Croatia’s run to the semi-finals of a second successive World Cup has been nothing short of remarkable for the tiny Balkan nation and even Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Argentina doesn’t overshadow their performance on football’s biggest stage.
Reaching the last four in Russia and Qatar was hardly imaginable six years ago. Croatia was a team on the brink, their fans fought each other at Euro 2016 and the leadership of the Croatian FA faced allegations of corruption.
The appointment of Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman, as head coach had only fueled dissatisfaction.
Fast forward to Qatar, where Croatia entered the tournament as runners-up of 2018 with an aging squad led by 37-year-old Luka Modric and Zlatko Dalic, who replaced Cacic for the 2018 tournament, at the helm.
Coming through their pool with a win over Canada and a draw against Belgium and surprise semi-finalists Morocco, conceding just one goal along the way, the Croats showed they were once again a force to be reckoned with. No longer the explosive attacking team of 2018 that stunned England in the semi-finals before losing to France in the final, Croatia has become a well-oiled machine where every player knows what needs to be done to get the result.
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Their midfield of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Modric looked so solid that teammate Josip Juranovic said it was “safer than having money in the bank”, while 20-year-old defender Josko Gvardiol pulled the strings at the back.
Croatia passed Japan in a shootout in the Round of 16 before triggering one of the shock events of the tournament by similarly knocking out five-time champions Brazil. In another display of mental toughness, Croatia had conceded a goal in extra time to Brazil’s Neymar, but worked their way out of trouble by scoring an equalizer through Bruno Petkovic in the 117th minute.
Before Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Croatia needed penalties or extra time in five of their six knockout matches at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, winning all four of their penalty shootouts.
“I don’t blame the boys, now we have to lift our heads and get ready for the (third place) game that lies ahead,” said Dalic.
“If someone had offered us this before the tournament, we would have accepted it. We are really proud.”
Few will doubt Croatia’s commitment in the contest to determine third place in Qatar. Their opponents will be revealed after defending champions France face Morocco in the other semi-final later on Wednesday.