The fairy tale for Croatia ended on a stormy evening in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Long before the clock struck midnight, time ran out on a Croatian team that had spent the past month defying the odds. They were finally laid low by an uber-talented French team 4-2 in the 2018 World Cup Final. Croatia, a country of only 4 million people, had wowed the world by coming back on three separate occasions in the knockout rounds, along the way defeating much more famous footballing powers such as Denmark, Russia and England. In the process, Croatia became the first Eastern European country to make the final since Czechoslovakia in 1962. It was also the first Balkan nation to ever make it that far. Even in defeat their achievement was cause for celebration. An Eastern European football side was back near the top at the World Cup.
Croatia’s runner-up showing also provided hope that one day we may see a country from the region raise the golden World Cup trophy as champions. It is worth remembering that the last team from Eastern Europe to make it into the latter stages of the World Cup was also Croatia in 1998. Since that time, the small Balkan nation most known for its stunningly beautiful Adriatic coastline, has qualified for five of the six World Cups and finished 3rd or better twice. This would be a remarkable feat by almost any standard, but for a country that lacks the footballing infrastructure of much larger or wealthier nations it is extraordinary feat. Just how extraordinary is worth reflecting on.
A Stellar Start – One Goal In Mind
In 1998 the World Cup Finals expanded to 32 teams for the first time in its history, coincidentally this was also when Croatia played as an independent nation in its first World Cup. It had achieved nationhood out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia following nasty wars with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. To produce one of the world’s best football sides in the wake of such warfare and destruction was unprecedented. To continue to produce world class teams with limited resources has been nothing short of incredible. When measured against other nations, Croatia’s World Cup excellence becomes clearer. Since 1998 only France, Germany and Brazil have been in more World Cup semifinals while the Netherlands has managed as many as Croatia.
What this means is that Croatia’s two World Cup semifinals since 1998 are more than have been made by such traditional footballing powers as Argentina, Italy and Spain. This is not to say that Croatia produces anywhere near the amount of footballing talent that these countries do or that Croatia was as good as some of these nation’s best squads, for instance the 2010 World Cup Champion Spaniards. On the other hand, World Cup results do not lie. The record shows Croatia just one rung below the very best at the world’s premier football tournament. Consider that on the world’s biggest footballing stage Croatia has played at an extremely high level, not once, but twice. And during that twenty-year span, Croatia has failed to qualify for the World Cup just one time.
First Among Unequals – A Spirited Success
Finding a parallel to Croatian footballing success among other similar sized nations at the World Cup is difficult. Uruguay, World Cup champions in 1930 and 1950 were facing fields of 13 and 16 teams respectively. Their second championship came while many prominent nations were still trying to recover from the Second World War. Uruguay’s first championship came in the inaugural World Cup, against only a handful of top flight teams. Hungary and Czechoslovakia did enjoy a high degree of success between 1938 – 1962, but an argument can be made that this was before the World Cup was truly global in scope. The Netherlands comes closest in modern football to a smaller nation producing excellent World Cup results. The Netherlands also has four times the population of Croatia, is a wealthy, highly developed country with a very good domestic league.
Croatia has no such assets. It only became a member of the European Union in 2013, two decades after fighting a violent war. The Croatian domestic league is reflective of the nation’s politics, in other words it is riddled with dysfunction and corruption. None of the best domestic teams have the financial resources to keep homegrown talent from playing abroad. Even if they could, the level of play leaves much to be desired. Croatian players get better because they can go abroad to play in the world’s top leagues. To a large degree, they gain the coaching and experience at other’s expense. Then they come back home and tap into an unquantifiable spirit that seems to take hold of the players during their periodic runs to World Cup success. From a pure football perspective it does not hurt that the nation has produced a bumper crop of talented midfielders over the last thirty years.
Greater Things To Come – A Game Of Wait & See
Croatia’s 2018 World Cup runner-up showing has now placed it as the top national team in Eastern Europe since 1989, the era that followed the Iron Curtain’s collapse. This is all the more impressive because the Croatians had to overcome a late start in international play due to the Yugoslav Wars. Their first breakthrough at the 1996 European Championships was a harbinger of greater things to come. In that competition they qualified and then played in that tournament for the first time. Their they played Germany tough, before going down in defeat by a score of 2-1. The would dramatically avenge this loss, with a stunning 3-0 victory over the Germans in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinals. From that moment up through the present, Croatia’s national squad has been giving their fans more than they ever could have possibly expected.
Where does Croatia go from here? Judging by their record in World Cups after the 1998 semifinal finish there is bound to be a drop in results. In four World Cups from 2002 – 2014, the Croatians qualified for the finals three times, but only advanced to the knockout round once. It would be asking a bit much for the national team to repeat the success of 2018 at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That being said, there is no reason that Croatia cannot put themselves in position to make the knockout round once again. From that point anything can happen, as the teams in 1998 and 2018 showed. Croatia’s remarkable success in those two World Cups has already become part of the historical record. The Croatians now have only one other feat to accomplish at the World Cup, a championship.