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
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
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
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 IvanRakitic nailed the final attemptby 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.