by Jozo Kolakušić
Croatia v Iceland – Rostov on Don 26.06.2018
After the unforgettable night in Nizhny Novgorod, with that historical win for the ages against Argentina. After having boarded the morning fast-train, along with the thousands of other ecstatic Croatia supporters and the now mourning and glum-looking Argentinean supporters making their way to the next destination. The feeling was phenomenal, the whole world talking about ‘that’ phenomenal win over the ‘albiceleste’.
We had 5 days until the next match against the Vikings from Iceland. So it was time to finally properly discover the modern-day capital city of Russia – Moscow. Which would be the meeting ground and intersection of millions of fans from around the world, in the festival and party that is the football World Cup. As we explored the major historical sites, the 3-0 win was hot on the mouths of nearly every person on the globe.
Walking the streets of the Russian capital in the Croatian checkers – made you an instant celebrity and hot property for photos and random conversations with strangers on the streets of the city. By both the local Russians and football fans from around the world who had come to the biggest sporting spectacle in the world. All impressed by the enormous heart and ‘punching above the weight’ for such a small country from the Adriatic sea.
As we explored the major historical sites of this breathtakingly enormous metropolis. It was the talk of the town. So much so that when we reached the official FIFA Fan Store in the enormous fan zone’s on the Red Square and at the Moscow State University, nearly all of the Croatian merchandise was sold out. As we witnessed the last Croatian shirts taken off the rack, by groups of Russians constantly approaching to secure their own piece of history. Right next to the merchandise of Argentina section, which was fully stocked and untouched. When we asked why, they told us that they had fallen in love with our country and team, adopting it as their own.
Hoping we go to the final. Definitely a pleasant surprise given the pre-tournament headlines by most western media and that our nations have never traditionally been too closely alligned. What an unbelievable sight, we had a new friend in the Russian people and it was safe to say that we had the ‘whole world was now with us’ in the words of the 90’s song ‘My Homeland’ by the ‘Croatian Band Aid’.
After those unforgettable days exploring the capital city (which we would come to get to know better, later in the tournament) and accumulating some rest for the next leg of our journey. It was time to fly to the 1,076km distant, southern port city of Rostov-on-Don. In a much warmer climate on the banks of the river Don and adjacent to the Black Sea, much closer to Turkey than the cooler-mild weathered northern cities we had visited previously in St Petersburg and Moscow. As we boarded our flight, we came across more familiar faces in Stivi and Mijo from Geelong (Australia) that had made the same journey as us so far, with our stories intertwining now, going into this final group match against Iceland. After a relaxing flight down to our much-awaited destination, we agreed that we would reconvene the next day in town for the big match, as we parted ways and made it to our respective accommodations. With a brief outing to the local bar district, to get a taste for the atmosphere the day before the all-important concluding match for Croatia in Group D. We soaked up the excitement and atmosphere before the big day.
Finally, it was game day in Rostov-on-Don, despite having 6 points and passage to the round of 16 already being secured. It was still a much-anticipated game, as Argentina and Iceland were still to fight for the much-coveted 2nd place. We were expecting nothing less than the win, given the heroic performances by the boys in checkers in the previous 2 matches. The now widely regarded mastermind Zlatko Dalić wisely used it as an opportunity to rest of the crucial first-time players, but also to give the rest of the players who keenly awaited their chance to make their mark at this tournament.
It was a searing hot day, typical for this country on the deep south of the country and 38 degrees without the cool changes we had come accustomed to earlier in our trip. Airconditioning and beer were highly sought after in yet another sunny game day in Russia.
As agreed upon the night before, we met up with our friends from Geelong and Croatia in the main fan zone on the Theatre square, surrounded by luscious forest and theme park rides. Ice cold beer was the order of the day, as we looked to cool down in the shaded tents as droves of supporters of both teams made their way inside as well and enjoy the matchday atmosphere until it was time to leave for the stadium. As the thousands of fans in red and white checkers, and Icelandic blue did the same thing in the surrounding streets and along with banks of the Don River. Despite the almost unbearable heat in terms of weather, the mood that of cool, calm and relieved feeling that could be felt all around us with the Croatian supporters as progress to the next stage was already secured. As opposed to the Icelandic supporters, who were definitely feeling the pressure from both the heat and the upcoming match ahead in a matter of hours. After some great exchanges of stories from different perspectives that we had at the previous win in Nizhny Novgorod and catching up, it was finally time to leave for the Rostov Arena.
