The case for ... Croatia

In opposing France on Sunday in the World Cup final, Croatia will attempt to emulate what the French team did in 1998: win the final in its first appearance.

On its way to the world crown, France beat Croatia, 2-1, in the semifinals and became the seventh nation to win the tournament as host by defeating Brazil, 3-0, at the Stade de France in Paris. Since then no host nation has reached the final.

Having already ousted Russia on penalties in Sochi as well as England after extra time in Moscow, Croatia has built up a fanatical following in Russia as well as at home. It will be well-backed on Sunday.

Here are five more reasons Croatia has the edge:
1. Croatia has a long history of producing great players.

Renowned for producing outstanding players when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia has competed independently for less than three decades. The nation emerged after years of bloody separatist fighting from which Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo eventually formed as independent states.

Three members of Yugoslavia's team at the 1990 World Cup played for Croatia in 1998: Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, who won the Golden Boot with six goals and is now president of the national soccer federation.

Another Croatian player, Alen Boksic, missed the 1990 tournament because of injury, and Zvonomir Boban had been suspended by the Yugoslavian federation for kicking a policeman during a league match while playing for Dinamo Zagreb.

A fight broke out in the stands between supporters from Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade, and when it spread to the field, Boban tackled the policeman as he grappled with a Dinamo fan. The incident on May 13, 1990 immortalized Boban as a symbol of Croatian spirit.

A six-month suspension knocked him off the 1990 Yugoslavia squad, but eight years later Boban captained Croatia as it eventually finished third by defeating the Netherlands, 2-1, in the consolation game. He is now FIFA's deputy secretary general.
2. Croatia has in Modric a player who melds commitment with talent.

Many of the Croatian players grew up during these turbulent times. One of the most tragic tales is that of midfielder and captain Luka Modric, who was only 6 years old when the grandfather he is named after (Luka Modric Sr.) was murdered by Serbian forces while tending his cattle.

The small town of Modrici, (plural for Modric) is where he was raised until the family was able to move to a refugee hotel in Zadar. A local club, NK Zadar, is where his career officially started.

The world knows Modric as a diminutive player (5-foot-8, 150 pounds) of exceptional skills and vision who has helped Real Madrid win four of the last five Champions League titles since he left Tottenham Hotspur.

The Croatian players and fans know Modric as their leader, the fulcrum of how the team plays and the reason why it succeeds, and a man who melds commitment with talent. According to FIFA statistics, in six games he has covered 39.1 kilometers (24.3 miles), the most of any player at the 2018 World Cup.

3. Croatia has adapted to different scenarios and prevailed each time.

Croatia’s lineup has skilled players all over the field, so it doesn’t need to charge hell-bent forward just to apply pressure if it needs a goal, yet it can play at a rapid enough pace to tire out opponents who do need to score. In this tournament. it has adapted to different scenarios and prevailed each time.

After conceding a tying goal to Iceland in the 76th minute of its final group game, Croatia struck in the final minute with an Ivan Perisic winner. In the round of 16, it fell behind Denmark in the first minute yet Mario Mandzukic equalized just three minutes later and it rode out nearly two hours of goalless play to win on penalties. Against Russia in its quarterfinal, Andrej Kramaric tied the game, 1-1, late in the first half just eight minutes after Croatia had fallen behind.

That’s a grand total of 25 minutes elapsed from three occasions when Croatia either fell behind or conceded an equalizer, so it can come back quickly if necessary. Yet it also patiently endured more than an hour of goalless play after Kieran Trippier nailed a free kick to push England ahead, 1-0, in the fifth minute of their semifinal.

It has also retained 1-0 leads before adding goals to win more comfortably (2-0 over Nigeria, 3-0 Argentina) in the group phase. After a scoreless first half against Argentina, Ante Rebic scored in the 53rd minute and Argentina didn’t get a shot on goal until Modric doubled the lead with 10 minutes to play. He had done the same in Croatia’s group opener; Nigeria scored an own goal midway through the first half, and Croatia maintained a lead that Modric eventually increased in the 71st minute.

Croatia has conceded equalizers to Iceland (1-1) and Russia (2-2), so it’s not been impenetrable while holding a lead. Yet its ability to adjust to different situations (trailing, leading, tied) as well as a wide range of opponents gives it a range of means and methods to respond to whatever it may encounter in the final against a very good team.
4. Croatia stands tall in terms of mental toughest.

Since it beat Denmark on penalties in the round of 16, the stamina and fitness of the Croatian players has come under scrutiny. Such questions have persisted as it has beaten Russia -- again on penalties – in the quarterfinals and needed extra time to get past England. Never before has a team won three World Cup knockout games while playing so many additional minutes.

