by Jozo Kolakušić
Nizhny Novgorod Game 2 – Croatia v Argentina
After having 4 unforgettable days exploring and discovering magnificent royal Russian centrepiece of St. Petersburg all of its grandeur of history, it was time to make the journey towards Croatia’s very important 2nd match against the current World Cup runners-up and one of the best teams in the world at the moment. Argentina, headed by its captain and arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.
Having visited Argentina only four years prior before the previous World Cup in 2014 (as I have written about in the Vjesnik previously), this for me was definitely a game I was looking forward to with much anticipation. It was safe to say I was an Argentino-phile (lover of Argentinean culture), having been captured by the history, culture, cuisine and fanatical football following of this country. A country that has given the world footballing legend, Diego Maradona (who I also might add had some Croatian ancestry, with his grandmother Dalma being from the island of Korčula) and the current Catholic Pope Francisco hailing from the capital Buenos Aires as well. But also provided a safe home to many Croats in the 20th century, who left a strong impact on Argentinean culture and history.
As I mentioned in my last piece after the first match v Nigeria, it would be the real test if this Croatian team was the ‘real deal’ or pretenders as was the case at previous tournaments where it was always an ‘almost’ chance to replicate the efforts of 1998 bronze generation from France, but also a chance to avenge the one blip in Croatia’s run to the ’98 semi-final, as their only loss in the group stage back then was against, you guessed it…
Argentina in Bordeaux with a result of 1-0 for the ‘gauchos’ and arguably their strongest generation of players in recent times, with Gabriel Batistuta, Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone as key players. Something etched into my childhood memory, as well as that of the loud, jersey waving Argentinean fans in the stands and the unforgettable 90s hit song rendition of ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ (in ode to the late Evita Peron) by the famous voice of pop singer Madonna. However all these background facts aside, I was also very much in anticipation of this do-or-die clash against partidothis South American powerhouse and a chance to seek tournament redemption against this much-respected opponent, but also to keep the undefeated 2nd game record of Croatia at major tournaments (never having lost the 2nd game yet).
After our days of exploration of the historical sights in between, we caught the refreshingly efficient modern ‘fast-train’ from St. Petersburg with a brief stop-over in Moscow in between continuing our journey towards our much-awaited destination. With Argentinean and Croatian supporters were in no insignificant number either, en-route from all over corners, as I heard accents from all over, from Dubrovnik to Slavonia. As we were making our way to our connecting train, a scene I’ll never forget, a little Argentinean boy in a Messi jersey saw our checkers and excitedly yelled, ‘Modrić! Croacia! Buen partido! (good match)’ and shook our hands wishing us a good match tomorrow.
We finally arrived in Nizhny as the sun set, we exited the train along with a sea of thousands of football supporters who had made their journey to this now all-important setting for the match that was just 24 hours away. As we made our way through the extremely well-secured exit points and bag scanners of the train station (due to the strict security measures in all public places during the World Cup), we could hear the song and sounds of the Argentinean fans who were confident and excited for their equally as important and needed win. As we exited the station, we immediately made our way to our accommodation to rest for the next day ahead.
After having crossed 1,668 km further east, passed through two major cities, it was finally game day for our 2nd match versus Argentina. That match day feeling was back, and the excitement could be felt from the first-morning coffee and view out the balcony of supporters in their colours also arriving at their accommodations and going into town.
Having not seen much in the dark the night before, we could definitely see that despite the city not having widely been heard of, it was nevertheless a major city with 1,250,000 inhabitants (larger than Zagreb) and many historical sights to be seen. It was also a momentous occasion for me and my father, as it was a long time dream for us to see Russia together, but also to see the river Volga which crosses the river Oka in this city. The significance of the famous river Volga, which is the longest river in Europe was that it took my father to his youth when his older sister would sing the melodic traditional Russian song ‘Volga, Volga’ and forever remained etched in his memory and a wish to one day see this river.
So as we made our way closer into the city, to change accommodation (offered by our Russian host) to have within walking distance of the brand-spanking-new stadium. We could see massive billboards advertising today’s match between Argentina and Croatia, as well as a billboard much to our surprise, from Koprivnica manufacturer Podravka. Yes, the world-famous Croatian export of ‘Vegeta’ was being exported to Russia as well, cleverly the company capitalised on the national teams’ performance at the world cup to further boost the profile of this world-famous product. Well done we thought. So as we approached the new upgrade accommodation near the stadium, we could see the banks of the river Volga by our side. Much to the excitement of all us in the car, driven by our lovely Russian host as she told us that was the famous river.
