Of all the countries to emerge from the former Yugoslavia, none have enjoyed as much international success as Croatia. In their debut performance at the 1998 World Cup in France, a Croatian “Golden Generation” stunned the soccer world by finishing third, knocking out the mighty Germans in the quarterfinals and, after losing to eventual champions France, topping the Netherlands in the third place match. The current crop of Croatian stars promises big things, too. And they’ll look back at that first World Cup team—which featured now–team manager Niko Kovac—for inspiration.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiva Zagreb)
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Gordon Schindelfeld (Panathinaikos)
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Sammir (Getafe)
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), Nikica Jelavic (Hull City), Ivica Olic (VfL Wolfsburg), Eduardo Da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ivan Perisic (VfL Wolfsburg), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina)
A former national team captain, Niko Kovac was part of the legendary 1998 squad that made the World Cup semifinals in France. Hired after an unconvincing (but successful) qualification campaign, Kovac eschews former coach Igor Stimac’s tactical tinkering in favour of a consistent 4-2-3-1 that makes the most of Croatia’s creative midfield
4-2-3-1: (GK) Pletikosa – (D) Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Pranjic – (M) Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Olic, Kovacic – (F) Mandzukic
Group A schedule
June 12: vs. Brazil in Sao Paulo
June 18: vs. Cameroon in Manaus
June 23: vs. Mexico in Recife
How they qualified
Croatia is in the uncomfortable situation of having gotten worse as qualifying went on—almost to the peril of their once invincible-looking campaign. Keeping pace with the powerful Belgians at the top of the table, unbeaten through the first six games—even drawing the Belgians 1-1 in the second matchday—the Croats suddenly crumbled. Figures, of course, that it was against winless and already-eliminated Scotland that Croatia suffered their first loss. They then stumbled to a draw against Serbia, a loss to the Belgians and, improbably, another loss to Scotland. By that point the Serbs were on the rise and only the good work Croatia did early in the campaign saved them from having second place stolen from under them by their bitter rivals. Iceland was then dispatched in the playoffs.
The team is very well balanced, from back to front and as far as youth and experience. But it’s the front two thirds of the field that really impress. They have an enviable midfield that, while a little on the light side, has creativity in bundles. Up front they have a powerful attack to feed in Shakhtar’s Eduardo da Silva and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic. This is a team that can open up defences, and make them pay.
Hard to pinpoint in such a complete team, but if you had to choose, it’s their goalkeeping that stands out as a weak spot. Danijel Subasic has done well at Monaco, but remains behind Stipe Pletikosa in the pecking order. Pletikosa, you’ll remember, failed to get a single game during his loan spell at Tottenham a few years back.
Players to watch
Luka Modric: Fresh off a Champions League title, Real Madrid’s playmaker has all the tricks and technical ability to make defenders look foolish, and the vision to hand tap-ins to his teammates.
Mario Mandzukic: The leading scorer for Croatia in qualifying, the 6’1” striker is a superb header of the ball and a cool finisher. Just how cool? He ended the Bundesliga campaign second in the scoring race.
Dejan Loveren: A solid young centre back coming off a career season at Southampton in the Premier League. Reliable, intelligent and tackles well.
Will jet lag slow Croatia down? Few people will be asking why Brazil plopped a World Cup stadium in the middle of the Amazon more than Croatia. They start in Sao Paulo for the opener against Brazil, trek out to Manaus in the steaming and isolated Amazon jungle to meet Cameroon, then head back to the coast to play Mexico in Recife. Two time zone changes and 5,522 km flown in 11 days. That’s going to take a lot out of a team’s legs. With the matches they’re expected to win coming when the squad is at it’s most travel-weary, only time will tell if the Croats will wilt.
Prospects in Brazil
Croatia are widely expected to claim second in their group, and may even challenge Brazil for top spot if the hosts crumble at all under the pressure of hosting. It’s Croatia’s bad luck that second place will land them a round of 16 date with the first-place finisher from the very strong Group B, likely Spain. They have what it takes to maybe be the spoiler who knocks off a favourite, but they’re not going to win the whole thing.
World Cup history
As part of the Yugoslavian team, Croatian players competed in seven World Cups, regularly reaching the quarterfinals and even reaching the semis of the 1930 tournament. In their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Davor Suker–led Croats surprised the world to finish third in the 1998 tournament. Things have been downhill since, with group stage finishes in 2002 and 2006, and a failure to reach the South African World Cup altogether.
• 1930 to 1990—Competed as part of Yugoslavia
• 1994—Did not compete
• 1998—Semifinals (third place)
• 2002—First round
• 2006—First round
• 2010—Did not qualify
Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States