Croatian football has been on the cusp of something special before.
Rewind to the beginning of the 1990s, and a Yugoslav team led by Croatian talents Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Šuker looked set to dominate the 1992 European Championships. Suddenly, Croatia’s declaration of independence saw the trio and their Croat colleagues withdraw from the Yugoslavian juggernaut.
As the region descended into war, United Nations sanctions barred the Yugoslavia team – which had finished qualification with a vastly changed line-up – from the Euros. In a strange twist of fate, that tournament was won by late replacements Denmark – who Croatia dispatched on penalties on Sunday.
Six years later, as Croatia emerged from the violence with conflict still raging nearby, the nation contested its first-ever Word Cup in an independent capacity. While Croatia was plunging into an economic recession, its footballers deftly navigated a challenging group of Argentina, Jamaica and Japan to qualify second. With Šuker on song – the striker ultimately won the golden boot – Croatia surged past Romania in the Round of 16 and Germany in the quarter-finals. Although a Lilian Thuram brace saw France win their semi-final encounter with the Balkan state, Croatia bounced back to win the third play playoff against the Netherlands.
There are echoes of that side in Russia today. A midfield stacked with talent. A dangerous striker. Sterling goalkeeper performances. But unlike the 1998 World Cup, few powerhouse nations stand between the Croats and that iconic trophy. No Holland or Italy, neither of whom qualified. No Germany. No Argentina. Instead, Croatia will face Russia in the quarter-final and one of Sweden, Switzerland, Colombia or England if they progress to the semi-finals.
If Croatia is to beat the hosts in Sochi and then overcome whoever awaits them Moscow, they will need to improve their finishing. Despite scoring with their first chance of the game against Denmark, the Croatians failed to convert the 21 attempts on goal that followed. Mario Mandžukić was unable to add to his early goal, while Andrej Kramarić – although making an impact off the bench – could not find a winner.
Croatia’s inability to turn midfield dominance into a scoreboard advantage will give manager Zlatko Dalić much food for thought. Although seemingly permitted to float around at will, Croatian superstar Luka Modric predominantly found himself in a deep-lying role – sometimes even forming part of the back four. While this is common role for the midfield dynamo at club level with Real Madrid, Modric looked dangerous against Nigeria and Iceland in a more advanced position. Croatia is stacked with attacking talent – Ivan Rakitić, Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić all capable of menacing the opposition defence. But Modric is the king of Croatia’s midfield. It may be sensible for Dalić to unshackle him from his throne.
“You have to earn your luck,” mused the Croatian manager following his side’s victory over Denmark. “Without luck you cannot do anything in life.” Croatia was no doubt fortunate against the Scandinavians in Nizhny Novgorod. They did not dominate in the way that had seen them progress through the group stage undefeated. If not for a missed opening penalty from Christian Eriksen, the shoot-out may have ended very differently.
But luck is an essential ingredient in World Cup-winning campaigns, arguably as important as good preparation and talented players.
They might not have found top gear against Denmark, but Croatia still have every opportunity to fire themselves into the final at Luzhniki Stadium on 15 July. “We have come so far, but we do not intend to stop here,” declared Dalić. That is no idle threat.
2018 marks a quarter of a century since Croatian Football Federation was officially recognised by UEFA following the chaos and calamity of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. It would be quite the feat for this small, Mediterranean nation of just 4 million to win the World Cup. But Croatia has overcome adversity before. After reaching the quarter-finals as bigger nations crumble around them, Vatreni – the Blazers – are firming as favourites for a tournament that continues to throw up surprises.