We arrived at our accommodation and it was perfect, a complex of colourful modern apartments built just before the World Cup. Vastly different from the old grey soviet buildings in the older part of town. From our balcony, we could see the spectacular new stadium, a brand-new shopping centre in-between halfway and the Volga river on the left-hand side in the backdrop. As it was still yet to be midday and the game was not until the night, choosing to conserve energy for the match itself, some of our group decided to rest until the game.
The rest of us decided to go to the adjacent brand new ‘Sed’moye Nebo’ shopping centre, which was packed full of Argentinean fans from opening. Loud and in full song the entire afternoon, scenes seen before and irreplaceable. It was most definitely game day, and we were just a few hours until kick-off. At the same time, there was a sea of thousands of Croatian and Argentinean supporters in the historical old centre, soaking up the pre-match atmosphere and singing until fever point. With calls from many of our friends in the centre to join. However, we were quite happy being in this atmosphere filled shopping centre, with thousands of singing South American fans, with their melodic and catchy famous football songs. As we secured our corner, our now well-rested friends joined us and we soaked up the atmosphere that was hours away from kick-off.
In the meantime, as my fellow travellers were resting a little bit more (with still just less than 3 hours until kick-off), I decided to pop into the conveniently placed barber salon next-door (as after-all, you have to look fresh for the all-important game). Greeted by young and enthusiastic young locals, the beautiful receptionist sat me down and had one of their hipster female barbers give me probably the best haircut I’ve ever received and also some refreshments. Excited by the prospect of having guests from all over the world visit them, they were very keen to have me stay and chat. They insisted we take a trademark photo for their salon’s memory and exchange details, as if Croatia win, they will take me out to the city centre and show me their beautiful city. I did not think of it much but boy did I feel welcome by these amazing young locals, keen to show what their hometown had to offer.
I got back to the apartment, looking fresh as ever. ‘Cheers’ing off our balcony as the heat of the sun began to subside, with the local ‘Baltika’ brew. We were joined once again by our friend from Geelong Ivica, who after having celebrated the opening win, was reunited with us to continue the good luck charm combination we had going into this 2nd game. It was time to leave as the sun began to set, with the magnificent view of the Volga and Nizhny’s ancient castle walls and its own ‘Kremlin’ in the distance. As we made our short journey towards the stadium, along with thousands of other fans in the colours of the respective teams.
We stopped at the local convenience store for some last-minute refreshments. Quizzed by the shop owner and the locals who would be the winner, my father without a blink of hesitation, confidently responds ‘Hrvatska 3-0’, to the disbelief and laugh of the local Russians who could not imagine something of the sort. I chime in, it will be 2-1, which sounds like an equally ambitious but more realistic prognosis given Argentina’s strength. The locals wish us luck, as we cheer to some more refreshing Russian beer!
Finally, we make it to the stadium and the buzz is all around the stadium, as we make our way through the security checkpoints and the spectacular sunset begins to close in on kick-off. We make our way to our seats and are again in a great spot behind the goals where Croatia will be facing. The first we can notice before kick-off is how many Argentineans have taken up most of the stadium, as the Croats are scattered in smaller pockets of red and white around the stadium. We know it’ll be no easy task for our boys on the pitch, who are for the first time walking out in black-blue away kit, (which is yet to become the iconic famous kit in the rest of the tournament and set the footballing world alight). The overwhelming sound of singing Argentinean fans throughout the stadium can be heard in the moments before the national anthems play.
After the catchy and happy Argentinean national anthem rendition, which you can’t help but be excited by. Our Croatian ‘Lijepa naša’ plays, and despite being heavily outnumbered 5-1 and not all being in the same sector. The Croatian fans around the stadium sing their lungs out, making their presence known with a roar from the players and fans around the stadium going into battle. Finally, the moment we had been waiting for since the first draw in December last year and the 5-day wait whilst making the trek through Russia. Kick-off by Croatia, the spectacle could finally start.
