The first of four quarter-finals for the 2022 World Cup took place on Friday afternoon, and fans inside the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan watched a tense first 45 minutes.
Luka Modric had gazed into the distance as Brazil finally found their breakthrough and voice. As Neymar dashed away after exchanging one-twos with Rodrygo and then Lucas Pacqueta before finishing high into the Croatia net, the curtain came down on an epic career at the pinnacle of international football.
But, twenty minutes later, Modric was cruising on the back of Ivan Perisic, chasing goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, and they were all charging towards another World Cup semi-final. Modric had been carrying Croatia for so long. It was a ride he needed and deserved after another 120 minutes of pure heart and dedication on 37-year-old legs.
How does he accomplish this? How do they accomplish this? Croatia has fought and denied to die once more. That’s what they do. They suffocate you in an airless room, desperate for the opportunity to breathe again.
Croatia’s existence in the latter stages of a major tournament is their lifeblood when their population of 4.5 million assumes they should have no chance.
While Bruno Petkovic saved Croatia with a deflected effort past Alisson, it was Modric getting the ball back from his friend and former teammate Casemiro at the start of the move that saved their hopes.
It has defined Modric as much as his skill and poise. The graft; the never-ending tracking back after forages forward, the touch to dangle a foot into a challenge and emerge, bursting away, with the ball tied to his boot. It was required here, on the thinnest of margins.
Modric played three games on a booking without stepping out of line, knowing that one more would rule him out of Croatia’s final match. He’d been taken off in extra time against Japan, forcing him to watch the shoot-out from the sidelines, and there was no way that would happen again. He now has another semi-final to contend with.
Croatia has advanced once more. They did so by playing at their own pace, prolonging a knockout match at a major tournament past 90 minutes for the second time.
Brazil had danced their path into the quarter-finals by defeating South Korea 4-1 in the first half. It was a game that could have been over in 12 minutes, but Brazil quickly realised that this would be a much lengthier and more difficult affair.