World Cup final 2018: The sad story of Ivan Perisic, today's decisive player but not always in the way he might want

Perisic was brave, committed and selfless against France. But his decline, as the game got away from him, encapsulated why the final went the way it did

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Sunday 15 July 2018 18:12 BST
Pitch invaders interrupt play in World Cup final clash between France and Croatia

As the French substitutes exploded onto the pitch, Ivan Perisic was left sat in his own distant corner, unable to drag himself back up onto his feet, barely able to walk when he did.

Perisic had been the decisive player in this ferocious game, but not always in the way he might want. He had turned the game one way, with a brilliant goal, dragging Croatia deservedly equal. Then he turned it back the other, giving away the penalty that put France back ahead just before the break.

Even when the game ran away from his exhausted team, Perisic was putting more into it than anyone else. Never accepting a hiding place just because his body is crying out for a rest. Never stopping performing even when he has nothing left to give. It was a display that summed up all of Croatia’s best qualities, their bravery, commitment and selflesness. And his decline, as the game got away from him, encapsulated why the game went the way it did.

Because this was a final that was always going to be decided by physical energy. There is not much difference between the teams for experience or quality or motivation. But who could keep going out there the longest, the fastest, at the end of an exhausting tournament, in this humidity cauldron on the outskirts of Moscow.

That was where Croatia lost the game: tired in the first half, exhausted in the second, unable to keep playing their game, to keep resisting. Modric is Croatia’s director, but Perisic is their enforcer. Their top scorer - this was his third goal of the tournament - one of their indisposable men.

In a team built around midfield nuance, Perisic is an athlete. He barely looks like a winger, far taller and broader, a weapon for Croatia to use when they get near the box. Remember the semi-final here on Wednesday night, when Perisic kept Croatia in the World Cup because he could stretch that long body further than anyone else. Away from Kieran Trippier, past Kyle Walker, one long taut leg enough to beat Jordan Pickford and turn the game Croatia’s way.

Then, in extra-time, it was Perisic winning that header on the edge of the box that set up Mario Mandzukic to score the winner. Because there is no such as a lost cause in the 110th minute of a World Cup semi-final.

Perisic began this game like a man who had given everything he had for his country four days ago. His team-mates kept giving him the ball, but he struggled to ever give it back. He lost a 50-50 to Benjamin Pavard. He scuffed a cross straight to Raphael Varane. He ran into Kylian Mbappe and skewed the ball out of play. Even this model athlete could not find the energy within himself.

So how do you react? Perisic could have retreated within himself, played a more low-key game, hinted to his manager that if he wanted Mateo Kovacic or Andrej Kramaric on, that he should be the man to make to make way. And nothing much would ever be written about his final again.

Perisic bites back
Perisic bites back (Getty)

But that is not who Perisic is. He reached deep within himself to drag the game his way. No need for a hiding place. When a bouncing ball was teed up to him just outside the box, he was face to face with Ngolo Kante, the sharpest defensive midfield in football. It takes a lot to make Kante look slow, or clumsy, or in any way misguided or negligent in how he patrols his zone, but that is just what Perisic did.

Shifting the ball sharply inside with his right boot, he left Kante glued to the spot, darted to his left and drove it towards goal, skipping off Raphael Varane’s thigh and into the bottom corner. It was the greatest World Cup final goal for a generation.

But having stayed part of the game, Perisic could not opt out of it now. Him and his tired body were locked into it, whatever the consequences. Defending a corner at the back post, just before the break, Perisic did not react quick enough. The ball bounced off his hand, and in any other World Cup but this one he would have gotten away with it. But the France players appealed, Nestor Pitana eventually agreed, and France were back ahead. No hiding place in a final, no hiding place with VAR.

The Croatian can reflect on this tournament with pride
The Croatian can reflect on this tournament with pride (Getty)

The sad story of the second half was that neither Perisic nor his team-mates had enough left in their legs. When Perisic surged down the left, reaching the by-line one last time, he skewed his cross over Mandzukic’s header. France went down the other end, faced no resistance, and scored, and then they scored again. Perisic never stopped trying, and was brave enough to try to wrestle Pogba for a loose ball deep into added time, running to pick it up and speed up Hugo Lloris’ goal-kick, when the game was already lost.

But some football matches are so big that they transcends the result itself. That is why the claim that no-one remembers second place is such nonsense. There have been some heroic World Cup runners up in the past - Hungary 1954, Holland 1974 - and this Croatian team can take as much pride as either of them. They may not have re-imagined the game tactically or aesthetically, but they have showed us the furthest limits of what it means to play football as a team.

Modric is already an immortal footballer for this summer, and his time at Real Madrid. But here in this final Perisic made his own case, forcing his tiring body around the pitch, nearly rescuing his own team with a remarkable goal, emptying himself of all physical and mental energy, knowing it would leave him broken at the end. Games like this do not just belong to the winners.

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