Ivan Rakitic describes the moment perfectly when a player stands for his national anthem at the World Cup final. ‘You feel so proud,’ he says, ‘that if Superman came down at that very moment, he wouldn’t be able to move you off the spot.’
It’s a moment that so nearly belonged to England. Gareth Southgate’s players were 45 minutes from the final, at half time at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow four months ago when Rakitic’s Croatia came back to win.
They have come back in the Nations League too. They were thrashed 6-0 by Spain in their first game, but now a victory at Wembley against England would see them top the group and deny Gareth Southgate’s team once more.
Ivan Rakitic spoke to Sportsmail ahead of Croatia’s Nations League clash with England
Rakitic and co have recovered since being thrashed 6-0 by Spain in Elche in September
Croatia defeated Spain in Zagreb and will reach the final four if they win at Wembley on Sunday
Speaking ahead of the decider, which he will miss through injury, Rakitic takes us inside the heads of these indomitable Croatian players. Why is it they just never seem to get the ‘Game Over’ memo? Where does he draw the strength from? He played 69 matches last season, and says he was running a fever going into the semi-final.
He explains why they knew stopping John Stones would help them stop England, why there were no handshakes with England players after the game, and what the ‘Football’s Coming Home’ anthem meant to him.
There’s also the story of how he promised his little girl a belated birthday celebration when he returned from the tournament, and it ended up involving a street party for half a million Croatians.
But first to Moscow, July 11, half time in the semi-final: England 1 Croatia 0. ‘It was just a brilliant goal,’ he says of Kieran Trippier’s free-kick that separated the teams at the break.
‘The game had turned in England’s favour but we did not feel that they were better than us. We had a lot of faith perhaps because of what had happened in the two previous rounds.’
It seems coach Zlatko Dalic’s message was simple. ‘We knew we had to apply the pressure not for just two or three minutes but for a sustained period so that they started getting nervous. That is what we talked about and that is what we were able to do.’
Croatia beat England in the World Cup semi despite going behind to Kieran Trippier’s free kick
Rakitic says they were able to stifle England’s passing game by targeting John Stones
Rakitic said Croatia always believed they could win and that England were no better than them
Croatia were the first side in Russia to deal with Gareth Southgate’s since discarded three central defender system. ‘The most important thing for us was not to let them play out comfortably,’ Rakitic says.
‘We knew that Stones was their most important player in terms of playing out. We had analysed him a lot.
‘Whenever there is a line of three central defenders, the one in the middle is the focal point. He is the one that comes out and looks to draw the centre-forward in so he can then release someone else. We also knew that Stones, after various years with Pep Guardiola, knew how to do that job very well.
‘At Barca there are plays [out from the back] that are rehearsed and trained and I could see that England also had those plays very well-worked.’
Rakitic defended Croatia’s wild celebrations after reaching their first World Cup final
Croatia were criticised for not shaking hands but Rakitic said it as due to the immense emotion
Stifling Stones was a plan that worked better for Croatia in the second half but there was more to the comeback than that.
‘A lot of people said we wouldn’t be able to take another extra-time but we played our best extra-time of the tournament,’ he says.
‘With a little bit of luck we got the second goal with a headed clearance that falls right to Mario Mandzukic and there was this feeling of “no pasa nada” (no problem).’
He is reliving all this in Spanish, one of five languages he speaks fluently. He grew up in Switzerland after his family moved there to escape the Balkans conflict and he has settled down in Spain with his Spanish wife and two children.
Rakitic said ‘Superman couldn’t move you’ in relation to the pride he felt in the World Cup final
He is a reminder that national identities are often complex. He says a big part of him feels Swiss and Spanish but adds: ‘I am Croatian right down to the last hair on my head.’
No problem with those off-the-scale celebrations at the end of the England game then?
‘It was just a moment of complete madness for us. I don’t know which player it was who said that we lacked respect because we did not shake hands at the end, but you have to understand this is a moment when we have got Croatia into a World Cup final. I don’t know how many inhabitants London has – eight million or so – well that’s almost double Croatia’s population.
‘So it’s not that we wanted to show any disrespect to England but it is just in that moment all Croatians wanted to embrace all other Croatians! You felt like you wanted to go to all the continents of the world and hug another Croatian.’
Having seen how they came back in Moscow, how they were unlucky in the final against France, and how they got their revenge against Spain on Thursday in Zagreb, respect is not going to be much of an issue on Sunday.
It was something on Luka Modric’s mind after England’s semi-final defeat in Russia. He claimed ‘English journalists’, and ‘pundits from television’ had lacked humility when talking about Croatia.
When Rakitic is asked if Croatia were under-estimated he mentions a certain song that was getting plenty of air-time during the tournament.
He doesn’t feel Croatia were disrespected, but used ‘Football’s Coming Home’ as inspiration
Rakitic praised England and does not feel they were lucky to reach the semi-final in Russia
‘Well, all the “Football’s Coming Home” we were aware of that,’ he says with a grin. ‘I know it’s just a positive atmosphere that you were creating around the team and it wasn’t desired to offend the opponent, but we also saw it and we also thought “yeah but you have to play against us”.
