants, covered his eyes with his tracksuit top. Thomas Meunier chucked a water bottle into the ground. Yannick Carrasco threw a towel over his face. At the final whistle, Lukaku punched through the perspex encasing the Belgium dugout in pure rage before being consoled by Youri Tielemans.
Cue the jokes about Lukaku finally hitting the target. Toby Alderweireld, one of those who surely will not return to this stage, lay on the turf. In the stands a very much on-brand Belgium supporter dressed, naturally, as a bright yellow cone of chips stood hands in pockets in disbelief. Some Belgium fans earlier jeered the arrival of Eden Hazard who entered from the substitutes’ bench for the final seven minutes. For Belgium’s golden generation, this last hurrah fell so painfully flat and afterwards Martínez confirmed this unedifying exit would represent his last game in charge. “I can’t carry on,” he said. Croatia, runners-up four years ago, go through to play the winners of Group E in the last 16, most likely Spain.
In mitigation, Lukaku, who also cannoned a shot against a post, arrived in Qatar on the back of two substitute appearances since August. Perhaps it was no surprise the Internazionale striker was rusty. Not that it makes the circumstances surrounding Belgium’s deeply underwhelming tournament any easier to explain.
At the outset Kevin De Bruyne had dismissed Belgium’s chances of lifting the trophy and in recent days Belgium had to play down talk of rifts after Hazard criticised the sluggish makeup of an ageing defence. The sight of Martínez wildly protesting at the fourth official at the failure to award a back pass against the impressive Josko Gvardiol epitomised the frustrations.
That a Mexican wave rippled around this ground on 41 minutes as Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen tossed the ball from side to side spoke volumes of the entertainment on offer in a first half where the only drama was a VAR review that led the referee, Anthony Taylor, to revoke the award of a Croatia penalty. Vertonghen headed a free-kick clear from the edge of the six-yard box but when Carrasco failed to trap the ball he proceeded to foul Andrej Kramaric, prompting Taylor to point to the spot. Luka Modric grabbed the ball and Croatia’s substitutes lined the edge of the technical area in anticipation – if not expectation – but then Taylor visited the pitchside VAR monitor, which detailed Dejan Lovren was offside when challenging Vertonghen inside the box. The big screens at either end showing AI-technology replays emphasised the tightness of the call.
At 35 Vertonghen was the oldest player in a starting lineup with the eldest average age at a World Cup since Australia’s against Germany in 2010. Martínez’s big call was to leave Eden Hazard on the bench until the 87th minute, with the Real Madrid forward among four players dropped after defeat to Morocco. Dries Mertens and Leandro Trossard made their first starts of the tournament. At almost 27 the Leicester City full-back Timothy Castagne was the puppy of the side.
Belgium made a shaky start – Ivan Perisic curled a shot wide inside 11 seconds after being released by Modric and a minute later Leander Dendoncker was chasing a red-and-white chequered Croatia shirt facing his own goal – and while they roused Martínez changed personnel and system at half-time, the introduction of Lukaku the trigger for a switch to a 3-4-3. Lukaku’s presence gave Croatia something to think about and the defender Gvardiol panicked and stuck out his left leg at the front post to prevent De Bruyne’s cross from reaching the lurking Lukaku. A minute later Lukaku sent a tame header at Livakovic from a De Bruyne cross. Then he sent a header over from another De Bruyne cross, although the offside flag would have ensured any celebrations were shortlived.
But as this game, which burst into life in the second half, ticked towards the hour mark Belgium stitched together a slick move, from which they will wonder how they did not prosper. Particularly Lukaku. De Bruyne angled a wonderful pass, as if by subterfuge, into Carrasco, whose fine first touch allowed him to tip-toe between two Croatia defenders and mosey towards goal.
Carrasco seemed to do everything right but his shot was blocked by the boot of the outstretched Josip Juranovic, who darted in front of Livakovic in desperation. The ball then spiralled invitingly across the box for Lukaku but he could only send a rasping strike against Livakovic’s left post. The maddening thing for Lukaku and Belgium was that worse – much worse – was still to come.
The softly spoken Fifa translator paused for a moment. But she held her nerve. “In the end,” she said as she relayed man-of-the-match Andrej Kramaric’s words, “Croatia demonstrated who eff’d whom.”
Sunday night at the Khalifa Stadium was a cruel, chastening one for Canada. The ignominy didn’t end at the final whistle. Kramaric, whose two goals came in an emphatic 4-1 Canadian defeat, was joined by his manager Zlatko Dalic at the post-match top table where the final words, no matter which language you translate them into, were all Croatian.
What part did Herdman’s “Eff Croatia” comments play in it all? Enough. Enough of a part for them to account for at least 20%, maybe 25%, of the combined questions from the floor after the Croatia game. But zoom out and look at the four days as a whole and there is, if not a pattern, then a patch. A sticky patch of naivety off and then on the field that brought Canada’s return to the men’s World Cup to such a screeching halt.
