Croatia football team players celebrate a goal against Nigeria during their opening Group D match at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Kaliningrad, Russia, on June 16 (Pix: IANS).
Well, to start with, there are no ‘neutrals’ in football, even if your country is not part of the FIFA World Cup. It is a universal truth that fans whose countries don’t have any stake at football’s marquee event, Indians for instance, can never find heart to invest their emotions on a Peru, Nigeria, Mexico, Belgium, or Croatia -- the side which gave two-time World Cup champs, and their five-time Ballon D’Or winning star, cold sweats in Russia.
While football fans love underdogs, when it comes to the business end at World Cups, they crave for a familiar look in the pecking order. They cry when powerhouses Italy fail to qualify for the World Cup, saying the tournament won’t be the same without the four-time champions.
They are right! The tournament won’t be the same. It would, arguably, be better as football tells the world that the game is bigger than the Azzurri or the Oranje… Belgium, Denmark, Iceland are in Russia because of a reason, and the reason is potential, the reason was proven during the two long years of qualifying they endured and came out triumphant.
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The tournament begins and many want either Germany, Brazil, France or Argentina to win it, so that they can rest for the next four years assured that football, its essence, remains intact -- with the assumption that a South American victory ensures the safety of the dreamy game, while triumph by a European powerhouse ensures the survival of its pragmatic side.
Football, in all its essence, is dynamic. But the world for which it is staged -- on the stadium stands, fan zones, television sets, mobile phones -- leans a wee bit towards the static.
Till a team comes out and breaks the status quo that is -- Spain’s victory in 2010 brought in fresh blood because the game started dancing to a different philosophy, unique and refreshing.
And this year, it could be Croatia, who can splash a bit of colour into the system.
In a recent conversation, a friend listed out the strong points of the Croatian side at the World Cup -- a sexy midfield and a hypnotic jersey!
One nods in concurrence. Their jersey is hypnotic, but their midfield has more potential to mesmerize the strongest of defences at the World Cup into submission.
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While the spearhead remains Mario Mandzukic, coach Zlatko Dalic’s game-plan revolves around three familiar blokes behind the star striker -- Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Add Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic into the mix, and we have a solid structure that can possibly withstand storms as well as create whirlwinds of its own.
The strengths don’t end there. Croatians are very stingy when it comes to conceding goals -- they scored seven in the three group matches in Russia, taking in just one.
The very disciplined back-four, barring the potential in Dejan Lovren to score on the wrong side of the pitch, gives Dalic’s side the looks that could kill. The all-conquering run at the World Cup so far -- wins against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland (with almost a reserve team) -- have legitimised the potential that was always there on paper, ever since the Zvonimir Boban-led Croatian side’s run in the 1998 edition which ended with a bronze medal after a tight semifinal loss against eventual champions, the hosts France.
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The 1998 side’s star was striker Davor Suker, who is the head of the Croatian football federation now. Suker insists fans should not compare the current side with the one 20 years ago. But the parallels are uncanny.
Boban’s side had Suker, who went on to win the Golden Boot at the tournament. Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic acted as chief marshals at the back while the skipper powered the creative side in midfield alongside Robert Prosenecki and Aljoša Asanovic.
Coach Miroslav Blaevi’s side had the firepower which could only be matched, and surpassed eventually, by France and Brazil in that tournament.
The 1998 World Cup came at a time when Croatia, born in 1991, had just come out of a bloody war, and just six years after they were granted official status by FIFA.
Blaevi formed his team for the World Cup in France catching nine future stars from the rosters at Hrvatski Dragovoljac, Dinamo Zagreb, VFL Bochum, Bastia, Hajduk Split, Varteks, Croatia Zagreb and Osijek.
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While nine players of Dalic’s 2018 “B Side” side, which he fielded against Iceland in the final group match, ply their trade at Gent, Red Bull Salzburg, Hoffenheim, Dynamo Kiev, Bayer Leverkusen, Fiorentina, AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.
That paints a pretty picture of Croatian football, of how much it has grown since the heroics of 1998.
Croatia has always supplied great talent to the biggest clubs in the world even when their national side struggled on the global stage post 1998. That has quite a lot to do with the strong, institutionalised and homogenous grassroots programme the country has implemented.
The idea is to produce quality players who can be exported. But beyond the economic game-plan, there is also a deep-rooted philosophy of imbibing the right mix of technique, footballing identity and “national pride” in the players through an intense and focused grassroots programme.
The results have been evident across the leagues of Europe, just as they are now at the World Cup in Russia. The Croatian players, talented as they are, are definitely playing to their potential, maybe more. But what makes them special is that they are playing to their strengths tactically, while the sense of purpose and pride with which they hit the ground makes them near invincible, something we didn’t see in their illustrious group opponents Argentina, for instance.
These factors make them a force to reckon with in Russia, and, in a fortnight’s time, might just power them to a 1998-like flourish, giving football a new idea of beauty, and some lovely moments as well, that too in their hypnotic jerseys.