Despite succumbing to the brilliance of France in Russia four years ago, Croatia’s luminaries returned to their homeland to rapturous applause from their ardent supporters, and the Chequered Ones prepare for another period of promise in Qatar.
A beaming smile was etched across the face of former president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic on that rain-soaked evening in Moscow, as Zlatko Dalic’s charges made history for their nation by reaching the final of the World Cup, but the challenge of going one better will be a truly unforgiving one.
The core of the squad that finished second best at the 2018 edition are largely still present on the pitch – or as an assistant manager in Mario Mandzukic’s case – but such a magical run could not be replicated at the Euros.
A second consecutive round-of-16 exit befell Croatia in the continental championships last summer, but a slice of revenge has already been inflicted upon France in the Nations League ahead of their journey to Qatar.
Dalic’s men have Les Bleus’ Nations League crown in their sights after they qualified for the finals at their expense, and while snatching the World Cup trophy out of France’s hands will prove a trickier task, a healthy mix of experienced veterans and talented starlets makes this Croatia squad one to watch.
After tackling Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina in the group stage four years ago, things have not got much easier for Croatia, who are now up against Belgium, Morocco and Canada in Group F.
The Al Bayt Stadium will play host to their opening match with Morocco on November 23, and Dalic’s side then travel to the Khalifa International Stadium to meet Canada four days later.
The most difficult tie is left until last for Croatia, as they aim to upset the apple cart against Belgium on the first day of December at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
November 23: Morocco vs. Croatia (10am, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor)
November 27: Croatia vs. Canada (4pm, Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan)
December 1: Croatia vs. Belgium (3pm, Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Perhaps not the most intimidating qualifying period that they will ever endure, Croatia did battle with Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta in UEFA Group H and topped the section after a pivotal final game.
Things got off to a bad start for Dalic’s side, who lost 1-0 to Slovenia in their opening qualifying fixture, but that would be the only defeat they would suffer en route to Qatar.
A spate of defensive masterclasses would follow for the Chequered Ones, who made it through their next six qualifying games with six consecutive clean sheets – winning five of them alongside a goalless draw with Russia.
A 2-2 draw with Slovakia would break their resilience before a 7-1 thumping of Malta put them on 20 points heading into the final day, but only a win would do against Russia if they were to seal an automatic route to the World Cup.
Fyodor Kudryashov’s own goal on the 81-minute mark was all it took for Croatia to usurp the Russians – who were soon kicked out anyway – and seal first place with 23 points from 30 games, and conceding just four goals represented their best defensive record in qualifying since 2002.
Croatia have certainly possessed the formula for success – or at least a handy guide on how to avoid defeat – since crashing out of the Euros, losing just one of their last 15 matches in all competitions since September 2021.
Dalic’s men went unbeaten in nine matches in all competitions before being given a harsh reality check by Austria in the opening game of the 2022-23 Nations League, going down 3-0 at home to Das Team before managing to hold France to a 1-1 draw.
After taking just one point from their first two games of the Nations League, the victories started to roll in for Croatia, who picked up back-to-back 1-0 wins over Denmark and France to leave themselves in a great position to make the finals.
Croatia made sure that they carried the momentum from the summer over to September’s fixtures, as they overtook Denmark with a 2-1 win and were top of the section before meeting basement side Austria on the sixth and final matchday.
Needing all three points to assure themselves of a place in the four-team finals, the Chequered Ones triumphed 3-1 to give themselves a shot at glory against Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, and they enter a warm-up friendly with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday aiming to win five games in a row for the first time since the 2018 World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivo Grbic (Atletico Madrid), Ivica Ivusic (Osijek)
Defenders: Josip Stanisic (Bayern Munich), Borna Sosa (Stuttgart), Josko Gvardiol (RB Leipzig), Dejan Lovren (Zenit St Petersburg), Borna Barisic (Rangers), Domagoj Vida (AEK Athens), Josip Juranovic (Celtic), Martin Erlic (Sassuolo), Josip Sutalo (Dinamo Zagreb)
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mario Pasalic (Atalanta BC), Nikola Vlasic (Torino), Kristijan Jakic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Lovro Majer (Rennes), Luka Sucic (Red Bull Salzburg)
Forwards: Ivan Perisic (Tottenham Hotspur), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Livaja (Hajduk Split), Bruno Petkovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Mislav Orsic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ante Budimir (Osasuna)
STAR PLAYER – LUKA MODRIC
The defending recipient of the much-coveted Golden Ball award, Luka Modric is still going incredibly strong at the age of 37 and will captain the Chequered Ones in what will be his fourth World Cup.
The Real Madrid lynchpin collected a host of individual accolades after the 2018 World Cup to go alongside his Golden Ball, namely breaking Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s spate of dominance in the Ballon d’Or, and he enters the tournament after playing a pivotal role in Los Blancos’ La Liga and Champions League double-winning team of 2021-22.
Modric is unsurprisingly the most-capped men’s player in the history of the Croatia national team with 154 appearances to his name, as well as 23 goals, which places him fifth on the all-time list behind Davor Suker, Mandzukic, Perisic and Eduardo da Silva.
Already boasting five goals and two assists in Real Madrid colours this season, Modric would be expected to perform his major tournament swansong for Croatia at this year’s World Cup, but while he continues to defy his age, manager Dalic does not believe that the silky midfielder’s national team chapter has closed just yet.
MANAGER – ZLATKO DALIC
Following a less-than-spectacular playing career as a defensive midfielder, Zlatko Dalic was still relatively unknown when he left the familiar surroundings of the Middle East to take charge of the Croatia national team in 2017.
The 56-year-old hopped across Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for six-and-a-half years between 2010 and 2017, and a sustained period of success at Al-Ain caught the eye of Croatia chiefs.
Dalic spent nine months out of the game before being hired by the national team in October 2017, and less than a year after taking the reins, he was leading his team out for their first-ever World Cup final.
Initially hired on a temporary basis until the 2018 World Cup qualifying period had ended, Dalic was quickly instilled as permanent manager and was not afraid to stamp his authority on the team early doors – sending Nikola Kalinic home from Russia after his refusal to come on as a substitute in more than one match.
Returning to base as a national hero, the former Hadjuk Split midfielder has been unable to replicate such success in recent tournaments, falling at the last-16 of Euro 2020, but he has successfully navigated the Chequered Ones to a spot in the Nations League finals and boasts a record of 33 wins, 12 draws and 17 losses during his memorable spell in charge.
WORLD CUP RECORD
Best finish: Runners-up (2018)
Prior to 1994, Croatia were a part of Yugoslavia and thus did not participate in the World Cup as an independent nation until 1998, having gained independence and FIFA membership in time for a historic first tournament.
The Chequered Ones remarkably finished in third place in their debut year, with six-goal striker Suker leading the line as they beat Germany in the quarter-finals, lost to France in the semis and beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place playoff.
Excluding the first two tournaments, Croatia still hold the record of the best finish by a World Cup debutant alongside Portugal, who finished third in 1966, but they went out at the group stage in 2002 and 2006.
After failing to qualify for the 2010 edition, Croatia were once again put to the sword in the groups in 2014 before that bedazzling run to the final four years ago, and they are one of only three teams to have participated in two quarter-finals without defeat.
Croatia have won 11, drawn four and lost eight of their 23 World Cup games ahead of the 2022 edition, and recent history suggests that either an early exit or deep run to the latter stages will be on the cards.