Despite the unenviable task of facing host nation and tournament favorite Brazil, Croatia were punching above their weight and seemed destined to escape with a point in the first match of the 2014 World Cup.
A questionable call denied Croatia a goal and a highly controversial penalty was too much for the Vatreni to overcome. Leading Croatia coach Niko Kovac to bemoan, “We talk about respect. That wasn't respect. Croatia didn't get any.”
Kovac isn’t the first coach burned by a refereeing decision on soccer’s greatest stage. A whole subset of the tournament’s lore can be devoted to blow calls from Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” to Torsten Frings’s hand of clod.
Mexico also was victimized by a bad call after they had goal incorrectly waved off after the official wrongly called offsides in Friday's match.
The United States team has noticed but is not changing their game plan come Monday. “We have to watch out with tackling in the box, with holding and corner kicks and all that stuff,” Midfielder Jermaine Jones mentioned. “And don’t touch the guys in the box.”
“As a defender, that was a tough one to see,” Matt Besler said of the Croatia penalty. “But I think it’s a good one to see because it’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
“I don't know. I mean, for a defender, it seems to always be a penalty,” DeAndre Yedlin said of the Croatia penalty. “But yeah, that’s just the way it goes. The ref made the call so, that was brutal for them.”
Once pared down to the final 23-man roster, the United States only gave up two goals in their three friendlies against Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Nigeria. Both coming from the penalty spot. Mired in the Group of Death, Besler, Yedlin and their United States teammates know the margins are slim if they want to escape the group stage.
“We know the rules and we have to be careful, we know that, but I think we have to play our game," said Jones. "We have a good group and we have some guys on the bench that would be of the same importance as the guys who start. Everybody have to be focused and try to make the best for the team.”
Can we expect a pensive American side to take the field on Monday? Not so says Graham Zusi. “No, we just have to be worried about our game and worried about ourselves.”