The heat proved to be all too much for my father, at his tender age, opting for the safe option of staying at home under the air conditioner and to watch the game in cooler surroundings. I wanted to make sure if he was certain, as we were not keen to break a good record achieved with my father present at every game so far as a ‘good luck charm’. He assured me that he was certain and for me not to worry, we would still win with him watching on the TV screen. After all, he got us over the line both matches prior and this one he would still be present just a few kilometres down the road. Good enough. So as the searing heat of the sun began to set, we made our way towards the match, as a sea of thousands of red white and blue coloured fans from both sides made their journey down the main Voroshilovsky Avenue, over the Voroshilovsky bridge across the Don River and towards the much-anticipated stadium surrounds.
It was a festive a relaxed atmosphere all around the stadium smiles all around as this final match of the group stage was a feeling not felt by Croatian supporters at a major tournament since Euro 2008 in Austria when there was last a 100% win record in the first phase of the competition. Having successfully been able to offload my ticket to a fellow Croatian supporter, having made it all the way to Rostov-on-Don, he was ecstatic to not miss out on the upcoming spectacle. As we reached closer to the stadium, we engaged in friendly banter with other fans and local Russian beauties – stopping for photo’s and even the odd phone number was exchanged for expected festivities after the match. Having been informed previously that the most beautiful women in Russia were in Rostov, just like that of Split in Croatia, we were in no position to complain!
Outside the gates of the stadium, we could hear the familiar sounds of a patriotic hymn ‘Hrvatska mati me rodila…’ (A Croatian mother gave birth to me), a local Russian piano-accordion player had learned the notes and lyrics to this song as he was surrounded by an increasing ensemble of Croatian fans who were belting out this tune (that you do not hear so often, let alone at a football match). It was impossible to not feel goosebumps down your spine and a sense of sheer pride, in the moments leading to kickoff. What a time to be alive.
As we made our way inside the stadium and to our seats, feeling overwhelmed at the events that preceded us until this game. It was time to get all 9 points and get the win for an easier final path in the 2nd phase of the competition. Zlatko Dalić had as expected, fielded a different squad to the ones in the matches previous, but equally as potent. Showing the real depth that this current generation of players had, both old and young. With fresh changes being seen most notably in Lovre Kalinić in goals, youngsters Tin Jedvaj, Duje Ćaleta-Car, Josip Pivarić accompanied in defence with the much-loved senator Vedran Ćorluka at the helm. Milan Badelj and Mateo Kovačić in midfield, assisting the workload of the hero of the previous 2 matches Luka Modrić, Marko Pjaca and Ivan Perišić as attacking wingers and Andrej Kramarić as the main striker. 9 out of 11 starting players were different, with the exception of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. A sign of the sheer depth and quality of the entire Croatia squad, being able to field effectively 2 full-strength teams at the tournament. Something most of the 31 teams at the tournament, would have given anything to have such a strong first team – let alone two!
Finally, it was time for the two anthems to play. With both sets of supporters proudly belting out their national choruses, followed by an eruption of cheer and the vociferous chants of the Viking supporters seeking the win. But make no mistake for the much more relaxed demeanour of the Croatian fans scattered around the stadium, the Croatia players were keen to make a point and show the utter strength that the full roster of players had the ability to showcase.
As we buckled in for the game, the boys in the black-blue checkers and Iceland in their white kits fought hard for their first chances at goal. With the first real opportunity for Iceland coming from Alfreð Finnbogason in the 40th minute, as his strike just inside the box veers narrowly right of Lovre Kalinić’s goal. As well as another acrobatic save just before half time in the 45th minute as Kalinić acrobatically dived across the goal and pushed the ball out wide. As halftime approached, we were still calm and quietly confident that Zlatko Dalić’s men would prevail as they had shown up until now. On the mezzanine floor of the stadium, I came across another dear friend from Melbourne. In sheer disbelief and joy at how many familiar faces I had seen at this match, all who made the same journey as me from different parts of the globe. As the sun completely set going into the next 45 minutes, the temperature did not subside much but the cool beer in the now highly sought after flashing Budweiser cups were keeping us all refreshed.
