Best World Cup games since 1998 – Australia 2-2 Croatia

Recently, there’s been a problem with World Cups – they haven’t actually been that good. FIFA bumping up the amount of qualifying nations may give more small nations the chance to experience losing 4-0 to Brazil in a competitive match, but it means everyone else has to wait longer for decent games. Having said, that, though, there has been some brilliantly entertaining contests over the last four World Cups; over the next few weeks, this blog will feature pieces about a few of them.

There often seems to be a misunderstanding as to what good football is in the 21st century. This debate mainly revolves around Spain’s passing-patterns paired with lots of 1-0 wins. The only thing more boring than watching Xavi and Busquets play piggy-in-the-middle for an hour and a half is having to listen to people argue about it. Yes, watching good footballers play good football is a large part of the World Cup, but when they let you down and/or lose your attention, you need someone to stand up, take control and entertain. In the case of Croatia in the 2006 World Cup, it was Graham Poll; with Zeljko Kalac as his warm-up act.

Croatia had failed to score in their first two games of the tournament, losing 1-0 to Brazil and drawing 0-0 with Japan. Their coach, Zlatko Krancjar (yes, Niko’s dad) had essentially set his side up to play with five defenders and two defensive midfielders – so think Roberto Mancini without the bad hair and novelty knitwear. Krancjar wasn’t just going to take Croatia out of the World Cup, he was on the verge of making people forget they were ever even in it. Which isn’t a bad tactic, if you think about it.

However, Australia manager Guus Hiddink made the rather strange decision to drop his first-choice goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, in favour of the giant Kalac. After failing to get his giant six-foot-eight frame across quickly enough to stop Dario Srna’s free-kick, Kalac managed to fumble a Niko Kovac daisy-cutter into his own net, giving the Croatians a 2-1 lead. If playing Kalac to deal with balls in the air was Hiddink’s plan, he’d overlooked his keeper’s inability to competently deal with anything on the ground.

Many people who watch a band play live for the first time can be underwhelmed. If the band aren’t going to perform to the best of their abilities, the least they can do is show you something worth watching – worth paying for. If you aren’t going to get a strong performance, it might as well be an absolute train-wreck. How many people get the chance to see, say, the lead singer turn up coked out of his face, smash his guitar, forget his own lyrics and punch the bassist? That’d be just as much value as actually seeing a good set. The main reason why this game makes it onto this blog is because Graham Poll did the refereeing equivalent of this. Minus the drugs, though – as far as this blog as aware.

Referees don’t often lose track of how many times they’ve booked a player in a single match. This is largely due to the fact that most of them are able to count to two. However, to the world’s amusement, Poll struggled with this rather simple task, showing Croatian defender Josip Simunic three yellow cards before dismissing him. In fairness to Poll he had already managed it twice, sending off Brett Emerton and Dario Simic, but for extremely petty offenses.

There was definitely a beauty in the way that Simunic strolled back into a defensive position after Poll had shown a second yellow, surprisingly confident that the Englishman would forget to produce the corresponding red. Such had been the hilariousness of both the game (now 2-2) and the refereeing display, the Croatian probably expected it.

But Graham wasn’t finished. In the final moments, an Australian long throw into the Croatian box caught Simunic out, and he wrestled Mark Viduka to the floor, only to see John Aloisi slot the ball into the net. All logic would dictate that the advantage should be played and the goal should be given, or, at the very least, a penalty. Instead, Poll disallowed the goal, gave Simunic a third yellow (this time with a red) and blew the full-time whistle. An outstanding end to a match that should have been about Australia getting beyond the World Cup First round for the first time in their history, but instead became all about one hilarious entertainer, with his own failures as the punch-line.

Meanwhile, on BBC One, Ronaldo helped Brazil to a 4-0 win over Japan, equalling Gerd Muller’s World Cup goal-scoring record in the process; but no one cared. They’d already switched over to the other game on BBC Three which, for once, was showing some decent comedy.

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One thought on “Best World Cup games since 1998 – Australia 2-2 Croatia

  1. Pingback: Best World Cup games since 1998 – Netherlands 5-1 Spain | Bendt Over Backwards

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