Having made a splash by reaching the quarter-finals at EURO ’96, Croatia was seen by many as a perennial dark horse when the World Cup in France rolled around two years later. After progressing from the group stage, they would make it past Romania in the Round of 16 before causing the sensation of the tournament, knocking out Germany in the last eight. Handing them a 3-0 loss, it would be Die Mannschaft’s heaviest defeat at the World Cup in 44 years. A semi-final loss to the hosts, thanks to a brace from Lilian Thuram meant they would play the Netherlands for third place, a match they won 2-1, thanks to goals from Robert Prosinečki and Golden Boot winner Davor Šuker.
Unbeknownst to all, it would take another two decades for a Croatian team to enjoy such a run again, when the side led by the likes of Luka Modrić and Mario Mandžukić took things a step further, eventually reaching the final. After defeating England in extra time in the semi-final, Croatia would succumb to France for a second time in the final. However, a runners-up finish was still a monumental achievement, as they became the smallest nation in almost seventy years to play in football’s pinnacle match. What made these two generations unique? What did they have that other iterations of the national team did not?
The captain of a football team is one of the most central figures to success, especially in major international tournaments, and in the case of Croatia, you need not look any further than Zvonimir Boban and Luka Modrić. Boban was an influential member of the A.C. Milan powerhouse side that won the Champions League in the 1993-94 season as well as the UEFA Super Cup and was always pegged as the perfect leader for Miroslav "Ćiro" Blažević. His multitude of skills coupled with his strong character made him a leading figure during Croatia’s formative years. His role in the football riot that erupted between fans of rival sides Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda in the Croatian capital in 1990 is long-remembered not just in the history of Croatian football but also European and world football as a turning point in Croatia’s aspirations to break away from Yugoslavia. The fact that he has gone on to become a senior FIFA official, essentially the right hand man to Gianni Infantino since his retirement speaks to his contributions to the game of football both during and after the conclusion of his playing career.
Luka Modrić continues to dazzle on the pitch even at such a late stage in his career, and the 2018 calendar year will go down as one of the best-remembered individual seasons. The Croatian captain won everything one could possibly win, taking home the Ballon d’Or, the FIFA Golden Ball as the best player at the World Cup, the FIFA BEST Men’s Player of the Year, the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, and the World Soccer Player of the Year. His performance for his country four years ago will be etched in the annals of football history forever, with his goal against Argentina in the group stage a highlight as it was voted one of the goals of the tournament. The fact of the matter is, Croatia is not the same team without him on the pitch. While he will turn 37 before the World Cup, he is still very much the driving force behind the team’s chances in Qatar.
Strikers win football matches and Davor Šuker and Mario Mandžukić are two of the best Croatia have ever produced. Šuker won the Golden Boot for his country at the World Cup in 1998, scoring six times, including four goals in the knockout stages, striking the winning penalty against Romania in the Round of 16, the third against Germany in the quarter-finals, the opening goal of the match against France in the semi-finals, and the winner against the Netherlands in the third place match. He is still Croatia's all-time leading scorer and was named as one of the FIFA 100 in 2004.
Mandžukić’s impact on the 2018 squad also cannot be understated. Not only did he score the equaliser in a tense Round of 16 match against Denmark, his extra-time winner against England in the semi-final will be remembered as one of the most iconic goals in Croatian history for generations to come. Serving as a shining example of his presence of mind in the box, the goal exemplified what every striker must possess to win at the highest levels of the game, something the Croatian has done his entire career.
Certain players are the “glue” of the team – they keep the squad together and help to build a cohesiveness in the group. For Croatia, the two who come to mind are Slaven Bilić and Ivan Perišić. Bilić, as a rugged central defender during his playing days was a difficult man for opposing attackers to face due to his refusal to lose duels in Croatia’s defensive third. While well-known for his defensive exploits, he also scored one of the most important goals in Croatia’s early football history when he put Croatia in front against Ukraine in the first leg of the European playoffs for France ’98. The rest is history. He then went on to become one of the most successful managers of the national team and remains a favourite of not only Croatian football fans but also those of the teams he managed at club level throughout his career.
Perišić has been a perennial winner at club level with just about every club he has played for, as his CV of league and cup titles in Germany and Italy will prove. His performance four years ago was critical to Croatia’s success, as he netted the winning goal against Iceland, giving his nation a perfect record in the group stage. His equalizer against England in the semi-final turned the match on its head after the Three Lions had dominated for most of the first half. Perišić also scored in the final against France, but unfortunately, it wasn’t near enough for the nation of now just under four million people to pull what could have been one of the greatest upsets ever in international football.
As great as both generations were, when both of them are compared, there is still one player who stands out more than all others – the one and only Robert Prosinečki. One of the most gifted players of his generation, he would smoke forty cowboy killers a day and still have the audacity to keep the ball on a string as he danced around defenders with some of the best technical prowess ever seen in football history. Despite his obvious abilities, he was still seen as a controversial figure for the Croatian national team – there had been rumours of a rift between himself and manager Blažević for years. Had he started the semi-final against France in 1998, the end result in the match could have been different. With his goal against Jamaica, and having scored for Yugoslavia at Italia '90, he became the only player in World Cup history to score for two different countries.
One thing both generations have in common is they were both coached by highly skilled managers. Blažević, having taken Croatia to third place in their maiden World Cup appearance, earned the moniker in Croatia as the “manager of all managers”, a nickname which remains to this day. He had the innate ability to mould a collection of superstar players into a cohesive unit that was to be feared. Such was his character that then president Franjo Tudjman insisted he take over the national team in 1994 as they prepared for the qualifying phase for EURO ’96. Croatia would advance to the quarter-finals of the tournament, bowing out to eventual champions Germany, but not without leaving an impression as they defeated defending champions Denmark 3-0 in the group stage. That was only a precursor of things to come, as Croatia would shock the world two years later.
Zlatko Dalić was an unlikely choice for Croatia manager back in 2017 when the team was on the brink of failing to qualify for the World Cup the following year. Just days following his appointment, Croatia headed to Kyiv for a must-win encounter with Ukraine, and with a 2-0 victory, secured a spot in the European playoffs. Defeating Greece 4-1 on aggregate by virtue of their home win in Zagreb, the Adriatic nation would enter the World Cup again. Drawing the likes of Nigeria, Argentina, and Iceland in the main draw meant they had a good chance of progressing to the knockout stages. Consecutive penalty shootout wins against Denmark and hosts Russia put them in the final four of the tournament for the first time in two decades, where they would once again need extra time against England to progress to the final. Dalić, as a manager who had considerable success in the Middle East at club level, had a similar dilemma with his mentor Blažević in that he had to instill into his star players a sense of humility, pride, and togetherness as the greatest elements to his success with the national team. He is still the longest serving manager in Croatian history. Reports have been circulating for months that he will step away from his duties following the World Cup in Qatar, and put an end to his international career along with captain Luka Modrić.
Two great generations of footballers from Croatia etched their names into the annals of football history with their performances on the beautiful game’s grandest stage. That magical run in France will forever be remembered for the fact that very little was expected from Croatia as debut side, yet they put the entire world on notice following their run to third place. It’s hard to imagine that it would take such a long time for them to repeat such a feat, but they did four years ago, coming even closer to the ultimate prize. What the future holds for Croatian football remains to be seen but there is a wealth of talent coming through the pipeline, meaning that Croatia should stay relevant for years to come, providing they have the right people to lead. One thing is for certain – a strong foundation for generations to come is firmly in place.