Here’s to the flying chessboards

To?! That’s “What?!” in Croatian. We all knew Croatia could do some damage at this tournament. We knew they had two El Clásico-dwelling monsters in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, plus a less-famous array of quick, big and accomplished technicians all over the pitch. But who seriously backed them to go all the way? If you did, I salute you.

Suddenly, surreally, the prospect of Croatian hands lifting the fabled trophy is plausible. Ask the French: they would have preferred England as their opponents on Sunday evening.

The history of the World Cup has conditioned us to expect the trophy to be reserved for the major football nations — those blessed with substantial populations, economic might and glamorous, wealthy club leagues. When France and then Spain lifted the cup for the first time, their victories were seen as the natural and inevitable reward for decades of centrality in the football power map.

But that unwritten rule has just been broken by the patient excellence of these tireless flying chessboards, who represent the dreams of just four million souls at the sleepy edge of Europe. Not since Hungary and Sweden got to the final, way back in the 1950s, has such a tiny country travelled so far on the world’s greatest sporting stage.

Croatia’s progress has been arduous and stylish in equal measure. They are murderously fit, and they are totally unafraid of any team they come across. And their team spirit is impregnable: whenever a Croat miscues an attempted through-ball, the intended recipient applauds the intention warmly, no matter how crappy the pass actually was. They brace each other’s morale.

Not that these dudes need much psychological coddling when things get messy: they have nerves like jumper cables. When they fell behind early to Kieran Trippier’s free kick, the English jumped to unwarranted conclusions. The Croats simply shrugged it off and got down to business.

Of course, this imposing generation of Frenchmen will be the toughest side that the underdogs have faced in this campaign — and Les Bleus have themselves proven their mental resilience with that superb comeback victory against Argentina. Will the extra 90 minutes played by the Croats in the knockout rounds — three periods of extra time in succession — prove critical? Perhaps. But as we’ve already seen, the siren of unprecedented glory is a miracle cure for muscular wear and tear.

The odds favour France — but the gods surely favour Croatia.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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