It may be too soon to say they’re back but 11 years on Spain, once the World and European champions, unbeatable over four years and three tournaments, lifted a trophy again – watched by the team that have come so close and might never get the chance to try again. The greatest generation Croatia have ever had, a nation of just 3.8m people and a team of extraordinary talent and strength, seemingly unbreakable resilience, have given football so much but weren’t given it back. Runners-up at the World Cup in 2018, third in 2022, on Sunday night Zlatko Dalic’s side fell in the final of the Nations League.
Defeated by France and Argentina then, now it was Spain. Just when they seemed to have done it again too, somehow seeing their way through to their place. This time, though, penalties deserted them. Four shootouts Croatia had won, in the last 16 and the quarter-finals of each of those World Cups, but having got there again, as they headed into sudden death Bruno Petkovic saw his spot-kick brilliantly saved by Unai Simón and Dani Carvajal scored to take this trophy to Madrid.
As Spain celebrated, Luka Modric looked sunk. His 166th and possibly his last game for his country had ended in defeat and it was hard not to feel like something bigger had been lost. He had run to the last, at 37, and there was reason to be proud once more but just could not get over the line. Yet again – for the eighth time in 11 knockout matches – one of football’s most epic, most seemingly indestructible national teams had gone to extra time. Six of the last seven had seen them emerge still standing but not here, not even when Aymeric Laporte’s spot-kick thundered off the bar, giving them a lifeline.
Simón had saved Lovro Majer’s penalty – the first Croatia had missed in their last 13 at tournaments – giving the Manchester City defender the chance to win it. When he crashed the shot against the frame of the goal, it felt a little like fate. These great survivors were going to do it again; somehow, these players, this team, was at last going to complete their quest. At De Kuip though, as at Lusail and the Luzhniki, they were denied, a second superb save from Simón gave Spain victory, 5-4 on penalties.
The seleccion had won. No, it is not a World Cup, it is not a Euros either and there may never be a “major” before trophy in the case of the Nations League but it mattered. Spain after all had not won anything since 2012, all too aware that their greatest generation is all but gone – only Jesús Navas remains from South Africa 2010, plus Jordi Alba from the Euros two years later.
Croatia knew this might be a last chance. Just their midfield three alone – and what a midfield three it is – had 345 caps between them before tonight. Ivan Perisic had a further 126. At 33, he was flying for much of the night and, still going at the end. Modric was too, four years his senior. Both men scored their penalties, but ultimately the medals they wore said runners-up.
As they went up for them, there was a guard of honour from Spain. There was applause from this place, packed with proud countrymen. “Spain will feel like they’re playing in Croatia,” Dalic had insisted. There were over 25,000 of them here singing for Modric to stay, fireworks everywhere. Yet if Spain were the “away” team, in the end it did not matter. Alba, the captain who hadn’t expected to be in the squad at all, lifted silver to the sky.