Croatia comes of age

World Cup Russia 2018

CROATIA’S journey towards the World Cup semi-finals in some ways mirrors the broader picture of a country that only gained its independence 27 years ago and has since been recovering from a brutal war of independence.

Although Croatian declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the next five years were a brutal war of independence. Given that, it’s no surprise there was no Croatia at the ‘94 Cup.

But four years later Croatia was heading towards European Union membership and there were also the first moves towards a stable parliamentary political system.

The national team strode onto the Stade Felix-Bollaert in Lens, France to face Jamaica and their first World Cup campaign was off to a scorching start. First goal went to Mario Stanic and at full time they had a convincing 3-0 win.

Croatia beat Japan 1-0, then lost to Argentina 1-0, though both teams had already qualified for the round of 16.

• Croatia celebrate reaching third place in their first World Cup – could they go even better this year?

Grudge match

There they beat Romania 1-0 after winning a penalty in the first half. They faced up to Germany in the quarter finals, something of a grudge match against the Germans who’d bundled them out of UEFA Euro two years earlier. The Croats seized the opportunity after a send-off and slotted three goals into the back of the net.

They lost to France 2-1 in the semi-final, coach and captain faced criticism for their substitution tactics, but there was some consolation in taking third place against the Netherlands.

During the cup they had scored 11 goals, with six by Davor Suker who won the golden boot trophy for most goals at the competition.

Suker was in the squad that went to Japan in 2002, but couldn’t recapture his great form and went goalless. There was some criticism the team relied too heavily on old-timers, winning just one match.

Australians might have clearer memories of the Croatian team than their countrymen from Germany 2006, courtesy of a Harry Kewell goal in a cracker of a match at Stuttgart – a home away from home for many Croats who worked in the city’s automobile industry. Aussie fans had plenty of fodder for their light-hearted tease: “Your shirt is a tablecloth.”

It was do or die for both teams. Croatia needed a win to leap over Australia and take the last qualifying spot.

Croatia took an early lead through Darijo Srna, but Craig Moore equalised with a penalty. Nico Kovac tripped up Aussie goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac in the 56th minute with a bobbling drive, but Kewell’s finish in the 79th minute put the Aussies into the final 16 for the first time.

Sadly for Croatia it was the end of their tournament and they bowed out in 22nd place.

Croatia failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but it was agonisingly close as they’d finished just one point behind runners-up Ukraine in their UEFA group – a team they twice held to a tie.

They were back for Brazil 2014, but faced the host nation for the opening match of the tournament. The game started disastrously for Brazil, who conceded the first own goal to open a World Cup. They equalised, but controversy followed with a gifted a penalty by the ref from a trivial contact by Dejan Lovran in the box. There was even more heartbreak for Croatia when they got the ball in the net only to have it disallowed because of a foul by the keeper. The two incidents took the sting out of their game, and the Brazilians slotted home one more for a flattering 3-1 scoreline.

The Croatians regrouped with a convincing 4-0 against Cameroon, then faced another decider, against Mexico this time. They couldn’t afford a draw and  coach Niko Kovac’s attacking formation in the second half left gaps which the Mexicans exploited to slam in three goals. The Croatians got a late consolation but were out.

Enigmatic

Russia 2018 is Croatia’s coming of age at the World Cup. They came into the competition ranked 13th and were expected to make the quarter finals at best, but with Luka Modric one of the best players in the world supported by Ivan Rakitic in the midfield they’re on a high. They sent the enigmatic but faded Argentinians packing 3-0, while comfortably taking the points against Nigeria and Iceland. The final 16 and quarter finals have proven a bit harder, and they’ve had to go to penalties against Denmark and Russia, but the semi win against England shows a team able to dig deep and hold their nerve for the big games.

by STEVE GRANT

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