It is inspiring to see how a country with a population of just 4 million has created headlines in the footballing world in the past few years. Croatia national football team, the 2018 FIFA World Cup finalists etched their name in the hearts of millions of football fans with their historic run in Russia.
However, the underdog narrative might not be extremely accurate to describe the Croatian football team. Croatia national football team has proved to the world that it was not a one-time wonder by showcasing a wonderful display in this year’s World Cup as well. They knocked out some of the favorites for the World Cup to progress all the way to the semi final.
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Croatia, who lost to Lionel Messi’s Argentina, in the semi-finals of the FIFA world cup 2022, truly won the hearts yet again. The win of Croatia national football team against Brazil in the quarter finals, especially after conceding in the 107th minute, showed the amazing mentality the set of players had.
Even though Croatia lost the semi final to go out, they have yet again reminded the World that they are not underdogs anymore. People have started calling over-achieving national teams like South Korea and Morocco “the new Croatia.”
So, why don’t you go over some facts about the Croatia national team that’s on everyone’s minds?
Smallest Country to Reach the FIFA World Cup Final in 68 Years
In 2018, Croatia became the smallest country to reach the Final of the FIFA world cup for the first time in 68 years.
The last time this happened was when Uruguay defeated the Brazil national team in 1950. Their best ever finish prior to this was when they finished third place in 1998.
Croatia, who started the tournament with 33/1 odds, shocked the entire world cup by finding their way to the final.
The History of Croatia Football Team (Croatian : Hrvatska nogometna reprezentacija)
In 1873, Croatia saw some associations being formed and this led to the rise of a few clubs. At this point, there was no national football team and slowly, actions were taken to put it in place.
In 1918, the Croatian football team was made and they played a few matches before joining the national team of Yugoslavia . This was continued up until the end of World War II, when the government of Yugoslavia was dissolved. But, it was only in 1991 that Croatia was finally recognized as a separate footballing nation.
The Signature Checkered Kits of the National Team
The first time Croatia played in their traditional red and white jersey was in 1990. It was actually an unofficial Croatian team that played friendly matches as Croatia was yet to be declared an independent state.
Croatia was initially part of the national team of Yugoslavia and Croatian players, represented Yugoslavia in matches for years. It was only in 1991 that Croatia was registered as an independent country.
The Rise of the National Team
They played a few friendly matches but they were seen as unofficial matches as they still had not registered under FIFA then. It was only 2 years later that Croatia played their first official matches as a part of FIFA. These were qualification matches for the 1996 European championship.
Croatia had their first official win against Estonia and their official first defeat was against Ukraine. Ukraine won the game by 1-0.
This might come as a shock, but the 2018 finalists had only played in the World cup 4 times before the tournament. In 2018, Croatia struggled in the qualifying group stage matches, but managed to qualify by winning the play-offs.
Since their first World cup appearance in 1998, they have only missed out on qualifying once (in 2010).
First Major Tournaments
1. Euros 1996
The first major tournament for the Croatia national team was the European championship in 1996. They qualified from the group stage after wins in matches against Denmark and Turkey even though they lost to Portugal. However, their run ended after losing 2-1 to Germany who eventually were crowned winners of the tournament.
2. World Cup 1998
In the 1998 FIFA world cup, Croatia played brilliantly. They had a line up of talented players in Davor Suker, Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban. They qualified second in their group and defeated Romania in the Round of 16.
They took revenge in splendid fashion winning 3-0 against Germany who beat them last time round in the European championship. Their talisman Suker ended the tournament as the top goal scorer.
However, their run came to an end at the hands of a familiar foe, as France defeated them 2-0 in the semi-final. However, they finished third place by beating Netherlands in the losers’ final.
Luka Modrić: Captain and Leader
Luka Modrić has undoubtedly been Croatia national football team’s biggest talent produced in recent times. Modrić, the captain of the national team, led them to the final of the FIFA world cup in Russia.
Modrić had made his international debut in 2006 and the 2006 World cup was his first major tournament.
The captain Luka Modrić is the most capped player in Croatian football history.
Davor Suker has scored the most goals for the Croatia national football team with 45 goals. He had finished second in the Ballon d’Or rankings back in 1998.
Croatia’s Very Own LM10
LM10 is usually used to describe footballing genius Lionel Messi. But, Croatia have their very own little genius with the number 10 on the back of his jersey.
The midfield maestro currently at Real Madrid played a major part in Croatia’s success and will definitely be remembered as the “Croatian Cruyff.”
The footballing world was taken aback by the maestro controlling the whole of 120 minutes at the age of 37. His work rate and quality on the ball will definitely be missed by both the national team and Real Madrid after he hangs up his boots.
Ballon d’or 2018
Modrić won the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player in the World cup and later on in the year won the Ballon d’Or, and became the first player since 2007 to win the award other than Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
Marcelo Brozovic’s Record-breaking Stat
Croatia’s midfield engine, Marcelo Brozovic, currently holds the record for the most distance covered in a World cup tournament match. He covers a staggering distance of 16.7 km in the match against Japan which lead them to the quarter finals.
