Croatia’s hopes of securing their first-ever international trophy were dashed as Spain emerged victorious in the Nations League final. The match, which culminated in a penalty shootout, marked Spain’s return to glory following an 11-year hiatus since their triumph in the European Championship in 2012.

Once the World and European champions, Spain proved their mettle once more as they triumphantly secured the highly sought-after trophy. While it may be premature to declare their full resurgence after more than a decade, the triumph was witnessed by a Croatian team that had come agonisingly close to securing the title, only to face the possibility of never getting another shot at it.

Croatia, a nation of just 3.8 million people, fielded their greatest generation ever, boasting extraordinary talent, remarkable strength, and seemingly unbreakable resilience. Despite their outstanding contributions to the world of football, Croatia fell short of their deserved recognition yet again. After finishing as runners-up in the 2018 World Cup and claiming third place in 2022, Zlatko Dalic’s side faced a painful defeat once again in the final of the Nations League on Sunday night.

The pressure of the moment may have affected Croatia’s performance, evident in their slow start as Spain pressed high. Spain’s Gavi came close to taking advantage but narrowly missed a shot from a promising position. However, Croatia soon found their rhythm, posing problems for Spain with their direct style of play and high defensive line. Laporte’s exceptional tackle denied Andrej Kramaric a scoring opportunity after a well-executed ball over the top.

As the game approached extra time, Croatia continued to apply pressure, but it was Spain who had the better chances. Marco Asensio came close with a header, Fabian Ruiz chipped narrowly over the crossbar, and Ansu Fati was denied by Ivan Perisic’s goal-line clearance in the second half.

Croatia’s penalty strength

Penalties had been Croatia’s strength throughout previous  tournaments, as they won four shootouts in the last 16 and quarter-finals of previous World Cups. However, luck deserted them on this occasion. 

Simón’s save of Lovro Majer’s penalty marked the first miss for Croatia in their last 13 tournament penalties. The opportunity presented itself for Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte to seal the victory, but his shot ricocheted off the frame of the goal, evoking a sense of fate. Croatia, the kings of persistence, appeared destined to triumph finally, but their dreams were thwarted yet again.

Bruno Petkovic’s following spot-kick was saved by Unai Simón, while Dani Carvajal calmly converted his penalty, ultimately securing the trophy for Spain. Simón’s second outstanding save granted Spain a 5-4 victory in the penalty shootout, leaving Croatia to contemplate what could have been.

Ultimately, Croatia’s quest for their maiden international trophy ended in heartbreak, while Spain celebrated their long-awaited return to international success.