France should be the fresher team on Sunday, but the same was said about England, which looked the weaker squad in the second half and extra time on Wednesday. It finished the game with 10 men after exhausting its substitutes and subsequently losing goalscorer Trippier to a groin injury. Croatia also has a day less rest than France, which didn’t need to work nearly as hard while knocking off Belgium on Tuesday.

Yet in the department of mental toughness Croatia stands tallest. It has scored goals in the 90th minute (Perisic against Iceland), 101st minute (Domagoj Vida vs. Russia), and 109th  minute (Mandzukic, England). Its goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, went down injured against Russia but not only finished the game, he stopped a penalty kick in the tiebreaker and played well in the semifinal. So did right back Sime Vrsaljko, who hobbled off in the 97th minute against Russia. His precise cross midway through the second half of the semifinal provided the chance Perisic headed for the tying goal.

Croatia has prevailed in penalty-kick shootouts twice. The first tiebreaker, against Denmark, followed a Kasper Schmeichel save of a Modric penalty kick late in extra time. Rather than be demoralized, Croatia rallied around its leader and prevailed. On the second occasion, the Croatians overcame an extra-time equalizer that sent Russian fans into ecstasy but didn’t rattle them during the tiebreaker.
5. Croatia has luck on its side.

A few good bounces along the way are essential for a team to reach the final and luck usually plays a role in the result on the last day as well.

In the penalty-kick tiebreaker with Denmark, Modric took Croatia’s third kick. Rather than picking a side, as he had done during extra time, he gambled on Schmeichel diving and pushed a shot down the middle. Schmeichel read the ball as he dove and desperately tried to kick it with his trailing left foot but missed it by a few inches. The kick tied the teams up, 2-2, and after they combined for three misses Ivan Rakitic nailed the final attempt by which Croatia won, 3-2.

Another dose of luck blessed Croatia against England, which led, 1-0, when Harry Kane burst in alone on Subasic. He saved Kane’s low shot but the ball popped loose and Kane took a swing at the rebound. That shot hit the post and bounced off the keeper onto Kane, but rather than ricocheting into the net it sailed over the bar and out of play for a goal kick.

The elements are in place for an epic final. The saga of Croatia’s birth as a nation and rise as a soccer power needs only the right ending to enter the realm of classics.
7 comments about "The case for ... Croatia".
  1. frank schoon, July 13, 2018 at 9:34 a.m.

    Croatia has produced great players but never great teams and that can be said of the former Yugoslavia, of which they were once part of, as well. This Croatian team is not playing great soccer but has a couple of real good midfielders although neither one are known for shooting power from outside the penalty box. I just wish they had more punch up front to take the pressure off Mandzukic for without him it is very difficult to score, and that is also why this team has gotten into playing so many overtimes... difficult scoring. 
    I hope they win for I think that part of Europe needs a great boost and positive PR and it will be a shot in arm for soccer there....
    I hope SA would do an interview with someone to explain the why's and how's these Slavs are so good individually with a do kids learn to play soccer there, the conditions. I'm willing to bet none of those kids there have what the Americans have as far money, facilities, and support when it comes to soccer And I'm certain that these kids (Slavs) are not suffering from "pay to play- itus"

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, July 13, 2018 at 7:48 p.m.

    Frank, finally reading the Ferenc Puskas book. Very good read. I saw right away why you recommended it. 

    What intrigued me the most so far was the use of 2-3 clubs as a training center for a core group of national team players. Such a simple but apparently effective approach. No additional costs, just simple coordination and cooperation between those clubs and national staff.

    Like kids playing pickup. Solutions don't have to be complicated and expensive to be effective.

  3. frank schoon replied, July 13, 2018 at 9:18 p.m.

      Bob, You’re so is so simple. I do think looking back at how great teams and players learned can be very   Beneficial for today’s purposes. I’m glad you like the book. I’m leaving to Holland Sunday. I will let you know if I find any interesting books. I’ll will be picking up the Van Gaal and van Hanegem books that came out recently.

  4. beautiful game, July 13, 2018 at 1:46 p.m.

    Croatian left back is a liability...if exploited enough, it should pay dividends for Les Bleus.

  5. frank schoon replied, July 13, 2018 at 2:46 p.m.

    BG, that's what I"m afraid of too....I just don't think they are strong enough besides they have to be really tired especially with backs going up on attack...I hope they will play a 433 because otherwise the two outside flank attackers in the 4231 have to run too much. 

  6. Tibor Polgar, July 13, 2018 at 6:27 p.m.

    Croatian FA has a great development academy. Sat in on an NSCAA session 1/13/17, "Principles and Periodization of Functional Technique". You can download the video of the session from United Soccer Coaches.   All the the current stars went through the program.

  7. frank schoon replied, July 13, 2018 at 7:33 p.m.

    Tibor, thank you, but I like to know more about the youth and how they develop. That coaching course is more for players who have  technique but have to use it functionally. I’m more interested  in how they acquire technique

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