He interestingly broke his own record of 16.1 km against England in the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA world cup.
The Inter midfielder has been a vital and underrated part of the Croatian midfield that has gained lots of praise. His work rate and endurance has enabled the others like Rakitic and Modrić to perform so well with their attacking intent.
Croatia’s Goalkeeper Sets Records
Dominik Livakovic became the first goalkeeper to make 11 saves in a World cup match since 2014.
He has also saved a record of 4 penalty shootout kicks at the tournament, more than anyone else.
The National Teams’ Unbeaten Run to the Semi Finals in 2022
Croatia national football team actually did not lose a single game up until the semi-final against Argentina. Goalless draws against Morocco and Belgium and a smooth 4-1 victory over Canada in the group stage saw Croatia advance to the knockout stages of the tournament.
In the Round of 16, Croatia won via a Penalty shootout win over underdogs Japan. This meant they had a match lined up with Brazil who had won their group matches against Serbia and Switzerland.
Goalkeeper Livakovic was the hero for Croatia in both shootouts, making 3 saves in the shootout against Japan and denying Rodrygo from the spot against Brazil.
They met with Argentina who topped their group consisting of Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Argentina had also knocked out Australia and Holland in the knockout stages. But, it was a disappointment for the Croatian side this time round as they were beaten by 3-0.
The Golden Generation of Croatian Football
1. 2008 Euros
The Croatian national teams’ rise arguably started in 2008, with players like Luka Modrić showing promising talent. They also had a great mind behind them in manager Slaven Bilić.
However, they were knocked out of the 2008 European Championship tournament by Turkey on penalties. An added blow was that three of their most promising players had missed their penalties.
2. World Cup 2010
They missed out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup in Africa as well. This was a blow to the Croatian supporters who truly believed their national team had the potential to rival the greats.
3. Euros 2012
Croatia managed to take revenge on Turkey by knocking them out during the qualification stages. However, they could not make it out of their group which had the World Champions Spain as well as European Giants Italy. This tournament was the last for head coach and manager Slaven Bilić.
4. World Cup 2014
Croatia were seen as the dark horses by many in the 2014 World cup. Their eleven had arguably one of the strongest midfields comprising of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic.
The front line was lead by Mario Mandzukic, who was lethal in front of goal. However, Croatia were unable to qualify from the group stage ahead of Brazil and Mexico.
5. Euros 2016
Croatia qualified for the Euros along with the Italian side in their group ahead of Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta.
Croatia made it to the Round of 16 at the tournament after topping the group ahead of Spain, Turkey and the Czech Republic. However, they lost to a late goal against Portugal who went on to be the champions of the tournament.
6. World Cup 2018
After a disappointing Euros 2016, the national team finally lived up to its true potential in 2018 with a second place finish. Croatia had put itself on the map.
The 2018 World Cup saw the Croatian team play as a complete unit, and not as a team which depended on their players’ individual brilliance. They topped their group demolishing Argentina 3-0 along the way.
They had won all their group matches against Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina. This is when everyone started to become vary of the Croatian football national team and saw them as a potential threat.
Croatia have a similarity to the Netherlands team in the way they finished in the last two World cups. The Netherlands had finished runners-up to Spain in the 2010 World Cup and finished in third place in 2014 after being defeated in penalties by Argentina. Croatia also were runners-up to France and lost to the Argentinian team in this year’s World Cup.
7. UEFA Nations League 2018-19
Croatia were supposed to be relegated to League B after being at the bottom in the 2018 UEFA Nations League but change in the format ensured that they stayed in League A.
8. UEFA Nations League 2020-21
It was another disappointing tournament for Croatia in the 2020 UEFA Nations League as they finished third, only above Sweden in their group.
9. Euros 2020
Croatia finished second in their group in the 2020 Euros. Croatia lost to Spain in a thrilling contest that ended by 5-3. A late injury time equalizer by substitute Mario Pašalić took the game to extra-time. Goals by Morata and Oyarzabal in the first half of extra time ended their run.
10. World Cup 2022 Qualifiers
Croatia cruised through the qualifiers, defeating Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus. Although Slovenia managed to upset Croatia in the first qualifier, Croatia slowly found its rhythm.
Slovakia held Croatia to a 2-2 draw but Slovakia were beaten by a goal in the return fixture. They defeated Slovenia and Cyprus 3-0 and there was also a 7-1 thrashing of Malta during the qualifiers.
It was the first time they had scored more than six goals in a match since 2016 when they had destroyed San Marino 10-0.
Croatian Football Federation Appointed Dalic Very Late
Head coach of the Croatia national team, Zlatko Dalic was only appointed by the Croatian football federation during the latter part of qualifying stages of the 2018 World cup. The coach who had previous success coaching in the UAE ended up taking Croatia in the right direction.
The new coach took complete advantage of the talent and experience he had in his squad and created a style of play that revolved around their brilliant midfield.
