As surely as the leaves come off the trees in fall, toward the end of any football match that goes to extra time, a player will crumple to the turf with cramp. It normally happens off camera, away from the ball—suddenly he’s sitting there, rooted and unmoveable. It’s cramp! He shrugs, like it’s never happened before, and there’s nothing he can do. Someone runs over to help him up. No dice. Cramp, I’m afraid! And he stays where he is. Everyone knows that cramp is painful as hell, but no one knows whether extra-time cramp is real. The players who seize up are usually on the side that is winning, or at least running the clock down. In the olden days, you used to see players from opposing teams stretching each other out, like gym buddies, and then rising to stagger on, socks rolled down. But that’s gone. Now it’s a shake of the head. Staying down. Cramp, you see.
In the second half of extra time in Croatia’s tough, resourceful World Cup semifinal victory over England, the player going down with cramp was Mario Mandžukić, the thirty-two-year-old forward, who plays his club football for Juventus. Mandžukić, like the rest of Croatia’s team, had been crassly overlooked—by the British media, anyway—in the buildup to the match. He has won more club trophies than all the members of the England team combined. But don’t let that get you down. The whole deal with England in this World Cup was that the nation wasn’t getting carried away. The team was young and played without pressure; Gareth Southgate was our normcore manager. But, after the team beat Sweden in a surprisingly competent manner last Saturday, all that went out the window. People started singing spontaneously on trains. Fans rampaged through an IKEA. Car horns honked all night. The old blood-thickening hope, the old “Football’s Coming Home” entitlement, came swamping back, and everyone started making plans for the final. Croatia, who?
Mandžukić, in fairness, is the kind of forward who is easy to miss. The game naturally celebrates players who like the ball at their feet, who set rhythms, weave passes, and waltz past opponents. But there are other footballers, who are masters of space—with what is not there—and who are more than equally effective. Mandžukić is one of those. You don’t tend to hear his name much in commentary, until it’s “Mandžukić!” And he’s there, six yards out, hammering the ball toward the goal, normally with a single touch. In April, I watched Mandžukić snaffle two first-half goals, both instinctive headers, in a 3–1 victory for Juventus over Real Madrid in the Champions League. He was the man of the match, and you weren’t even sure he was there.
I watched the semifinal—curled on the floor and wracked with hope—and I swear that Mandžukić didn’t touch the ball until the eighty-third minute. England had led for a little more than an hour, after Kieran Trippier slippered a free kick into the top corner. But, in the second half, Croatia took a grip on the game. Luka Modrić, of Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitić, of Barcelona—pros to England’s ams—started snapping the ball around. Ivan Perišić, the Internazionale winger, scored a deft equalizer, and then, with no warning, Mandžukić was taking the ball on his chest and thumping it toward Jordan Pickford’s near post.
Mandžukić’s nine-minute, operatic breakdown—a syncopated series of stops, starts, and seizures, which defined the match, and took it away from England—began in the final moments of the first period of extra time. Perišić, who was a menace all night, whipped in a fast low cross from the left and “Mandžukić!” materialized four yards out and made contact. But he and the ball collided with Pickford, who lept out and made a brilliant save. After the collision, the Croatian lay on the ground for some time. When Mandžukić limped off to prepare for the final fifteen minutes of the game, he pulled his shorts halfway down his thighs, as if he might be done for the night.
And then he was down on the grass. Cramp. Sorry! Mandžukić sat on the edge of England’s penalty area. He made the international gesture for “Not my fault.” John Stones, Kyle Walker, and Harry Maguire, England’s back three, stood over him, alternately offering a hand. No good. Cramp, guys. Eventually, Mandžukić got to his feet, somehow. He trotted around for a few minutes. He definitely seemed hurt. He went down again. The same rigmarole. Maybe Mandžukić was in real trouble. Maybe the England defenders, against their better judgment, thought that he was no longer a threat. Because, in the eighteenth minute of extra time, Walker took an ungainly, tired swing at a Croatian cross. The ball popped up. Perišić nodded it vaguely back toward the England goal and, for an instant, Mandžukić had the space that he needed, and had searched for, all night. It wasn’t much. A yard of grass all around. With his left foot, he lashed the ball across Pickford and into the net, and then ran all the way to the Croatia fans and the TV cameras, where everyone got in a tangle and started kissing one another. Time ran out on England after that. Mandžukić went down one final time. With six minutes to go, Zlatko Dalić, the Croatia manager, called him off. The man was done. He limped all the way to the sideline.