It’s been two decades since a World Cup debutant rolled all the way to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion.
Playing in its first World Cup since gaining
independence from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia finished second to Argentina in Group F and knocked off Romania (1-0) and Germany (3-0) before falling to France and pair of Lillian Thuram
goals, 2-1. Davor Suker tallied his sixth goal in the third-place game (2-1 defeat of the Netherlands) to win the Golden Boot as top scorer.
Comparisons to that remarkable Croatian
team and its array of stars — Zvonimir Boban, Slavan Bilic, Robert Jarni, Suker — have dogged the national team ever since. Three subsequent appearances (2002, 2006, 2014) have
ended in the first round and though the current team has already qualified for the round of 16 with one group match to spare, it’s a long way from matching that remarkable run 20 years ago.
Yet while dismantling Argentina, 3-0, Thursday as a sequel to its 2-0 opening-game defeat of Nigeria, Croatia showed its has similar attributes as the 1998 team. It has a potent lineup of
attackers headed by Luka Modric, whose superb strike into the bottom corner clinched victory in the 80th minute. It has a smothering defense anchored by Dejan Lovren that has blocked 11
shots while logging two shutouts. Croatia has enough skill to hold the ball as well as the pace to hit quickly on the counterattack.
And it has the confidence of winning its first two
games, as did the 1998 team, as well as knocking off the opponent to which it fell 20 years ago in the last group match. It took advantage of a nervous Nigeria (which scored an own goal) in the opener
and also took at least some credit for the dismal showings of Lionel Messi in particular and Argentina in general.
“This result and Argentina’s poor display was due to
our good game, our compact block all over the pitch, particularly when we didn’t have the ball,” said Modric in a postgame press conference. “We cut off the lines of passing, we
wanted to avoid Messi getting the ball… I believe that we played a fantastic game.”
Modric had already played an excellent game in the defeat of Nigeria. His penalty kick
iced a performance that indicated that despite finishing behind Iceland in European qualifying play and reaching the World Cup via a playoff defeat of Greece, Croatia had the horses to make a strong
run in Russia.
Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is an imposing presence at 6-foot-3 and in his wake Modric and Ivan Rakitic take turns swapping passes and scything through
defenses on the dribble. Wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic command the flanks. Outside backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsajko are quick and tough tacklers as well
as accurate passers.
Croatia has also showed commendable discipline and unity. Piqued at being left out of the starting lineup, striker Nikola Kalinic refused to enter the
Nigeria match as a substitute. He complained of a back problem, as he had when called upon as a sub in a warmup match against England. Whether the cause was fitness or defiance, by Monday he was on a
Head coach Zlatko Dalic earned praise for that move as well as the tactical ploy of designating Marcelo Brozovic as one of the players to shadow Messi. When
Argentina moved the ball and the Croatians shifted to cover, Brozovic or another player would step to Messi. As a result, Argentina seldom got the ball to Messi in a large enough space for him to
unleash a daring dribble or spark a sharp one-two.
“Over the last few days we haven’t looked at tactics because I wanted to relieve my players of the stress,” said Dalic.
“We had good scouts and we analyzed the opposition well. We adapted our style to them. Let’s enjoy this moment.
“In the first half we were compact and created three sitters
but we failed to score. That’s why I told the players in the second half that we will create more chances but we had to press higher.”
The high press forced a terrible mistake by
Argentine keeper Willy Caballero in the 53rd minute. His weak chip of a back pass floated toward Rebic, who elegantly struck the ball first-time past the stranded keeper and into the net. With
the advantage, Croatia stepped up the tempo of its possession play and pressure, to which the shaky Argentines could not resist.
Croatia needs only a tie in its group finale against
Iceland to top the group and set up a round-of-16 match against the runner-up in Group C, which could be France, Denmark or Australia. Meeting France would offer a chance of redemption for the 1998
semifinal, which Croatia briefly led, 1-0, early in the second half.
At that World Cup, incidents involving Croatian fans marred the image of their team. Hundreds of fans showed the Nazi
salute during the playing of their national anthem. The Croatian federation has been fined numerous times by FIFA and UEFA for incidents involving fans’ right-wing incidents and racist chants.
Two years ago at the European Championships, UEFA fined the Croatian soccer federation $100,000 and threatened to ban ticket sales in the wake of fights and violent incidents triggered by Croatian
There have been no reports of such behavior so far at this World Cup, and more performances like those against Nigeria and Argentine may swing support to a team first formed in the
wake of the 1990 World Cup. In October of that year, a Croatian XI — missing stars such as Alen Boksic, Robert Prosinecki, Boban, Suker and Jarni, who were playing for Yugoslavia
in the U-21 European Championships — beat the U.S. national team, 2-1, in the capital of Zagreb.
At this World Cup there is no U.S. team, and along with the traditional powers at least
one that strives to match past accomplishments.
“I think that we will win over additional fans,” said Dalic after the rout of Argentina. “Whoever watched this match,
whoever watched Croatia play, will surely start rooting for Croatia.”