It is inspiring to see how a country with a population of just 4 million has created headlines in the football 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 accurately describe the Croatian football team. Croatia’s national football team has proved to the World that it was not a one-time wonder. They knocked out some of the favourites for the World Cup to progress to the semi-final.
Croatia lost to Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the FIFA World Cup 2022 semi-finals. The win of the Croatia national football team against Brazil in the quarter-finals, especially after conceding in the 107th minute, showed the players’ fantastic mentality.
Even though Croatia lost the semi-finals to go out, they have reminded the World that they are not underdogs anymore. People have called overachieving national teams like South Korea and Morocco “the new Croatia.”
1. Breaking Records
In 2018, Croatia became one of the smallest countries to have reached the Finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 68 years. The last time this happened was when Uruguay defeated Brazil’s national team in 1950. Their best-ever finish before 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.
2. The History of the Croatia Football Team
In 1873 Croatia saw some associations forming, leading to a few clubs’ rise. 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 formed, and they played a few matches before joining Yugoslavia’s national team. This continued 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.
3. The Signature Checkered Kits of the National Team
Croatia first played in their traditional red and white jersey in 1990. It was an unofficial Croatian team that played friendly matches as Croatia was yet to be declared independent.
Croatia was initially part of Yugoslavia’s national team, 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 were seen as unofficial matches as they still had not registered under FIFA then. It was only two 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 its first official win against Estonia, and its official first defeat was against Ukraine. Ukraine won the game by 1-0.
This might be 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).
4. First Major Tournaments
1. Euros 1996
The first major tournament for the Croatia national team was the European Championship 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 tournament winners.
2. World Cup 1998
In the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Croatia played brilliantly. They had a lineup of talented players in Davor Suker, Robert Prosinečki, and Zvonimir Boban and qualified second in their group by defeating Romania in the Round of 16.
They splendidly took revenge, winning 3-0 against Germany, who beat them in the European championship last time. Their talisman, Suker, ended the tournament as the top goal scorer.
However, their run ended at the hands of a familiar foe, as France defeated them 2-0 in the semi-finals. However, they finished third by beating the Netherlands in the losers’ final.
5. Luka Modrić: Captain and Leader
Luka Modrić has undoubtedly been Croatia’s football team’s biggest talent recently produced. Modrić, the captain of the national team, led them to the final of the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Modrić 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 football team with 45 goals. He finished second in the Ballon d’Or rankings back in 1998.
1. Croatia’s Very Own LM10
LM10 is usually used to describe football genius Lionel Messi. But Croatia has their genius, Luka Modrić, with the number 10 on the back of his jersey.
The midfield maestro at Real Madrid played a significant part in Croatia’s success and will be remembered as the “Croatian Cruyff .” The footballing world was taken aback by the maestro controlling the whole 120 minutes at the age of 37. His work rate and quality on the ball will be missed by both the national team and Real Madrid after he hangs up his boots.
2. Ballon d’Or 2018
Modrić won the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player in the World Cup. Later on, in the year won the Ballon d’Or in 2018 and became the first player since 2007 to win the award other than Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
6. 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 covered a staggering distance of 16.7 km in the game against Japan, leading them to the quarter-finals.
Interestingly, he broke his record of 16.3 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, gaining much praise. His work rate and endurance have enabled others like Rakitic and Modrić to perform well with their attacking intent.
7. 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.
8. The National Teams’ Unbeaten Run to the Semi-Finals in 2022
Croatia’s national football team did not lose a single game 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 tournament’s knockout stages.
In Round 16, Croatia won via a penalty shootout over 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 three saves in the shootout against Japan and denying Rodrigo from the spot against Brazil.
They met with Argentina, who topped their Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia group. Argentina had also knocked out Australia and Holland in the knockout stages. But this time, it disappointed the Croatian side as they were beaten 3-0.
9. 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, Turkey knocked them out of the 2008 European Championship tournament on penalties. An added blow was that three of their most promising players had missed their penalties.
2. World Cup 2010
They also missed out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup in Africa. 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 leave their group, which had the World Champions Spain and European Giants Italy. This tournament was the last for head coach and manager Slaven Bilić.
4. World Cup 2014
Many saw Croatia as the dark horse in the 2014 World Cup. Their eleven arguably had one of the most robust midfielders, comprising Modrić, Ivan Rakitic, and Marcelo Brozovic.
The front line was led by Mario Mandzukic, who was lethal in front of the goal. However, Croatia could not qualify for the group stage ahead of Brazil and Mexico.
5. Euros 2016
Croatia qualified for the Euros, and the Italian side is 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 by a late goal against Portugal, who became the tournament champions.
6. World Cup 2018
After a disappointing Euros in 2016, the national team finally achieved 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’ 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 became wary of the Croatian football national team and saw them as a potential threat.
Croatia is similar to the Netherlands team in how 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 was supposed to be relegated to League B after being at the bottom in the 2018 UEFA Nations League, but a 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 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 was 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.
10. The Croatian Football Federation Appointed Dalic Very Late
The head coach of the Croatia national team, Zlatko Dalic, was only appointed by the Croatian Football Federation during the latter part of the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup. The coach, who had previous success coaching in the UAE, took Croatia in the right direction.
The new coach took complete advantage of his talent and experience in his squad and created a style of play that revolved around their brilliant midfield.
Croatia found new mojo after winning 4-1 against Greece to make it to the World Cup and finished top in the group stage.
Dalic eventually took the national team to the finals (became the first Croatian coach to do so) and semi-finals in consecutive World Cups. The coach can hold his head high for his tremendous effort to take his nation to heights.
11. 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 the 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 critical players.
The Croatia football team had never won against France until 2022, when 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.
12. The Extra-Time Kings
Croatia became the only team to reach the finals after going to extra time in all the previous knockout stage matches in Russia.
In the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Croatia football team defeated 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 favourites England in the semi-final match.
They were trailing in the match against England due to Trippier’s early first-half free-kick goal. However, they managed to secure a spot in the final game against France, thanks to a late winner in extra-time by Mario Mandzukic.
In 2022, Qatar, the Croatia national football team, again took both the Round of 16 matches and the quarter-finals match to extra time and eventually penalties.
13. 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 the World Cup and European Championships in three 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.
14. Boost in Home-Grown Players
Another major plus for the Croatia national football team is the increase in players playing in the Croatian league. Three players in the current squad play for Dinamo Zagreb: goalkeeping hero Livakovic, quarter-finals goal scorer Bruno Petkovic, and the chance creator Mislav Orsic.
Dinamo has 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 primary team in the Croatian Football League, Hajduk Split, also produces some natural 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 football activities and will learn more about the different aspects of football under the new project.
The “New Neighbors Project” project will also allocate funds for the enhanced functionality of the resources and infrastructure.
15. The Future of Croatian Football
Croatia still has the third-place final against Morocco to play. They hope to defeat the African nation, which has 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 claim 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 ended after they lost to Argentina, there is still immense talent full of potential for this tiny nation.
16. 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, which would see a significant 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 undoubtedly one who can carry on the example set by Modrić and the gang.
17. UEFA Nations League
They are still in contention for the UEFA Nations League tournament, reaching 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 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 six games 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 was 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 hopes to try to make this their first tournament win. This could be their most significant chance, as many of their primary 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.