Immediately you could see that both teams had come to battle on the pitch, as the win was crucially important for both teams to progress to the next round. Nobody was backing down, in the first 5 minutes Croatia had its first shot on goal blocked as Ivan Perišić swiftly advanced into the goal box and had his right shot blocked by the Argentinean goalkeeper Willy Caballero, as the ball flew right of the goal. Both sides were playing physically, the atmosphere palpable on the pitch could be felt on the stands. With hard tackles and challenges coming left and right. With a strong 50/50 challenge in the 16th minute by Maximiliano Meza steamrolling stalwart Ivan Rakitić onto the ground, with our contingent of fans praying that there wasn’t an injury to our crucial man. He was ok and got up, but it was definitely not pretty football in the first half we were watching. Also being surrounded by Argentinean fans in the Argentinean end, the atmosphere was very tense. With the first real sense of relief coming in the 33rd minute, as Šime Vrsaljko delivered a perfectly placed cross of the ball from the right-wing, into the box and having been met with a diving header by Mario Mandžukić with the ball just being inches left of the post. Frustratingly close, building up the momentum and atmosphere.
Croatia was not giving any space to breathe for the opposition either, building up momentum as the 1st half progressed. In the 36th minute, another hard challenge! Our future golden boy in the making Ante Rebić with a hard challenge into his marker Gabriel Mercado. This time it was Mercado on the worse end, in pain on the ground as the tension around the stadium lifted and so too did the noise of the boisterous Argentinean fans. We could not hear ourselves think, from all the banging drums and cymbals of the loud opposition fans around us.
All the pre-match respect for Argentina aside, we were fully aware that we were here for the 3-points and our boys on the pitch needed all the support they could get to get across the line in the battle on the green field. As the half-time whistle blew, tensions were high but we were impressed with the tenacity and the ‘no backing down’ attitude by the 11 men in blue and black on the field.
As we rested our minds from the intense 45 minutes of football and from the overwhelming unrelenting sounds of the opposition fans instruments, we saw our friends from Kaliningrad waving and calling us by our names. It was the fellow Australian Croats from Sydney, the ‘Zagreb Hurstville’ boys we met at our accommodation in Kaliningrad (and shared a farewell lunch with the delicious Russian ‘Borscht’ soup, as we left for our further journeys).
There was a group of 10 in the bay near us, calling us over so that we are united in slightly bigger numbers, making a small but strong group of 15, ‘behind enemy lines’. Much to their happiness and our relief, we obliged and exchanged warm embraces as the moments towards kick-off of the 2nd half approached.
Kick-off by Argentina, but the Croatian momentum can be felt from the opening kick of the ball. Croatia is pressing is relentless, not giving the Argentina side a millimetre to breathe compared to the 1st half. As in the 52nd minute, Argentina has a chance by Kun Aguero blocked by Croatia keeper Danijel Subašić, immediately Croatia pushes the ball up to the opposite side of the pitch towards the Argentina goal with our hearts racing. 53rd minute, Argentina defender Mercado wins possession of the ball from Mandžukić, who immediately returns the ball to goalkeeper Caballero. The Argentina keeper looks to clear the ball immediately, but miscalculates the kickback to his defender, as the ball arrives in the air into the ready aim of Croatia forward Ante Rebić. Cometh the moment, cometh the man.. snap, bang! GOAL!! Rebić perfectly strikes the ball with a powerful, hard kick and it rockets into the right-hand side of the next! What an explosion! Croatia’s golden boy had finally arrived, after having had his career resurrected just before the World Cup.
Much to the ecstasy of Croatia fans around the stadium, who for a brief moment managed to overpower their outnumbering opposition. What a celebration by the whizz kid from Imotski, who had just announced his name on the world stage as pointed to his ears and tried to hear the Argentinean fans whose sound had softened, as he released his arms and so too did he release the weight of expectations of an entire nation and of him to himself as he was swarmed by fellow teammates.
As fans behind television screens in the homeland and around the world jump with excitement, as Croatian commentator Drago Ćosić unravels one of his famous rhyming recitals ‘Rebiću Ante, želim da te Argentinci pamte!’ (Ante Rebić, we want the Argentineans to remember you). And boy, would they ever, what a cracking strike of a volley to lift the atmosphere for the Croatian contingent and instil hope of an upset. Our voices grew louder as well around the stadium, and despite the banging drums and instruments in our end, our small but solid contingent was gaining momentum as well. The Argentinean fans were no longer the happy and friendly fans that they were known for when winning, the ugly unsportsmanlike side began to show towards the Croatian fans as hostilities over our lead grew.
