Croatia’s Second Wind

Is there anything more canonical to sport than Half-Time? Probably not. Official ludo-intervals exist in various forms in almost every popular sport: halves, quarters, innings. The purposes served by dividing the game in periods is a put-whatever-you-want list. The obvious one is for the play itself. Players get a chance to catch their breath, rest and recover for the period of play to follow. Coaches take stock of how things stand, make tactical decisions based on the what they’ve seen and strategise for what’s to come. Spectators get a break from the proceedings, an intermission, to maybe go refill their drinks, make a phone call or go to the loo. Commentators and pundits analyse the game so far, broadcasters air highlights and, most importantly, squeeze every bit of advertising money they can. Everybody wins? Again, probably not.

The history of interval in sport, particularly half-time, can be traced to football when it was played between high-brow English public schools by upper class boys with names like Archibald, Lancelot and Bartholomew in early nineteenth century. In fact, much of Association Football rules are rooted in the ancient and posh corridors of Eton and Aldenham. Of course, over a couple of centuries, they have been modernised and standardised. But in early days, when football found patrons in several such sprauncy schools — each of them stone-set and proud in their ways — standardisation was difficult. If there were Eton school rules, there were Rugby school rules too. Thankfully, the former didn’t indulge as far as naming the entire sport after itself. Who knows, maybe they tried. And since rules were different from school to school, it became a tad difficult for the game to go on without crippling disagreements. And thus, by mutual consensus, half-time was born. The agreement was that both teams would get a half each to play by their rules. If Eton wanted to kick the ball forward, they could do so in the first half, and if Rugby wanted to pick up the ball and run to the goal, they were welcome to do so in the second. It was only fair.

Now, while the fairness of changing sides after 45 minutes in today’s game retains a trace essence of the gentlemen’s honour between a bunch of schoolboys, it is safe to say football has come far from its origins. Though it must be noted that the game still retains some of the quaint musings of yore, especially in the way we talk about it. Where do you think “It’s a game of two halves” comes from? Language, like time, is a persistent bastard. But, when Croatia and England participated in the second semi-final of the World Cup in Moscow Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but notice a certain atavism in the half-time shared between the two teams. Like those snobbish British schools, it seemed the two teams played a half each by rules familiar to them. England monopolised the first half; Croatia got away with the second.

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England started the game feverishly, crawling all over Croatian half of the field like ants at a confectionary. They got the goal they wanted too and they still pressed on. Had England showed any atavism themselves, they would have sat back and turned into a sponge. But, that’s the thing about living in the present: half you energies plume away in resisting the past. This new England chipped away, but Croatia were hard wood. They waited, patiently, for 45 minutes to roll by so they could begin again. This time with their rules. And the Croatian rules were simple: we run, you chase. Luka Modrić, perhaps the purest midfielder of our age, enveloped his play area like an ominous cloud. But instead of bringing rain, he brought sunshine. Ivan Rakitić and Marcelo Brozović followed in his light. Mario Mandzukić and Ivan Perisić absorbed his luminescence and started emitting some of their own. The constitution now belonged to Croatia. When the goals came, they hardly surprised anyone — both of them. It was only fair.

Yes, half-time isn’t a win for all. Fifteen minutes of pause might just end up wrecking your play. Or it might just wake you up from slumber. And how it affects minds: England, positive and persistent at the start, roaring like lions, were reducing to a tired and broken horse, gasping for breath and looking for mercy. Croatia, on the other hand, swelled in size with time, catching  a mighty second wind that sailed them through. If you keep going, you go past the point of being tired too. By 90 minutes, England, looking spent — body and mind —were forced to make two substitutions. Croatia, on the other hand, seemed to be in a state of perpetuity. It’s a term used often in competitive sport, but it comes the closest to defining what went down between the two teams: Croatia outlasted England.

In fact, that’s what they have been doing since the knockout rounds began. It is survival of the willing; any one can go to the gym and get fit. To live on the other side, you must first be ready to die this side. And Croatia have been dying, little by little, flickering into darkness, only to burn bright at the end of the tunnel. And this is the end of the tunnel. Modrić and his posse of resolute men will play a World Cup final now. And they will do so against a generation of boys that came after their time. France run faster, breathe steadier and punch harder. Those are their rules. But if Croatia are patient, if they get to half-time and brush off their bruises at interval, they will get a chance to catch that second wind. They will break into pieces and glue themselves up again. They will run out of breath and then breathe again. After all, it is a game of two halves. Those are the rules.

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