As largely harmless as they were, Herdman’s words did not help Canada. Why? Because they clearly helped Croatia. And the 2018 World Cup finalists, already operating on a higher plane than Concacaf’s top qualifiers, definitely didn’t need a leg up. Of all the teams to provide some bulletin-board motivation to, a gnarled veteran Croatian core coming off a dispiriting opening stalemate with Morocco is not one of them. Even to observe Kramaric and Dalic without the help of a translator told you as much. It was written on their faces.
Herdman said he didn’t regret his words and then intimated that he did. He was processing it all in real time and, as Wednesday had taught him, that can be risky.
“No, not at all,” he replied when asked if he wished he hadn’t used the f-word. “As I keep saying, we’re here to push as far as we can. We’re here to change the mentality of the group. I could have been a bit more composed coming out of the huddle. That’s my learning. I’ll take that on the chin.”
If the comments and the ensuing Croatian tabloid mockery had helped turn an already chaotic Group F into Group Eff, it was Herdman’s job to get it all back on an even keel. That was something Canada never had Sunday at Khalifa Stadium. They roared out of the gates and Alphonso Davies created personal and national history with the fastest goal of this World Cup and the Canadian men’s first in any edition. For the next 20 minutes they searched for a second. But they never settled. So Croatia did. And naivety cost Herdman, and Canada, a second time.
Captain Atiba Hutchison is beloved, an older brother to the other 25 players here. He was winning his 100th cap a couple of months before his 40th birthday. But as Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic got a grip and then ran rampant through the middle, Hutchinson was bypassed and bullied. Porto’s Stephen Eustaquio was hobbled by injury but inexplicably both were left in to flail and inevitably Croatia turned it all around.
Hutchinson was partially or prominently at fault for three Croatian goals yet Herdman argued that his captain was “next level” before admitting soon after that he could have made changes sooner.
“I think there are small margins,” he said. “For me it’s trying to get those tactical shifts in earlier. In that first half there was a moment where Modric and Brozovic had started to pick apart our midfield two and we needed a tactical shift a little bit quicker and maybe needed the subs a bit quicker. It might have made the difference. I’ve got to reflect. I’m a bit raw at the moment.”
When he did belatedly make the changes, Herdman brought in rising star Ismaël Koné and veteran Jonathan Osorio. A decade separates the two players but what ties them is that neither has ever played outside MLS. And here they were being sent into the white heat of a decisive World Cup game to tame a Croatian midfield built from Real Madrid, Chelsea and Internazionale. It’s the kind of moment to pause and realise how far Canada have come – and how far they still have to go.
In that wider context, Herdman was of course right to say he was “proud of what they achieved … we came here to make history.” Davies’ storming header was historic, an instant Canadian heritage moment. But zoom in again and it counted for little.
The team weren’t tipped by many to make it out of a group that was expected – and has proven to be – one of the least predictable and most competitive here. But for it to all be over before the final group game stings. Herdman will regroup for Morocco on Thursday and hope his side can have a say in how the group shakes out. But not too loud of a say. That lesson has been learned.
Having beaten Canada 4-1 the Croatia coach, Zlatko Dalic, and the forward, Andrej Kramaric, made it clear that they were unimpressed by John Herdman’s comments before the game and the fact he walked off without shaking the hand of his opposite number.
After Canada’s first game at the 2022 World Cup, an unfortunate 1-0 defeat against Belgium, an emotional Herdman said of his team in a TV interview: “I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and ‘eff’ Croatia.”
Having scored two goals on Sunday to confirm Canada’s elimination at the group stage, Kramaric referenced Herdman’s now-infamous comment. “I’d like to thank the Canada manager for motivation. In the end, Croatia showed who ‘effed’ who.”
Dalic had repeatedly decried his counterpart’s lack of respect in the run-up to the match on Sunday. It also became a central talking point back in Zagreb, where the country’s 24 Sata tabloid ran a front-page photo of a naked Herdman with Canadian flags over his mouth and groin region and a headline that read: “You have the mouth, but do you have the [balls] as well?”
On Sunday night, after Kramaric’s double and strikes from Marko Livaja and Lovro Majer followed an early opener from Alphonso Davies, Dalic said: “I did not see the other head coach after the match. Whether I lose or win I always congratulate the winner.”
“He [Herdman] was not there and that’s his way of doing things,” Dalic added. “He’s obviously mad. He’s a good coach, he is a high-quality professional, but it will take some time for him to learn some things.”
Already a national hero after guiding Canada’s women’s national team to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Herdman has elevated his profile even further by lifting the men’s side back into the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
But the 47-year-old manager from Consett in County Durham admitted on Sunday that he may have spoken recklessly. “I could have been a little bit more composed coming out of the huddle, but that’s my learning,” Herdman said.
“I’ll take that on the chin. But from a mindset point of view, I think we showed in that first 25 minutes, that little old Canada can compete with the best in the world.”