In the 64th minute, Argentina’s Messi has a terrifyingly close chance at the left post, as the Argentinean attack and Croatian defence scrambled over the ball, as Rakitić expressly intervened and cleared the ball out. As a sigh of relief was breathed by all of us. The hostility could be seen on the pitch as well, as Ivan Rakitić was on the receiving end of a devastating ribcage crushing challenge in the 75th minute from Nicolas Otamendi. Leaving ‘Raketa’ on the floor winded and short of breath, unable to get up until coach Zlatko Dalić intervened on the pitch to have the referee stop play.
In the 80th minute, the ball is passed by Marcelo Brozović to Croatia’s golden maestro and man-of-the-match from the previous game receives the ball, he sidesteps left, he sidesteps right. Croatian commentator Ćosić (for those watching at home) the words in that millisecond along the lines of ‘ma potegni i ti Luka, imaš pravo na udarac’ (take a shot Luka, you’ve got every right to). As Modrić blasts into the ball with a perfectly time right-footed strike, the ball spectacularly rockets towards the goal and a final stretch swerves inside the right hand of the net… GOAL!!! Absolute pandemonium around the stadium, as our little contingent goes into absolute raptures, screaming and jumping in disbelief that we have scored again. As the Croatian commentator at home explodes with the unforgettable words ‘Modrić Luka, postaje velika Argentinska muka’ and the English broadcaster with the equally memorable now ‘Sensational goal from Luka Modrić, and surely now, Croatia’s golden generation are on their way to the last 16’.
Luka Modrić, Croatia’s number 10, explodes into celebration as he spreads open his wings and also lets go of the weight of expectations of Croatia fans around the world and is met by equal pandemonium inside the Nizhny Novogorod stadium. In what would have been seconds after the goal, grown men are hugging behind the goal in our small contingent and around the stadium, letting go of tears of joy (as I’m sure they would have around the world. I look to my 75-year-old father next to me (who normally is very rational-headed, brave and rarely shows emotion for ‘insignificant things’, let alone football) and he is jumping up and down with us, we’re hugging him and he is letting go of tears of joy as we are all in absolute euphoria. As he joins in the chanting, proudly with the rest of us (he also never chants, unless it’s a song outside of football). As our small but vociferous group belts out chants of ‘Hrvatska, Hrvatska’ and the songs ‘Moja Domovina’ and ‘Oj Hrvatska Mati’! Complete with tears of joy in our eyes and goosebumps down our backs.
As we sing in full voice and without interruption from our ‘noisy neighbours’ who are in the majority, emotional pictures and videos of this euphoric celebration would later be seen by my friends around the world and would say they were deeply touched by seeing my father and the rest of us being so emotionally touched by this goal. How could he not be touched, our little Croatia, the one that many say was an accident and shouldn’t have been recognised was now 2-0 up over arguably the best team in the world with the best player in the world as captain.
Moments later in the 85th minute, another dirty incident with Otamendi booting the ball from close proximity into Rakitić’s head, after a disgusting challenge by Javier Mascherano.
Our small group of 15 Croats completely overpower the entire Argentina end as we emotionally jump up and down and sing at full voice. The drums and cymbals of the aggressive ‘Albiceleste’ are no longer banging, the Croat fans have taken over the show all around the stadium. With less than 10 minutes to go, our song did not stop, as the euphoria and elation of Croats around the stadium and around the world grew.
Despite this, having been burnt by previous anti-climax memories of the national team at previous tournaments. I tell the boys around me, both young and old, that there is still another 10 minutes until it is over. And it’s not over until it is over! (instinct is a habit I can’t get rid of).
As we approached the final minutes of the game, in the 91st minute our saviour Rakitić darts towards the Argentina goal again as he strikes outside the box at the keeper, Caballero. He deflects this strike, which is met on the left by subbed on Mateo Kovačić, who returns the ball to Rakitić who calmly receives the ball with his right foot and taps the ball into the net as a sigh of relief comes over myself and all of those around me. Goal. 3-0!!!!!! Croatia has beaten the best team in the world and the win is now secure as the final whistle blows minutes later. Full-time!
