Why is it that when it comes to the knockout stages of major tournaments, skillful, swashbuckling, breathtakingly creative players brimming with talent become timorous mice? What is so scary about trying to win by playing actual football that they would rather subject themselves to the arbitrary lottery of a penalty shootout than choose to take charge of their own destiny? How to explain two teams with players possessed of the footballing gifts of Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Ricardo Quaresma, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic didn’t manage a single shot on target until the 117th minute, which turned out to be the Portuguese winner?
After their exciting showing in the group stages, culminating in an unexpected and thrilling victory against Spain, Croatia had gone from dark horses to one of the favourites for the tournament. The onus was on Croatia to take the game by the scruff of the neck against opponents who had barely scraped through the group stages. Yet, just at the moment when they should have stepped up a gear and shown intent and drive, they retreated into their shell and seemed content to meander through the match until its seemingly inevitable conclusion of a penalty shootout.
It was only in the final minutes of extra time that Croatia ventured forward with any intent; and they nearly got their reward. Ivan Perisic finally found space and made a run down the left and squared a dangerous ball into the 6 yard box that skimmed agonisingly past an on-rushing Kalinic. Moments later, Perisic hit the post from a header and it seemed that, belatedly, Croatia were in the ascendancy. But then they made a fatal mistake. Perisic’s header rebounded off the post to Brozovic in the 18 yard box, but instead of moving the ball forward he passed it back to Strinic on the left sideline, who was instantly pressured by two Portugal players, yet not a single teammate came to help him. Inevitably, Strinic lost the ball to the two pressing Portuguese players, one of whom was a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who proceeded to play a perfect pass into the middle to up and coming young player Renato Sanches.
With the Croatians committed up front, Sanches was free to drive the ball forward unhindered towards the penalty area and passed it to Nani on the left. Nani’s shot/cross bypassed Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, and who happened to be behind him? Yes, that certain Cristiano Ronaldo. He had barely touched the ball in the penalty area all game, but like all great, talismanic players, he has a tendency to be there when it matters most. It was he who hit the first shot on target in the match. A scuffed shot saved by the Croatian keeper, but alas for him his save rebounded straight to Ricardo Quaresma (the other player who had helped win the ball from Croatia), who was handily standing right in front of the goal. The players may not have known how to hit the target for nigh on 117 minutes, but even Quaresma couldn’t miss from 2 yards out.
Portugal had scored on the counter attack, but not because Croatia had finally dared to try and win the match and got caught out, but because at the crucial moment, they didn’t have each other’s backs. When Croatia were attacking and the player with the ball was being pressured, no teammate helped him out, and the team paid the price.
For all their talent, when it really mattered, Croatia lacked the gumption to be winners. And when it mattered, Ronaldo, who had been no more than a peripheral figure throughout the match, was back in his own half helping a teammate put pressure on the Croatian player. When he had won the ball, it was he who passed it to Sanches in acres of space; it was he who then stormed up to the penalty area in support; it was he who raised his arm and demanded the ball; it was he who hit the first shot on target in the entire match, and it was from his shot that Quaresma scored the winning goal. Ultimately, it was Ronaldo’s desire and drive that won the match. It was a fleeting moment of quality in the most dismal and depressing of football matches.
Portugal may have been the winners but it was football and the unfortunate fans in the stadium, who had forked out a fortune, who were the losers.