The Greatest World Cup Fairy Tale of All Time

Croatia’s unlikely march through the tournament is like the story of a nation that managed to barely survive.

Players from the Croatia team celebrate after the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup
Players from the Croatia team celebrate after the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup (AP)

England is the birthplace of both soccer and dramatic irony. For several decades, the two native traditions merged. As if scripted by Charles Dickens or Henry Fielding, the fate awaiting English soccer was visible to everyone—except the nation itself. Deluded by its triumph in the 1966 World Cup, the country set itself expectations that it could never possibly fulfill—and it didn’t. Inevitable debacle followed debacle, each accompanied by ritualized bouts of self-immolation. Players were accused of lacking commitment to the cause; wags bemoaned the nation’s paucity of technical acumen.

This time, there was no foreshadowing of crushing defeat, because there was no sense of expectation. England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, had played a central role in some of England’s past catastrophes. And he seemed hell-bent on tamping down any thought that his team might win the tournament. If you’ve ever listened to the meditative app Headspace, Southgate is like its soporific zen master, Andy Puddicombe, with an almost narcotic capacity to numb and becalm.

Then the unlikely happened. The squad—young, slightly patchwork—started to win the sorts of games that have usually induced English choking. Its intricate passing seemed to finally dispose of England’s deeply ingrained habit of aimlessly kicked balls in the direction of the box. Kieran Trippier, the team’s bombarding right back, became one of the breakout stars of the tournament. The slogan “It’s Coming Home,” an allusion to England’s invention of the global game, was chanted ironically; then it began to be trumpeted earnestly. But at the moment the country worked itself into a frenzy, it was almost inevitable that the plot would punish England again for permitting itself a sense of self-belief.

By halftime of today’s semifinals, England led the game and even commanded it. It played with speed and smothered the midfield. Every corner kick or free kick it launched seemed a clever scheme, designed to induce Croatian panic. And there was every reason to believe that, after two consecutive games that extended to penalty kicks, Croatia was bereft of the energy that could fuel a comeback. Therefore, we need to bow down before Croatia’s slightly ragged victory.

There are nearly four times more undocumented immigrants in the United States than the total population of Croatia. If metropolitan Philadelphia decided to secede and start its own nation, it would have a far bigger population pool to draw from than the Croats. The World Cup is historically a cartel—owned by a small handful of populous industrial nations—that Croatia stands on the brink of cracking.

Soccer, however, is at the core of its national narrative. It can be argued that the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, which culminated in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the birth of independent Croatia, began at a soccer match. It took place in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in the spring of 1990. Thugs from the Serb club Red Star Belgrade rushed from their section of the stadium toward Croatian fans chanting, “Zagreb is Serbian.” A full-fledged riot ensued, with stabbings, shootings, and dozens of grave injuries. These casualties came in the shadow of Croatia’s first genuine elections in 50 years—and the riots helped propel Croatian separatists to victory. In other words, that game helped set in motion a chain of events that culminated in today’s game.

One of the interesting themes of this tournament is how the Balkan Wars continue to ripple through time. Switzerland was a team filled with refugees from the region, Kosovars who celebrated their goals with nationalist gestures that earned them an official reprimand from FIFA.

Luka Modric, the Tolkien-esque wizard at the core of the Croatian midfield, was himself a refugee. Serbian militia burned down his family’s home, and murdered his grandfather and six of his relatives. His family was consigned to live in a hotel, where he played soccer in the parking lot. Or take Mario Mandžukić, who scored today’s winning goal. As a child, he fled to Germany to wait out the war.

There’s no reason to ascribe today’s victory to this experience. (Uruguay, another tiny country, manages to constantly succeed without a sense of historic mission or any need for national redemption.) But as a neutral, I find myself savoring Croatia’s unlikely, tenuous march through the tournament—how its success is like the story of a nation that managed to barely survive. Long before England managed to escape the curse of high expectations, these were a bunch of kids, fleeing grenades, without much reason to imagine their own success. That they have earned a place in the World Cup finals, despite their size and recent past, has the makings of one of the greatest stories in the history of the game.