The aftermath of Croatia’s World Cup win was dominated by unfair accusations from Luka Modric and Sime Vrsaljko about so-called English arrogance.
England’s narrow World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia in Moscow was far from a depressing experience for fans of the Three Lions.
Of course, losing stings and coming so close to a first major tournament final since 1966 will hurt for some time to come. But it’s easy to forget exactly what this country’s international side was between 1996 and 2016. And there was no humiliation, no daylight robbery: England were fairly but narrowly outlasted in extra time by a nation with that little bit extra about them.
All of those positives, including Gareth Southgate’s transformation of a young and hungry squad with a refreshing attitude in interviews, helped soothe the agony of failure… that is, until several post-match quotes emerged from a select few Croatian footballers.
“English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia and that was a huge mistake,” Luka Modric told ITV . “They should be more humble and respect more opponents.
“All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying, ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired’.”
These complaints from Modric were as unfair as they were unnecessary. Every England supporter will agree that Southgate has bred the exact opposite attitude of his players, who have behaved in exemplary fashion – a far cry from some of the primadonnas of past England campaigns.
Meanwhile, the majority of the country’s media have exercised extreme caution in assessing their chances of going all the way – chances that most of them valued at zero as recently as the end of the group stages.
Perhaps Modric saw some predict that England would win the semi-final. Given only one of two teams could win it and given that it required 120 minutes to separate the two hopeful finalists, it’s hard to derive arrogance or entitlement from making such a call.
Perhaps he was offended by calls for Southgate and his squad to be knighted if they won the World Cup or by the English FA’s plans to begin preparing a victory parade if they beat Croatia. Both were merely hypothetical suggestions and nothing sinister, regardless of what Roy Keane would have you think following his angry post-match outburst at Ian Wright on ITV .
Maybe the Real Madrid man was wound up by the ‘It’s Coming Home’ memes, which became a social sensation in England and spread around the globe. It is true that many ex-England footballers and current pundits have joined in with the fun, proclaiming that the Three Lions were going to win the World Cup.
But if Modric sees this as arrogance, then he probably believes half the world’s population really has been hit by WWE superstar Randy Orton’s finishing move, or that Batman lays a right hand on Robin every time he opens his mouth.
Right-back Sime Vrsaljko couldn’t help but get a dig in, too.
“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield,” he said.
“But, when we pressed them, it turned out that they haven’t.”
This was an unfortunate and stereotypical opinion. While it is true that only three of England’s 12 goals in Russia came from open play, England’s underachievement over the last two decades has had very little to do with a reliance on route one, nor was there a particular overabundance of it in Moscow, at least not to the extent that Vrsaljko likes to pretend.
Such comments dampened the mood and cast a Croatia side that has done so much right in Russia in a bad light. But perhaps, this was all in the Croatian script all along.
The semi-final was won and lost on fine margins. It was always going to be a tight encounter, especially in such a high-stakes scenario. And sometimes in sport, if you cannot find that extra level to take you beyond your next opponent, you just have to make one up, instead.
Croatia convincing themselves that they were the poor little underdogs that England and their media assumed they were going to crash was, judging by the over-exuberant comments in the mixed zone, that extra level of motivation and that additional distraction from the tolls of a long and arduous tournament. That was the ‘little extra’ which turned a 1-1 game of two halves over 90 minutes into their game to win – and win they did.
In truth, it wasn’t disrespectful for the English media to note that Croatia had played half an hour longer than England, just as it won’t be disrespectful to point out that they have now clocked in 90 more minutes than fellow finalists France.
This isn’t the first time someone has used ‘the evil media’ as a false narrative to stimulate their players. It won’t be the last. And, to be honest, Southgate himself should take note of its effect on Wednesday.
If England are to go that one step further and reach a final over 50 years in the making during his time in charge, perhaps Southgate’s refreshing honesty and gentlemanly conduct needs to be reined in.
Whether England are rank outsiders or tournament favourites, many teams find it so easy to motivate themselves to take down the country known for its imperialism and oppressive empire.
Of course, sometimes the English media doesn’t help to change this image. One Engish tabloid caused deep offence and outrage in Colombia ahead of the second round clash with the entirely predictable and pathetic front page headline:
“As 3 Lions face nation that gave world Shakira, great coffee and er, other stuff…we say: GO KANE!”
It even caused a diplomatic incident with Colombia’s ambassador to the UK, Néstor Osorio-Londoño, roaring: “It is rather sad that they use such a festive and friendly environment, as the World Cup, to target a country and continue to stigmatize it with a completely unrelated issue.”
But there will always be exceptions when it comes to the tabloids who shouldn’t represent the English media as a whole.
Having said that, if England are to ever see another major final, they probably should take a page from the book of Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić and his squad, who have used Russia’s home advantage, an England meme and no doubt soon Paul Pogba’s media image to play the role of Rocky Balboa despite having several world class talents at their disposal.
As for Croatia, one has to hope they haven’t overplayed their hand. The true lies have worked up to this point without a word needing to be said on the matter. Now that they couldn’t resist the urge to gloat, it is Didier Deschamps who could have all the motivational material he needs to help France take their ‘arrogant’ opposition down a peg or two.