Making back-to-back appearances in the FIFA World Cup semi-finals is no easy feature. For example, Brazil did it in 1998 and 2002. France have only done it for the first time in 2018 and 2022. Other powerhouses like Argentina have secured that performance back in 1986 and 1990. But Croatia? Well, the country with a population of only four million appeared in the penultimate act of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and 2022, delivering epic performances time and time again.
The question is simple: how does a country with so little resources and a player pool so vastly inferior to other deliver such outstanding performances?
First of all, behind any great team, there are some great minds. For Croatia, Luka Modric has been the fulcrum of that performance, a diminutive midfielder that has become a mainstay both for his national team and Real Madrid in the past decade, a box-to-box midfielder whose ability is next to none.
“Mateo [Kovacic], Luka [Modric] and Marcelo [Brozovic] are the best Croatia midfield in history. I don’t think it can be repeated. When you pass them the ball it is safer than having your money in the bank,” said defender Josip Juranovic before the semi-final against Argentina, which Croatia eventually lost.
Indeed, the Croatia midfield has been nothing short of superb, with the three starters complementing each other to perfection, each boasting a unique skillset that enables the other two to thrive in their position.
This midfield, albeit aging, allows Croatia to dictate the tempo of the game, accelerating whenever needed and pausing it during the times when the teams needs to regenerate. In fact, Croatia’s team is able to conserve energy, much-needed in their marathon matches.
Croatia have written history time and time again, more often than not in extra-time. All of their matches before the final at the 2018 FIFA World Cup ended after extra-time or penalties. At Qatar 2022, Croatia advanced against Japan in the Round of 16 and Brazil in the quarter-finals on penalties.
Any knockout game that ended after 90 minutes in the last two editions of the FIFA World Cup was a loss for Croatia – 2-4 in the final at Russia 2018 and 0-3 against Argentina at Qatar 2022.
“We sort of paralyzed our opponent with our passing game,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said. “We know how to put our foot on the ball, keep possession, not rush, and that was, I think, the most important thing.”
And there’s the catch. This team is resilient. This team is amazing. This team is a coach’s dream – no matter how hard they fall or how big the challenge is, they rise up to the occasion and bounce back, in nail-biting games that really create a true reference in Croatian football.
“I am motivated by the fact that, despite being a small country, we have a lot of heart. We will give every ounce of strength we have from the first minute to the last. There is simply no giving up for us. We play for one another. We showed that during our match against Brazil. We simply did everything within our power to win and we earned that,” added Juranovic.
The motivation partially stems from Croatia being a young state, only gaining their independence in 1991 and being admitted to FIFA in 1992. Six years later, they made huge strides in earning their first semi-final berth at the FIFA World Cup, led by the top goal scorer at France 1998, Davor Suker, who is now the President of the Croatian Football Federation.
“We want to be remembered as the Croatia 1998 generation, those players are the ones who have shown us what it means to fight for our Croatia. We simply represent them here. I think that we also want to achieve something that will make us be remembered like they are,” added Juranovic.
While they might have fallen against Argentina, Croatia was still an amazing team at Qatar 2022, delivering time and time again, even if several new players were ushered in after Russia 2018.
Yet they still flew high, captured the minds of everybody in Zagreb and other Croatian cities and delivered an all-time performance at Qatar 2022. It will be surely Modric’s swansong, as a win against Morocco in the third-place play-off would be another excellent piece of his legacy, but what a performance he put in once again.