Croatia’s hopes at Euro 2016 ride on the star-making emergence of Ivan Perisic off the Wing
PARIS — Few people cared when Ivan Perisic scored two years ago at Arena Amazonia. The World Cup match wasn’t in question. Croatia was in full control. Cameroon was a joke.
We were in Manaus, a Brazilian outpost in the Amazon, batting away palm-sized moths while wondering if the match had been fixed.
Cameroon’s Alex Song was sent off after inexplicably punching Mario Mandzukic. The African side’s goalkeeper seemingly moved aside for Perisic to score.
The 25-year-old winger’s only other goal at that World Cup — late in a 3-1 loss to Mexico — was meaningless. Croatia exited that World Cup in disappointing fashion. Perisic was just another player.
Two summers later, the moths in France are much smaller. Perisic, though, is growing bigger with every performance. He will be front and centre on Saturday in a round-of-16 meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in Lens.
Perisic was impossible to ignore in Croatia’s opening win over Turkey. His pace and presence were noticeable compared to two years ago in Brazil. Back then, Perisic was a bit player who’d recently been cast aside by Dortmund.
Now he’s arguably the third-best winger at this tournament, trailing only Ronaldo and Welsh attacker Gareth Bale, both of whom are playing at a super-elite, untouchable level. Not the worst company to be included among.
Don’t believe the hype? Rumours of Barcelona’s interest have popped up this week. That’s how good Perisic, 27, has been at this tournament, tormenting fullbacks whenever he’s given time and space on the left flank.
Turkey defender Gokhan Gonul couldn’t stop him and the Czech Republic back-line duo of Pavel Kaderabek and Roman Hubnik were shredded. Against Spain, he showed what happens when teams are more concerned with attacking than containing.
Portugal would be wise not to play with that same attacking arrogance. Leaving Perisic with loads of space in front of Pepe won’t end well for Portugal. It hasn’t ended well for anyone at this tournament.
Perisic is like Ronaldo five years ago — the kind of player whose top speed doesn’t change despite having the ball at his feet. He’s most dangerous when he collects along the left touch line and immediately targets a defender.
A right-footed stopover is followed by a quick burst to the left before an attempt on goal or a cross. Portugal’s midfielders Joao Mario or Vieirinha — whoever starts — know it’s coming. They just won’t be aloe to stop Perisic one-on-one.
The unstoppable is what truly separates Bale and Ronaldo, and now Perisic, from everyone else. That the Croatian playmaker wasn’t even mentioned by UEFA before the tournament as one of “100 Euro footballers watch for” tells you something about his meteoric rise.
It also says something about what he has left to prove. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are reportedly interested in Perisic, whose transfer value from Inter Milan has skyrocketed to around $45 million.
It could rise further if his performances here in France continue in a similar manner. His only criticism in recent years has been his inconsistency — something he has shown no risk of at Euro 2016.
Instead, this could be the moment where Ivan Perisic becomes a household name throughout Europe and, perhaps, the world. Outshining Ronaldo is a feat usually reserved for Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
If he can lift Croatia to a quarterfinal berth, people will be forced to pay attention. If he does it in style, he might not be an Inter player by the end of this tournament.
The world is waiting for a new top footballer to emerge. While we were told to watch out for Portugal’s Renato Sanchez and France’s Kingsley Coman and England’s Dele Alli, none of them have excited in the way Perisic or Dimitri Payet have.
A lot has changed since Perisic bagged his first World Cup goal. But the scoresheet that night might as well have read “Anonymous.”
Now he’s front and centre ahead of a do-or-die match against Ronaldo’s Portugal.
It’s going to take something special — more than we’ve seen — to take the spotlight away from the king.