When a goalkeeper who is largely unknown in world football is named player of the match after a quarter-final at a World Cup, he must have done something special. When that happens after a player little more famous in world football than Neymar scored Brazil 1-0 in extra time, the accomplishment must be even more extraordinary. When the awardee appeared in front of the journalists in the catacombs of the Education City stadium in ar-Rayyan on Friday evening, it wasn’t the Brazilian star – it was the Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livaković.
While Neymar was still crying on the pitch, Livaković was celebrating with his family across the pitch in front of the Croatian fans, roughly where he had knelt in disappointment half an hour earlier. Because in the 105th minute he was defeated. Before that, Livaković made several brilliant saves, including against Neymar, and kept it 0-0. But then he was powerless. After a double one-two Neymar appeared in front of him, danced to the side with the ball, Livaković was out of play, the ball in the goal. But it wasn’t the beginning of the Croatian end.
The Croatian World Cup story continues. Keep going? The leitmotif of Oliver Kahn, who followed Dominik Livaković’s sporting exploits in the stadium, also applies to this team. “We grew up as fighters,” he said. “We leave our hearts on the pitch.” That’s all that makes Croatia successful. His coach saw it that way too. “We will become favorites in a penalty shoot-out because our opponents know how good we are at it,” said Zlatko Dalić. “It’s almost like they’ve already lost. The Brazilians were afraid that our goalkeeper would save again.”
Only Neymar dances it out
Neymar’s feat, however, required an equalizer before it went to penalties. Bruno Petković did that in the 117th minute. The massive striker had not done much before. Again and again, the colleagues played the center forward in the hope of a little relief. But the Dinamo Zagreb attacker was mostly on his own and lost the ball. But then he won the hearts of all Croatians. He took the back pass into the penalty area with his left. The ball was deflected by Marquinhos, who would later play a role. 1:1 Penalties shoot.
This was nothing new for Croatia. The decision was made here in the round of 16 against Japan. And at the 2018 World Cup, which only ended with the final defeat by France, there were two wins on penalties along the way, in the round of 16 against Denmark and in the quarterfinals against Russia. At that time Danijel Subašić held, this time Dominik Livaković. He parried Rodrygo’s first attempt, and Marquinhos’ fourth Brazilian shot hit the post. Livaković didn’t need antics. He is a calm representative on the line and focuses on himself. Before the shootout, he just studied a piece of paper with the Brazilians’ favorite targets.
Livaković is no longer a youngster, he is already 27 years old. But he “only” plays at Dinamo Zagreb in his home country. Therefore, his fame on the big football stage was limited. He is regularly in the Champions League with the club, but is also regularly eliminated early. But there are a few highlights. Zagreb beat Chelsea in September, thanks in no small part to Livaković’s saves. A day later, his German coach Thomas Tuchel was dismissed. With Zagreb he won the Croatian championship four times, twice even combined with the cup win.
The successes in the domestic league also brought him to the national team. There, however, he was initially overshadowed by Subašić, who, like Livaković now against Japan, saved three attempts in a World Cup penalty shoot-out against Denmark in 2018. Only the Portuguese Ricardo managed that in the 2006 quarterfinals against England. From today’s perspective, Livaković started his international career for Croatia surprisingly. He made his debut for the “Checkered” in 2017 in the match for third place in the unimportant China Cup against Chile – and actually lost with the team on penalties.
Now everything is different. “We’re very experienced at penalties, that’s our recipe for success,” said Livaković. Co-trainer Ivica Olić, a former Bundesliga player, also emphasized the quality. “I was pretty sure we’d do it again. Because we have a world-class goalkeeper. In addition, seven or eight shooters wanted to shoot. That shows the character of this team,” he said. Curious: For 24 years there has not been a knockout victory for Croatia at a World Cup in regular time. Argentina should be prepared for a longer evening in the semifinals on Tuesday (8:00 p.m. CET in the FAZ live ticker for the World Cup). And a goalkeeper who knows how to save a penalty.
He got the feeling for the ball in his hands early on. First Livaković played basketball, then came to football. “I started playing football at the age of six and became a goalkeeper in the second training session,” he once told the newspaper “Jutarnji list” about his beginnings. In the meantime he has arrived on the big stage, supported by his wife Helena, whom he married at home last summer. She also stands out in the stands. While everyone wears the red and white Croatia pattern, she can always be seen in her husband’s bright green shirt.