After winning 4-1 against Greece to make it to the World Cup, Croatia found new mojo as a team and finished top in the group stage.
Dalic eventually ended up taking the national team to the finals (became the first Croatian coach to do so) and semi-finals in consecutive World cups. The coach can definitely hold his head up high for the tremendous effort he has taken to take his nation to such great heights.
France: The Formidable Foe
When the Croatia national football team made their way to the final of the World cup in 2018, they probably wished it was any of other national teams, other than France, that they faced for the coveted trophy.
France had defeated them in their previous most successful World cup campaign in 1998. Croatia lost the final 4-2 to France and it was the 6th time they failed to defeat the blue army.
It was a valiant effort by the Croatian team in the final but they were outclassed by the star studded French team which consisted of Mbappe, Pogba , Kante and Griezmann as key players.
The Croatia national football team had never won against France until 2022, where they defeated the French 1-0, thanks to a Luka Modrić penalty. It was a UEFA Nations League match and Croatia topped the group comprising France, Denmark and Austria.
The Extra-Time Kings
Croatia became the only team to have reached the finals after going to extra-time in all the previous knockout stage matches at Russia.
In the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Croatia national football team defeated both Denmark and Russia in penalty shootouts.
It was even more impressive that they managed to win against Russia for whom it was a home match. They faced World Cup favorites England in the semi-final match.
In the match against England, they were trailing due to an early first half freekick goal by Trippier. However, they managed to secure a spot in the final match against France, thanks to a late winner in extra-time by Mario Mandzukic.
In 2022 at Qatar, the Croatia national football team again managed to take both the Round of 16 match as well as the quarter finals’ match to extra-time and eventually penalties.
Three Decades of Modrić
Luka Modrić created history in Croatia’s first match of the 2022 World Cup by becoming the first player to appear in both World Cup and European Championships in three separate decades.
Modrić has appeared for the Croatia national football team in 4 World cups (2006,2014,2018 and 2022) and 4 European championships (2008,2012,2016,2020).
He also holds the record for the most games played by a Croatian football player in history having made 161 caps.
Boost in Home Grown Players
Another major plus for the Croatia national football team is the increase in players playing in the Croatian league. There are 3 players in the current team that play for Dinamo Zagreb: goalkeeping hero Livakovic, quarter-finals’ goal scorer Bruno Petkovic and the chance creator Mislav Orsic.
Dinamo have produced many of the talents in the national team, with even Modrić, Kovacić and Brozovic playing for the club side in their early days.
Another major team in the Croatian Football League, Hajduk Split are also producing some real talents. They are currently second in the league just below Dinamo Zagreb.
The Croatian football federation has joined hands with the Centre of Cultural Dialogue to make football inclusive for refugees. Children who are refugees will be included in footballing activities and learn more about the different aspects of football under the new project.
The project termed as “New neighbors Project” will also allocate funds for the enhanced functionality of the resources and infrastructure.
The Future of Croatian Football
Croatia still have the third place final against Morocco to play. They would be hoping to defeat the African nation who have exceeded expectations this year. Many of the Croatian players and the coach had come out to say that the penalty awarded against them against Argentina was unfair and unjust.
They are claiming that the unjustly awarded penalty disrupted their momentum and tactics eventually leading to the 3-0 defeat.
This World Cup has been the last for many of Croatia’s star players, especially their captain. While some claim that “the golden generation” of the Croatia national football team has come to an end after they lost to Argentina, there is still immense talent full of potential for this small nation.
What is the Average Age of the Croatian Football Team?
The average age of the Croatia national football team for the World Cup 2022 is 27.4. But, with the departure of many of the veterans after the World Cup, young new talent would come into the team and this would see a big change.
Gvardiol, the mask clad Croatian defender has impressed football lovers all over the globe with his displays at the age of 20. Midfielder Mateo Kovacić is surely one who can carry on the example set by Modrić and gang.
UEFA Nations League
They are still in contention for the UEFA Nations League tournament, having reached the semi-finals after topping their group over France, Austria and Denmark.
Even after only securing a single point from their first two games, the Croatia national football team went on a winning run for the rest of the tournament, to reach the semi finals.
They had only lost one match of the total 6 matches they played, where they lost 3-0 to Austria. There is a belief in the Croatian side and coach.
Croatia will face one of Italy, Holland and Spain in the semi finals of the UEFA Nations League. All three teams did well to qualify from their respective groups. Italy were in the “group of Death” along with England, Germany and Hungary.
Spain overcame Portugal, Switzerland and the Czech Republic to top their group. The Netherlands dominated their group without losing a single game.
The Croatia national football team would be hoping to try and make this their first tournament win and this could be their biggest chance as many of their main and experienced players are likely to retire from International football soon.
It could also be a perfect swan song for the career of Modrić, who has undoubtedly been a shining light for Croatia as a country and an inspiration for many of the younger generation who want to make it to the national team.
Hope to see much more from the Croatia national football team that has captured all the hearts.