The Ballad of Danijel Subasic
After witnessing Croatia goalkeeper Danilej Subasic’s performance to date in the World Cup knockout rounds, two metaphors come to mind.
First, there is one often spoke of heroes. He will walk through fire for his team. With big saves in consecutive penalty shootouts against two far more renowned, world-class netminders, the second while fighting either a hamstring strain, muscle cramp, or just playacting, if certain overly tribalistic, Guinness-chugging England fans I know are to be believed, a stroll through a wall of flames seems a regular routine for the 33-year-old Monaco stick-man.
Second is the retort from disbelievers. He couldn’t beat a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. After Subasic put them down while on one leg, the ousted hosts in this World Cup might advise doubters that particular task is easier said than done. Subasic and Croatia are still standing. Russia is not.
If the World Cup is a party, Russia is the guy in the corner, drinking, the one who seems out of place. It turns out FIFA had to invite him to use his place for the party. He doesn’t seem like much until he’s had enough to feel his oats, get up on the table, and do the big shoe dance.
The Sbornaya’s moves on the pitch weren’t much better than PeeWee Herman’s on top of a bar, but they too won the crowd over to their side by playing far above their heads.
Ranked as the worst team at the tournament before it began, the hosts defeated Saudi Arabia in style, scoring five. Their talisman, Alan Dzagoev, went off after 20 minutes with a hamstring injury. Denis Cheryshev came on and scored a brace.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s troops took the night off against Uruguay, having already qualified for the Round of 16, where Spain took them for granted. When the penalties were over, Igor Akinfeev was the hero, David de Gea the goat, and Russia were in the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, Croatia went about winning their group. Along the way, they made Argentina look like a Sunday team made up of eleven drunk guys in corners. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dismantled La Albiceleste. As a whole, the squad denied the ball to Lionel Messi wherever he went on the pitch. Subasic wasn’t needed until the knockout round against Denmark.
The Danes were largely able to contain Croatia and match their lone goal. In the penalty shootout, Subasic announced his presence. The Monaco no.1 was pitted against a goalkeeping prince, Kasper Schmeichel, with King Peter watching from the stands.
Denmark elected to shoot first. Teams will do this to press the opponent into matching every goal they score. It was a mistake. Subasic turned the strategy on its head, forcing the younger Schmeichel to match him save for save, a much more difficult proposition even for royalty.
The Croat turned away Christian Eriksen on the first kick. Schmeichel was equal to the task, denying Milan Badelj much to dad’s delight.
Temporarily, the takers regained the advantage. Simon Kjaer and Michael Krohn-Dehli converted for Denmark. Andrej Kramaric and Luka Modric responded for the Blazers. Modric had been denied by Schmeichel in the 114th minute after Ante Rebic had been brought down from behind. The Real Madrid playmaker responded to the challenge by coolly blasting his second opportunity beyond the Leicester City Dane. Then Subasic reasserted his authority. He denied Lasse Schone. Schmeichel kept the pace, telling Josep Pivaric no.
Four rounds had passed with each keeper making two saves. Nicolai Jorgenson stepped up for Denmark. Subasic was all over his shot. Third time pays for all. Schmeichel faced Ivan Rakitic. The Barca playmaker sent him the wrong way. Subasic had knocked the crown off Schmeichel’s head.
History will tell you Russia hasn’t much respect for royalty. They bided their time in the quarterfinal, allowing Croatia to boss possession, then struck from nowhere. Denis Cheryshev’s opener on the half-hour, a perfect curling volley that tucked inside the upper 90, gave Russia an early lead. Subasic could only watch. No keeper was going to stop that. Not David de Gea on his best day. Not Thibaut Courtois. Not Kasper Schmeichel. Not even Peter.
Eight minutes later, Croatia answered. Mario Mandzukic took the ball to the end line, then cut it back for Kramaric to head home. Terms were level heading into the dressing room. The second half was scoreless but not uneventful.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic used his third substitute to throw on Mateo Kovacic on 88 minutes. Andrej Kramaric came off. When Subasic had to dive to his left to prevent a corner a minute into stoppage time, he winced, collapsed to the turf, clutched his hamstring, then began pounding the turf in anguish.
The physios came out and worked feverishly. A minute or two later, Subasic gingerly continued. He had to bar the door for five minutes so that Dalic could substitute him in extra time. He was forced into two saves during that time. The pain was etched on his face but he was up to the task.
Amazingly, he elected to continue into extra time, allowing Dalic to use his substitution elsewhere. Mandzukic was also hobbled, and Sime Vrsaljko. Subasic soldiered on. He threw three claimed balls to teammates. When a goal kick was required, Dejan Lovren took it.
Seven minutes into the first 30, Dalic sent in Vedran Corluka for Vrsaljko. Shortly after, Subasic had to plant and dive to one side to make another stop. He didn’t get up until the physios arrived. Minutes after his second treatment, he scrambled to make two saves.
At the other end, Domagoj Vida headed Croatia into the lead square on a hundred minutes.
Russia kept coming. Croatia held firm until five minutes remained. They were powerless when Mario Fernandes rose up to meet a cross and powered it inside the far post. Subasic was frozen. Whether he hadn’t the faith in his injured leg to attempt a save or simply knew it was out of reach, who is to say? Russia had come back again, this time forcing penalties.
Given Subasic’s condition, Igor Akinfeev seemed to hold the advantage. Again, Russia elected to shoot first. Croatia would be out of this World Cup based on coin tosses, but penalties were the measure.
Fyodor Smolov overthought the first kick. With Subasic partially immobilised, all he needed to do was find the bottom corner to the keeper’s right. Subasic knew it. He guessed that way and dove. Smolov tried to dink it instead. Not able to push off with his full strength, Subasic was slow enough to stay behind the ball, raise his trailing arm to parry it away.
Marcelo Brozavic calmly beat Akinfeev. Advantage Croatia, for the moment.
Dzagoev, who had lost most of this World Cup to a hamstring injury himself, thundered the next Russia penalty into the bottom of the net to Subasic’s left. Mateo Kovacic went the same way for Croatia but Akinfeev got his hand to it. Then Mario Fernandes tried to send his penalty to the same place his header had gone. In a horribly unscripted moment, the naturalised Brazilian scuffed it wide. Modric scored and Croatia regained their edge.
Thirty-eight-year-old centre-half Sergei Ignashevich powered his shot under Subasic and Daler Kuzyayev followed up, but the damage had been done. Akinfeev couldn’t stop Vida nor Rakitic. Croatia finally revealed the drunk guy in the corner for who he was.
Despite the quality Croatia possesses through their lineup, it wouldn’t have been possible without Subasic’s skill, determination, and heart.
In tomorrow’s semifinal, assuming he’s healthy, Subasic will face Jordan Pickford, another keeper who has rescued his team in this tournament. He’ll also have to stare down Harry Kane, who has scored five times from the spot in Russia. If Subasic proves the better, FIFA may be forced to consider a goalkeeper for the tournament’s Golden Ball, the ultimate irony for a competition held in the country that gave us the only netminder to win such an award, Lev Yashin.