Two contentious decisions see Croatia crumble when it mattered most

Updated July 17, 2018

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MOSCOW: Argentine referee Nestor Pitana (third R) calls for a penalty after a VAR review as Croatia players look on during the World Cup final against France at the Luzhniki Stadium.—Reuters
MOSCOW: Argentine referee Nestor Pitana (third R) calls for a penalty after a VAR review as Croatia players look on during the World Cup final against France at the Luzhniki Stadium.—Reuters

MOSCOW: At the end of it all, after a month of football madness, after 64 matches and 169 goals in Russia, the talking point remained — should the 164th and 166th goals of the World Cup stand? Were the decisions that led to those goals correct? Video Assistant Referee (VAR) became the focus of debate. Why did referee Nestor Pitana not use it for the free-kick that led to the opening goal for France? How could he decide, after watching the replays several times of the pitch-side monitor, that Ivan Perisic had deliberately handled the ball for the penalty that gave France a 2-1 lead.

Both Croatian captain and talisman Luka Modric and coach Zlatko Dalic felt aggrieved however both of them admitted they were outplayed by a French side that capitalised the opportunity that presented itself to them after the two goals, blitzing them 4-2 to deny the Croats a historic first World Cup title here at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.

There was uproar over Antoine Griezmann being given a free-kick after Pitana felt he was felled by Marcelo Brozovic. After Mario Mandzukic headed that into his own net, the first ever own-goal in a World Cup final, Croatia showed great resolve to go back level through Perisic’s peach of a strike.

Then came the penalty that really hit them. Perisic was defending a corner when the ball struck his hand. He had little time to react, though. Blaise Matuidi missed the ball and Perisic was right behind him. At French protests, Pitana consulted the VAR and decided to give a spot-kick that Griezmann converted.

It broke Croatia’s resolve and they fell 4-1 behind after goals by Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe. And although Mandzukic pulled one back after an error by French captain Hugo Lloris but by then, the winds had been knocked out from their sails.

“I didn’t see it to be honest but everyone is saying it wasn’t a penalty,” Modric told reporters on the Perisic handball afterwards. “It was unintentional and in a game of this magnitude, you don’t give these kinds of penalties. That was the turning point really. It killed us. Even with the first goal, it wasn’t a foul for me. They could’ve turned it back via VAR but they didn’t. We cannot change that and I don’t like to talk about referees They don’t have an easy job.”

Dalic echoed the same thoughts at the post-match press conference.

“I never comment on refereeing but let me say one thing … you don’t give such a penalty in a World Cup final,” he said. “What we had in terms of luck over the tournament, we lacked that today particularly with the first two goals.”

One could argue that Croatia made their own luck during the World Cup. They won two penalty shootouts before rising to the occasion in a come-from-behind victory against England in the semi-final. Maybe the exertions proved too much.

“I think we deserved more,” said Modric. “We played good football but in the end we lost.

Dalic spoke about the opening 20 minutes where Croatia bossed possession and France were held back.

“We played well in the opening 20 minutes,” said Dalic. “We dominated them really. After their goal, we came back strongly but that penalty was awarded. In no way, though, it diminishes France’s win. We controlled the game but conceded. Against a strong side like France, you can’t make mistakes.”

One can argue that maybe if the score was still 1-1 at half-time, Croatia wouldn’t have crumbled the way they did. But still it was a massive achievement from a side that didn’t even enter the World Cup as one of the favourites. They bettered their previous best finish at the World Cup, third in 1998 when they lost to France in the semi-final. Dalic said he’d have taken getting into the final before the start of the World Cup but the defeat still hurt.

He and Modric both spoke of being ‘proud’. So did defender Dejan Lovren. In less than two months, Lovren has lost a major final. In May, he lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid with Liverpool.

“I think we played one of our best games of the tournament, but in the end you look at the result and it was not enough,” he told reporters. “Of course, we are disappointed in some moments about the referee’s decisions, but we have nothing to look back about. It is over and we should accept mistakes happened. We should be proud; proud of our country, our players and what we achieved in such difficult times.”

Published in Dawn, July 17th , 2018