The second half commenced and already in the 52nd minute, Croatia’s first concrete chance by the extremely hungry Milan Badelj, as a rocket strike from outside the box just hits the top crossbar and flies over. Eagerly having awaited his opportunity to showcase what he does regularly at club level for Fiorentina. Just a minute later in the 53rd minute, Badelj has another chance as he knocks the ball into the box, it is deflected by Iceland defender’s header, received expressly by Pivarić and returned to Badelj as he receives the ball on the volley and strikes the ball at full speed, the ball bounces on the ground upon impact and rockets inside the left-hand side of the net! GOAL!! Milan Badelj arms stretched out and a smile for ear to ear as he runs towards the Croatian fans and celebrates. After a header chance missed by Iceland again in the 56th minute, their next opportunity arrived in the 75th minute. As a handball by freshly substituted on Dejan Lovren (for Pjaca) is called and Iceland equalises via a penalty by captain Sigurdsson. 1-1, a silly mistake nonetheless but no doubt that Croatia would find a way to restore their lead. Such was the faith in this team at this point.
With the opportunity coming in the final moments of the game, as the hero of the previous Euro 2016 tournament, Ivan Perišić eagerly awaited his first opportunity to put his name on the scoresheet and end the goal drought. In the 90th minute the all blazing Badelj wins a ball challenge, neatly passes it onto Perišić who blazes towards the goal on the left flank and boots the ball with a powerful strike through the Iceland keeper’s hands and into the top right-hand corner. GOAL!!! 2-1 for Croatia, ‘Pera’ was back on the scoresheet and all 9 points had been secured as we hoped and expected.
As the full-time whistle blew, we congratulated each other on a job well done and the players on the pitch as well breathed a sense of relief and they had justified our expectations as an entire nation once again exploded onto the streets and main squares of Croatia celebrating another hard-fought win. We stayed behind in the stadium celebrating with the players until they made their way to their change rooms for a well-deserved rest. Soaking up the atmosphere and the bright lights of the Rostov Arena and what we had just witnessed in the World Cup so far, having gone through an unbelievable 10 days on Russian soil. Watching Croatia have a perfect progression towards the next knockout phase and the whole world talking about the footballing wizardry of Luka Modrić and his men. Everyone asking, how is a nation of 4 million in the homeland and just as much abroad, so good at football?
After having crossed a whopping 4,764 km since we first departed from Zagreb Airport, across Poland and the first match in Kaliningrad. Further to St Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and now Rostov-on-Don. We deserved to congratulate ourselves having crossed this enormous landmass that was only a fraction of the entire Russian federation. What a breath of relief.
Leaving the stadium, we saw flags proudly draped around fellow Croatian supporters disappearing into the masses on their way back to the city centre. Names of their respective hometowns and clubs, ‘Zagreb Hurstville’, ‘Sydney United Supporters’, ‘Stathmore Split’ from Melbourne, ‘Toronto Croatia’, Windsor and London Croatia’s respectively. As well as a smorgasbord of city names from across Croatia, from as east as Osijek down to the south of Dubrovnik. A beautiful sight of the tricolours in full display. Each with broad smiles across their faces, knowing their arduous journeys were worth all the sacrifice! All whilst our brothers and sisters in the homeland and across the world and exploding in their celebrations in their homes and on the streets. At the possibility of ‘what if we actually make the final’.
After arriving back to the accommodation, where my father told us all ‘I told you so’ and that the result was never in doubt – as he had the situation under control. It was now time to enjoy the atmosphere, in the balmy Rostov evening heat, and go out into town to celebrate after having been so politely invited into town by our local Russian guides. It would be our last stop before watching the next match in the homeland and finally getting a chance to experience the explosion of the atmosphere that we were seeing on the news. As Croatia would meet Denmark next, back in the now very fond Nizhny Novgorod where history was made against Argentina. We would need our rest in the coming days until the round of 16 clash. But until then.. Spasibo Rostov-on-Don, Hvala Vatreni!