Alphonso Davies needed only 68 seconds to write his name into history as Canada’s first goalscorer at a men’s World Cup. But a dream opening spiralled rapidly into a nightmare when the fastest goal of the tournament so far was cancelled out by Andrej Kramaric (twice), Marko Livaja and Lovro Majer, whose clinical ripostes vaulted Croatia to the top of Group F alongside surprise package Morocco and sent Canada crashing out of their second ever World Cup, nearly four decades after their mostly forgettable debut.
Morocco’s shock 2-0 win over Belgium earlier on Sunday, their first World Cup victory in 24 years and the Belgium’s first group-stage defeat since 1994, had narrowed Canada’s path to the knockout stage but did nothing to change the stakes on the night. John Herdman’s group needed a win or a draw to keep alive their hopes of advancing from a suddenly topsy-turvy group.
Four days after a frustrating 1-0 defeat to Belgium – where Canada became the first side to attempt in 44 years at least 20 shots and a penalty in a game while failing to score – Canada’s first World Cup goal was a thing of sweeping beauty worth the 36-year wait. A long, accurate distribution from goalkeeper Milan Borjan found Tajon Buchanan, who calmly waited on the touchline for Davies to make his run. The 22-year-old Bayern Munich full-back galloped down the pitch in full stride, rising between Josip Juranovic and Dejan Lovren and heading Buchanan’s perfect cross into the back of the net.
It was a spot of redemption for Davies, whose poorly taken penalty in the opening minutes against Belgium cost his side dearly – and perhaps fatally, as it turns out. Canada had to learn to win in Davies’ absence during their run through Concacaf qualifying, when he missed seven of the final 14 matches but Herdman’s team still managed to score more and concede fewer goals than any other side. But there is no question who the star player is and he has shown it throughout Canada’s better moments in Qatar.
The early goal left Croatia momentarily shellshocked as Canada, a blur of collective movement in their black kit, poured on the attack. But it was not long before the big-name holdovers from the World Cup runners-up in 2018 – Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic – found their footing and got matters under control in midfield. Gradually, they got more organised in attack and put one question after another to Canada’s increasingly vulnerable defence.
Croatia appeared to equalise when Kramaric careened around a thicket of black shirts and slid a rolling shot past Borjan after 26 minutes, but he was ruled offside by inches. They came even closer shortly after when Kovacic threaded a beautiful pass to Livaja – Zlatko Dalic’s lone change from the opener against Morocco – whose shot was turned away by the Canada goalkeeper.
The breakthrough when it came seemed inevitable as Perisic slipped through pass into the box for Kramaric, who finished with aplomb and was mobbed by his teammates. By the end of the half it was Croatia controlling possession and threatening with regularity until Livaja’s left-footed missile from a step outside the area tore into the netting for Croatia’s second goal, silencing the thousands of red-clad Canadian supporters packed into the south end of the Khalifa International Stadium.
Herdman, the 47-year-old Consett in County Durham, made a pair of changes at half-time – the young midfielder Ismaël Koné for the injured Stephen Eustáquio and Jonathan Osorio for Cyle Larin – and went to a three-man back line shortly after. Canada responded with a pair of promising chances in the opening 10 minutes, but the tactical fine-tuning was no answer for the humming Croatian midfield, who launched one counterattack after another that left Canada’s defence on the back foot.
Kramaric nearly had a second in the 54th minute when he found himself unattended at the top of the area only for his shot to be turned away by Borjan. The double finally came in the 70th minute when the Hoffenheim striker calmly collected a cross from Ivan Perisic inside the area and took one touch before firing a left-footed shot into the far corner through the legs of the captain, Atiba Hutchinson, the lone Canadian player who was alive the last time the country played in a World Cup and whose 100th international appearance will be one to forget. Majer made it four deep into stoppage time after a ghastly mistake by Kamal Miller, sending Croatia’s ultras into a state of delirium.
Canada had not even come close to qualifying for the World Cup since their first and only appearance back in 1986, when they crashed out of the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the USSR without scoring a goal. Eight years ago, they were down to 122nd in the Fifa rankings, having been frozen out of the final round of Concacaf qualifying once again by an 8-1 bludgeoning at the hands of Honduras, before finally plotting a return to the sport’s biggest stage. This time they have shown far better, playing enthralling football at times, but will head home with cruelly little to show for it before co-hosting in four years’ time.
Canada had just lost the first men’s World Cup match they had played in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a post-game huddle. “I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and eff Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, attempting to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
His words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approaches. Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a full-page photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the balls as well?”
“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” Herdman said the following day. “It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.
Canada have played only four men’s World Cup games in their history and are still searching for their first goal. The Canadians had 21 shots to Belgium’s nine on Wednesday but conceded a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass on a counter. Alphonso Davies had had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty was saved by Thibaut Courtois.
“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said. “I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”
The captain, Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current squad alive when Canada lost all three games at the 1986 World Cup, could make his 100th international appearance on Sunday – Julian de Guzman is second with 89. The midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the 2018 World Cup runners-up. “We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”