No tournament for old men – 2018 World Cup runners-up look real tired four years on

Dave Tickner
Luka Modric in action for Croatia against Morocco at the World Cup

Absolutely nothing about this tournament appears to play into Croatia’s hands. A team that four years ago looked battle-hardened now looks battle-weary.


Sometimes the world moves on real fast.

Croatia were great at the last World Cup, their brilliantly tidy and precise and demanding brand of football carrying them all the way to the final where France would, to no Croatian shame, prove just too strong.

That Croatia side was one at the peak of its powers, neither too callow in its youthfulness nor creakingly aged. Four and a bit years on, it no longer looks quite the case. Croatia look awful tired.

Sometimes a tournament just isn’t for you. And a rapid-fire mid-season tournament of 105-minute matches in 35 degree heat might not be the tournament for a side whose (still mesmerisingly brilliant) best player is 37 and key lieutenants at 33, 33, 31 and 30 years of age might not be for Croatia.

In the first half especially here at Al Bayt, Morocco’s passion and tenacity proved a busy, buzzing pain in the arse for Croatia’s ageing technicians.

Hakim Ziyech, back from international wilderness and set liberatingly free of his Chelsea struggles, was a menace while Achraf Hakimi caused a creaking Croatia all manner of problems.

Even the normally unflappable Modric was perhaps indebted to his reputation and undoubted status as elder statesmen of modern football for avoiding a yellow card after not once, not twice but three times resorting to fouls or shirt pulls after finding his legs could no longer quite get him where they needed. It’s the first time I think I’ve ever seen him look truly old on the football field. The first time he’s looked to be struggling to keep up.

Croatia vs Morocco

The second half was a bit different, but only a bit. Morocco, a fun and energetic side in desperate need of a goalscorer, slowly but inevitably grew weary themselves after their first-half endeavours. Modric began to grow in influence as he found himself finding the time and space to which he is accustomed but that so pointedly eluded him in the first half.

But you never truly sensed a Croatia breakthrough was ever imminent. Even at their very best, Croatia’s football could at times drift towards the overly mechanical and technical. All very proficient and tidily impressive but not really getting anywhere. It was the thing they were able to so markedly resist in Russia. Not so here.

They are now in a bit of bother in this group, which features fellow European old-timers Belgium. We’ll know more by the time they meet in the final game of this group but Morocco have served notice here that either of the expected qualifiers could be in trouble. Not both, because Canada, but one or other of them could be on the way home.

Both will probably quite enjoy playing each other, in a game that could feature 10 players with 100 international caps. It will be a wonderfully technically proficient game of football but unlikely to be played at anything like the pace Morocco insisted upon in the first 45 minutes here.

But even in the second half when Croatia were able to assert some form of control, there was not enough snap, crackle and pop to make Morocco panic. It was all too slow from Croatia, too comfortable for Morocco.

It feels harsh to be too critical of Croatia, a country that has produced an absurd amount of talent and continues to punch considerably above its weight. But it’s impossible not to compare this side to the 2018 vintage, and the only conclusion is one of significant regression.

A side that in 2018 was experienced and battle-hardened has turned up here looking old and battle-weary. Nothing about this tournament works in their favour and a repeat of anything like their run from Russia looks some way beyond them.

They probably will still get out of the group. Even after this result second place seems a likelier finishing spot than third. Whether you finish first or second in this group, there’s a good chance you’re looking at Spain or Germany next, but that becomes near certain if you finish second.

The likelihood is that these Croatia players will be heading home for a nice rest sooner rather than later. And in truth a lot of them look like they could do with it.