The song does not stop from Croats around the stadium, as Argentinean fans are left in tears and are leaving the stadium en-masse. Local Russians and fans from around the world, once again come towards us to congratulate us on this remarkable win. Croatia was no longer the pretenders of previous tournaments; they had firmly announced their statement of intent on the world stage. I look around us and in the small patches of fellow supporters, I see euphoria and pandemonium as a fellow supported 10 metres away from us, standing by himself raises his Modrić 10 jersey proudly for the world to see who was now the new best player on earth. ‘Idemo do finala’ (we’re going to the final) could be heard by all of us as we exchange high fives, hugs and further emotions as the heroes on the pitch did a lap around the stadium to thank us all. The camera zooms into our friend Ivica from Geelong (my best friends father), as he makes the official World Cup and Optus sport in Australia highlight reel as he celebrates by playing the ‘air guitar’. As the cool, rocking fan in checkers that he is. He ecstatically tells us all ‘tako mi je drago da smo ih pobjedili!!’ (I’m so glad we beat them’), after the unsportsmanlike behaviour we, unfortunately, had to experience and see the ugly side of the normally cheerful Argentinean fans and players alike (note the 75th and 85th-minute incidents involving Otamendi, Mascherano battering key man Rakitić).
However, we did not let that spoil the occasion. Victory was ours and as we left the stadium, the Russian stewardesses with tears of joy came towards us and hugged us screaming ‘Bravo Khorvatiya, we are supporting you to the final’ and begged us for a photo to encapsulate this memory for the ages. The same warm embraces came from the police as well as we exited the stadium gates and received high fives from all sides. I saw a crying Argentinean fan who looked at me like he lost everything, I wrap my arm around him and said ‘don’t worry, you have 1 more game. It’s not over’. He wiped away his tears and said ‘Gracias (thank you), Luka Modrić is the best. You are the best’. In all our euphoria, I knew that feeling of despair as well, so it was nice to be the one giving the consolation. As we’ve all been on the other end of that experience before.
As we made our way outside, a Russian couple walking their dog approach us and repeat the same sentiment of the stewardesses before, ‘bravo Khorvatiya, we love you!’. At the same time, my phone exploded with messages from well-wishers from around the world who had also witnessed this footballing spectacle. With words of congratulations coming from friends met across my journeys from Brazil, Uruguay, England and France (to name a few), that it captivated their minds and now have their official 2nd team if their team does not go through.
We could not believe it, the warm embrace we received was something none of us ever could have imagined. Croatia was now a global sensation. As we walked back to our accommodation, we were bursting with excitement (young and old) and so proud of our little country that had just captured the imaginations of the footballing world.
As the Croats streamed into the city centre to celebrate, we reached our accommodation, the blue and white lights of this magnificent Nizhny Novgorod stadium shone brightly. We too celebrated with a well-deserved congratulations for getting our boys over the line. As the boys got ready to go to sleep, guess who called me and said they were downstairs? The very barbershop staff (from the start of the story) who said they were waiting for me downstairs to congratulate me. As I came down, I saw them with bright smiles and were so proud of Croatia and ecstatically insisted they we toast (with a cheers or ‘nazdrovlje in Russian) as they had drinks ready and brought me a limited edition present to take home and insisted I join them to the city centre to see their main sights and join in the celebrations.
Even though we had an early morning train back to Moscow, it was such a remarkable gesture by the proud locals that was too good to refuse. As we reached the historical old Nizhny Novgorod centre, we joined in the thousands of local Russians and Croats sang their songs and celebrated once again until the sunrise. Finishing up the night of festivities with the best ‘schwarma’ in Nizhny, according to my local tour-guides and their friends. Keenly wishing to show me the ‘real Russia’ and not the one seen in the mainstream mass media. And yes, they were pretty cool young people indeed. Nothing less ‘in the know’ about music or fashion, than you would meet anywhere else in the West.
My new Russian friends, as promised brought me back in time to wake up my fellow travellers and catch our train to the next destination. Russia had won my heart, and Croatia had won the hearts of 145 million Russians. Croatia had turned up to this tournament and were no longer the pretenders, they were the real deal. The world had its new favourite ‘underdog’ team and it would not be the last they would see of it. Iceland in Rostov-on-Don next, let’s get all 9 points against the Vikings.
Spasibo (thank you), Nizhny Novgorod!