‘I understand that a country, well THE country in terms of football, England, had a lot of desire to win the tournament and they came very close. But we saw [the reaction to] the song and thought “more than ever we want the trophy to be coming home to us”.’
England’s defeat in the semi-finals and subsequent loss to Spain at Wembley left some wondering if the achievement in Russia had really been so special. Maybe it was just a lucky run of games.
‘If you want to find something negative then you will,’ says Rakitic. ‘Even if you are France and you are sat there with the trophy you can find the negative. England dug out a path for themselves, no one gifted them anything.
‘My respect for them is enormous and it is not a coincidence that they have since been capable of going on and beaten Spain in Spain. That performance did not come from a couple of weeks before the game, it goes back to the World Cup.
‘It’s not that the tournament opened up for England. It was one of the strongest and most competitive World Cups, with very few games that ended with an easy victory for anyone. Certainly nobody had us down as finalists when the tournament started.’
Rakitic missed his daughter’s birthday for the World Cup final – but they celebrated later
500,000 Croatians were on the streets to give the team a hero’s welcome home
Rakitic feels Croatia were unlucky in final loss to France where VAR calls went against them
Nobody, except maybe, Rakitic himself. ‘When I said goodbye to my wife I did say I would be back on the 15th (day of the final),’ he says. ‘She told me that the 11th– the day of the semis – was my daughter’s birthday and that I had better explain to her why I was not going to be at her party.’
Raktic called his little girl immediately after beating England. ‘I said to her “don’t worry when the tournament is over, we will have a big party”.’
In the end there were two: one with presents for her, and the other when 500,000 took to the streets to welcome Rakitic and his team-mates home.
Asking him he how felt lining-up before that final against France is the one moment he struggles to find the right words. Eventually he comes up with the line about Superman not being able to drag him away.
‘You have an incredible desire to play the game,’ he says. ‘You are experiencing emotions that you are never going to forget. And I am sure that all the players who have been through that feel the same way.’
It did not go Croatia’s way against France. ‘Don’t talk to me about VAR because I have dreamed of it a thousand nights,’ he says recalling some of the refereeing decisions on which the game hinged early on.
‘In that final the God of football was French. The first goal comes from a free-kick that is not a foul and VAR could then intervene because (Paul) Pogba is offside jumping behind Mandzukic. And you could say that the VAR after the penalty, while it has not got it wrong, if it does not give a penalty then there would not have been many complaints.’
Rakitic spoke to Sportsmail’s Pete Jenson at the Joan Gamper Sports City in Barcelona
The experience has certainly turned him against the video assistant referees, now in use in La Liga in Spain.
‘You score a goal and you have to stop to see if the referee is going to put his finger to his ear or draw the imaginary TV screen,’ he says while drawing the imaginary TV screen.
There will be no VAR on Sunday. Neither will there be a penalty shoot-out. If the game ends in a draw it will be Spain who go to next summer’s final four.
Twice in Russia, Rakitic scored the decisive spot-kick with an apparent cool that belied the massive responsibility and pressure he was under.
‘If I tell you that I was as calm as I would be taking a penalty in training for Barcelona then I would be lying. It’s not that you know the whole world is watching, but it is a feeling that you can make all your compatriots happy.
‘I am convinced that there would have been Croatians in Australia, South America or Africa, far from our country, who have been prouder than anyone. And you think to yourself “I can make history”.
‘But in that moment I tried not to think about anything more than what I was talking to my wife about during the day of the game. Or the FaceTime call I had with my daughters.
‘My wife had a sixth sense with these matches. She believed the game against Denmark would go to penalties and that I would score the last goal. She was right.’
Rakitic was twice the penalty hero in Russia, scoring the winner in two shoot-out victories
He admits they struggled after the World Cup high – but now Croatia are back and in business
As you would expect from such a clinical exponent of the art he says: ‘The penalty shoot-out is not a lottery. We don’t take them blindfolded. It’s about confidence, belief and quality.’
Of the post-Russia comedown Rakitic admits to being drained as the realisation of what he had come so close to achieving sunk in.
‘Football gives you another opportunity to go again every three or four days but with a World Cup it’s different. I don’t know if I am going to reach the next one and to have come so close and not to have won it.’
He puffs out his cheeks and sighs: ‘After the tournament the first few days back at home in Barcelona I had a dip of three of four days when I did not want to hear anything or see anything. I was completely exhausted inside and out.’
The Nations League was tough on Croatia coming off the back of the Russia finals. They were not helped by having to face England in an empty stadium. No one was.
‘It’s a game that all the English will have forgotten immediately after the final whistle,’ he says. ‘No one will ever talk about it and yet it could have been a huge party. Football without supporters is nothing.’
There will be a big party at a full Wembley if England win, but Croatia have been the spoilers before and Rakitic sees no reason why they can’t again.
‘It was not long ago that we played Tottenham there and it went very well. If I could always choose the stadium I was playing in then Wembley would always be in the top three or four. I can’t wait to play another very important game there.’