Manuel Veth reporting from Moscow-
Intensity. Determination. Focus. A British journalists gasps when the camera focuses on Mario Mandžukić standing in the tunnel of the Luzhniki in Moscow. It is a face of a man about to go to war. “Look at his face,” the perplexed UK journalist next to me says. “How are we going to beat that,” another one adds.
That look is the first crack in confidence displayed among the British based media at the Luzhniki ahead of the match. Before that look, I hear many voices around me that suggest a somewhat easy path to the final for the Three Lions – a sentiment that by no means is reflected by the young England side and Gareth Southgate, who had voiced his respect of Croatia ahead of the match.
I just shrug and say “typical Mandžukić.” I have seen that face many times from when Mario Mandžukić played for Bayern. I have come to appreciate his determination, have hated his ability to get the most out of a match while walking the fine balance between legal and illegal when he propelled Bayern to yet another title while playing in Munich.
Mandžukić always walked a fine line between legal and illegal
When Mandžukić played in Germany Bundesliga videos were shown sample videos of Mandžukić to learn how to look out for small illicit tricks that modern strikers use to gain an advantage. Playing for Wolfsburg and Bayern Mandžukić was always considered a difficult player to deal with by both the referees, his managers and sometimes his teammates.
At the same time, there was also a sense of respect. The bottom-line always has been Mandžukić a problematic personality, but he will also do everything to get the job done. That face ahead of the semifinal against England says it all Mandžukić will play through everything to get the job done.
England took an early lead and were very much in control of the match until the 60th minute at which point Croatia not only managed to get the equaliser but also started to control the game. Mandžukić like all of his teammates were putting in an inhuman effort at this point. Battered and bruised they displayed a determination to turn this game around to secure a first World Cup final for their country.
That determination was further underlined in extra-time. Croatia were in the middle of their third extra-time in a row. Both Denmark and Russia had taken the Vatreni the extra length all the way to penalties.
Mandžukić had struggled most of extra-time with a leg injury. Halfway through extra-time, in fact, Mandžukić seemed down and out. His match over as he was sitting on the ground holding his knee. But the physios came on and used the magic cold spray to keep Mandžukić in play.
Down but not out
“There is no way he can keep going”, the English journalist next to mutters. “Never count him out”, I answer. Indeed, the 32-year-old striker stayed on the pitch. Seemingly in pain but determined to see this game through to the very end. It was that determination that would pay off and also show the difference between a young and inexperienced Three Lions side and a Croatia team that wanted to defy the odds to make the final step to the final.
With just one leg and battled and bruised Mandžukić then became the hero of the nation when he stole away from his defender in the 109th minute, to convert a header-extension by Ivan Perišić with a fantastic close-range finish. The UK journalists around me gasp, many throw up their arms in disgust. I, however, just shrug my shoulders. “Typical Mandžukić” I mutter again, half to myself and to the perplexed journalist sitting next to me.
“None of my players wanted to be substituted”, Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalić explained after the match. In fact, every substitution made during the match was made in reaction to a Croatian player going down with an injury. Mandžukić had carried his particular knock since the round of 16 match against Denmark.
Now with just one leg, the 32-year-old had perhaps scored the most important goal in his country’s history. Shortly, after the goal, in the 115th minute, he was down again. There was no way to carry on. “It is amazing he could play this long”, the journalist next to me says with respect in his voice.
Mandžukić was not the best player on the pitch that night – that award went to teammate Ivan Perišić. But his match very much epitomised the Vatreni that evening in Moscow. Playing beyond the pain threshold, Mandžukić sacrificed his own body for the greater good of his team.
It is in many ways, the definition of a team player. Perhaps it is no accident that his former club Bayern have failed to win the Champions League after letting the Croat go to make room for the Polish goal machine Robert Lewandowski. Mandžukić may not get 30-goals a season like Lewandowski but instead his 15 to 20 goals he scores matter.
Furthermore, his winner mentality and his ability to walk the fine line between legal and illegal often makes the difference between victory and defeat in crucial matches. Mandžukić’s body might be battered and bruised at this stage of the tournament, but I do not doubt that we will see his determined face inside the Luzhniki player tunnel ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final. Furthermore, I am sure that he will provoke the same sort of emotional outburst by a French journalist as it was the case with my English colleague on Wednesday night.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.