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Italy Climbed Out Of Its Grave And Shoved Croatia In

Mattia Zaccagni of Italy celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA EURO 2024 group stage match between Croatia and Italy at Football Stadium Leipzig on June 24, 2024 in Leipzig, Germany.
Alex Pantling - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

There is no more confounding international side in the world than Italy. Just in my lifetime, Italy has been a world champion (2006) and a Euros champion (2021), but it has also missed the last two World Cups and gone out embarrassingly at the two before that (2010 and 2014, both in the group stage). Every tournament is a new opportunity for the Azzurri to redefine itself.

To start the 2024 Euros, Italy played a middling match against Albania, going down 1-0 in the first minute before clawing back a 2-1 lead that they would protect for 74 long minutes. Then came Spain, and Spain smacked Italy around, only winning 1-0 by the grace of some poor finishing. However, thanks to Croatia and Albania's whirlwind 2-2 tie, Italy was set up to take the path of least resistance in the final group game: A draw against Croatia would be enough to send Italy through, assuming (correctly) that Albania would not beat even a rotating Spain.

Something as straightforward as a draw can arrive in many ways, and Italy sure made Monday's match as exciting and bewildering as it could before eventually grabbing that all-important point. Italy came out countering Croatia and creating chances throughout a first half that was marked both by Italy's fluidity and Croatia's passivity. The Italians couldn't score and put this one away early, and that left the door open for Luka Modric to, maybe for the last time, assert his will upon a Croatian tournament match.

Soccer is great at so many things, but it's never been quite as good as other sports on player retirements. Given the nature of the sport—in which players first retire from competing internationally before calling it quits overall, and where club soccer retirements are usually preceded with trips to lower leagues—it's hard to have a clear moment of celebration for a heralded player. It's exceedingly rare that a top player retires on top, and even rarer that he does so after notching a signature moment.

Modric almost got to that rare send-off on Monday. The 38-year-old Croatian midfield legend has done everything that could reasonably be expected from someone not born to a traditional European soccer powerhouse. He won the Ballon d'Or. He made a World Cup final, and a semi-final the next time around. He won six Champions League titles. Even at 38, with his fellow longtime midfield partner Toni Kroos on his way out (Kroos might get that fabled retirement, were Germany to win this tournament on home soil), Modric will return to Real Madrid next season, as captain and figurehead, if not as a real contributor.

He was real and he did contribute to Croatia's hopes this tournament; even with his legs going from him and his ability to play 90-minute, high octane matches almost completely diminished, Modric was still the conductor. The Croatians won the xG battle of Group B, even over Spain and its five actual goals, but Croatia only managed three goals and two points across three matches.

It could have, maybe should have, been four points. After that languid first half, in which Croatia controlled the ball with little urgency, Modric and friends came out of the halftime break with more purpose.

For 10 minutes to start the second, Croatia probed and prodded and eventually were rewarded, as an attempted far-post curler from Andrej Kramaric collided with Davide Frattesi's arm, giving Croatia a penalty. Modric stepped to the spot, only to be denied by Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has been the best Italian player by my estimation in these Euros.

Soccer is a funny sport, though, as Modric would get his redemption not two minutes later. An in-swinger from Luka Sucic got into the box unscathed, and Ante Budimir was able to poke it only directly at Donnarumma. Whereas the Paris Saint-Germain goalie had done an incredible job not only saving the penalty but pushing it out of harm's way, here he could only do the former. His save careened off his arm and into the path of Modric, who latched onto the loose ball with his weaker left foot and rocketed Croatia into a 1-0 lead:

After Modric's goal, Italy woke up for good and began to carve out attack after attack, but Croatia's defense held fast. They held on for so long, in fact, that it looked like Modric had done it again; though he was on the sidelines after being subbed off after 81 minutes, the camera kept finding him, perhaps in false confidence that it would capture the moment Modric's international career did not end.

The story was written in the other direction, though, and the final punctuation came as late and as loudly as it could have: In the 97th minute, Riccardo Calafiori—a center back by trade, but one who is allowed the freedom in Luciano Spalletti's system to charge up the field with or without the ball—received the ball just inside the midfield circle and spotted enough space to drive into, eventually sucking in enough Croatian defenders to create magic. Calafiori saw that the constricting of the checkered shirts opened enough space for a pass to Mattia Zaccagni, a little-used Italy international (seven caps at the age of 29) who plays his club soccer for Lazio. Zaccagni adjusted his body perfectly ahead of Calafiori's pass and, without even taking a touch to steady himself, hit a perfect curler into the side netting.

The goal was absurd, in so many ways: That it was a center back who created the chance; that Zaccagni's first-ever goal for the Azzurri was not just a crucial equalizer, but a gorgeous tournament-saving strike; that Croatia couldn't hold out just 30 seconds longer. So long a nation who plays a good foil to the top teams on the continent without ever rising past second place, Croatia's hopes of remaining in this tournament are almost extinguished. It needs for the Czech Republic and Georgia to both lose, and also for England to beat Slovenia by at least three goals.

Maybe it happens, or maybe the last image of Modric as a Croatian national team player will be him holding the Player Of The Match trophy with barely concealed tears in his eyes. This ending is as cruel to Croatia as it is euphoric for Italy, and while I am sad to see Modric go, if this is how he goes, I am thrilled that Italy will continue to carry its special brand of mayhem into the knockout rounds. For at least one more match, the defending champions are still alive.

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