World Cup penalty shootouts are as excruciating as it gets in football. It takes character to take one. It takes fearlessness to hit the decisive one.
Not only has Ivan Rakitić done that for Croatia at this World Cup, he has done it twice.
Against Denmark, the Barcelona midfielder strolled up from the halfway line and placed the ball on the spot.
Kasper Schmeichel was, as usual, roaring in the penalty taker’s face in the most unsubtle and graceless attempt to unnerve an opponent you’re likely to see.
Rakitić, though, was unmoved. In the face of a howling Dane, the 30-year-old stepped and coolly stroked the ball into the corner, sending Schmeichel the wrong way and Denmark home.
Less than a week later, Rakitić found himself in an identical situation, only this time the stakes were even higher, the pressure even more intense.
At the end of a gruelling war of attrition in the quarter-final against hosts Russia, Croatia’s destiny lay in Rakitić’s hands once more. Again, he barely flinched, picking the same spot before clipping the ball unerringly into the bottom corner as Igor Akinfeev despairingly dived the wrong way.
Crushing the home nation’s dreams with an educated swing of his right boot, Rakitić captured a rare distinction: being the first player to have scored the decisive penalty twice at the same World Cup.
Rakitić’s rocky path
Of course, Rakitić hasn’t always been nerveless from 12 yards. As highlighted by Sid Lowe, he missed one for Sevilla as they were held to a scoreless draw at Rayo Vallecano. That afternoon, in front of a sea of red and white, Rakitić blinked, sending his spot-kick wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.
The message he received from his mother-in-law, a fanatical Sevilla fan, following the match has become a viral sensation.
“Your dog takes better penalties than you do,” it read.
Such a uniquely hostile in-law situation did not deter Rakitić. He has continued to take penalties and take them well.
At the 2014 World Cup, Rakitić would have been excused for dreaming big. He had enjoyed a stellar season with Sevilla ahead of the tournament in Brazil, during which he created more chances than any other player in La Liga while guiding them to Europa League glory (with Rakitić being named the man-of-the-match in the final).
Croatian fans had high hopes for the Rakitić-Modrić playmaking axis but their journey in Brazil ended early with a 4-0 win over a truly awful Cameroon side sandwiched between 3-1 defeats to the hosts and Mexico.
In between the Brazil and Cameroon games, Rakitić signed for Barcelona. He reached the pinnacle of the club game but is determined to replicate such a trajectory on the international scene.
Indeed, Rakitić has dreamed of doing so since he was ten, watching the Croatian heroes finish third at France ’98 from the sleepy Swiss town of Möhlin where he was born. Watching Croatia, his parents’ home country, dare to dream in France left an indelible mark on Rakitić.
Although his formative years were spent with Basel and the Switzerland Under-21 side, he couldn’t deny his Croatian connection. His instincts told him to follow in the footsteps of Robert Prosinečki, having celebrated like only a 10-year-old boy could when the midfielder scored against Jamaica.
Prosinečki also played for Sevilla and Barcelona and was assistant manager to Slaven Bilić when Rakitić made his international debut. Now, Rakitić has the chance to down England and surpass his idol’s achievements in guiding Croatia to the World Cup final.
Having already put the finishing touches on successive shootouts, Rakitić will be as well-equipped as anyone to stare down Jordan Pickford if it comes down to it in Moscow on Wednesday night.
His contributions from the base of the Croatian midfield have gone far beyond penalties, of course. Marca once dubbed Rakitić the Todocampista, essentially meaning a box-to-box operator capable of fulfilling any midfield role.
In Russia, Rakitić has lived up to that billing and then some. Paired with Marcelo Brozović as a double-pivot against Argentina, Rakitić was immense, winning 13 duels and covering every blade of grass to shut down Lionel Messi, his Barcelona teammate.
Modrić has been talismanic, sure. He is the captain after all. Rakitić, however, has excelled as the quieter, more self-effacing conductor at the heart of this sturdy Croatian unit. He is Croatia’s very own Michael Carrick, conducting his business with a modesty that stems not from diffidence, but from an unwavering belief in his own abilities.
However, while much of the grittier side to his game may go unnoticed in a blood-and-thunder World Cup clash, when the chance to become a hero presents itself, he certainly delivers.