The Vatreni exploits in the tournament signalled the comeback of the once-feared Eastern European football.
When the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup kicked off, Croatia had just come off the back of a 2-0 defeat at the hands of then favorites Brazil. In the event, the Croats would go on to maraud their way all the way to the final of the competition with the flair and panache that would make any South American country proud.
Croatia’s rise in the eyes of fans of the international game could signal the end of the dominance of some of Europe’s more renowned footballing nations. However, Croatia aren’t the only country with an exciting footballing future ahead of them.
Russia’s amazing run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup has opened the eyes of the clubs around the world to the true talent that was hidden in the side, who were hardly given a chance, despite the fact that they were the hosts of the tournament. The likes of Artem Dyzuba, Aleksandr Golovin and Dennis Cheryshev have become household names over the course of just six games.
Ever since the erstwhile Czechoslovakia were beaten by Brazil in the final of the 1962 World Cup, Eastern European football has been stunted and has consistently failed to live up to its undeniable potential. It is easy to forget that amongst the Brazils, Englands, Argentinas, and Germanys, four of the first 10 World Cup finalists hailed from Eastern Europe.
To truly understand why the fortunes of what was once one of football’s most prolific regions changed so dramatically, we have to understand the circumstances the countries existed in, in the era between 1960 and 2000. Germany was a divided into West and East Germany after the Second World War. West Germany had adopted a very progressive approach to football and to its clubs, while the East had gated footballing committees, where the clubs were funded by the state and other governing bodies.
Watch: Croatia received an overwhelming reception in Zagreb
In 1989, the Iron Curtain fell, signaling the end of the Cold War. However, the unification of two states that had been separated for over four decades was no easy task, a fact that held true for football as well. The talent that could be called upon by the Soviet Union was now in the hands of Germany and Eastern European football had taken a hit.
Political issues have long made it hard for teams from the region to excel. One such instance came to light in the game between Serbia and Switzerland, where Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri scored and celebrated by forming the Albanian eagle with their palms. This was to highlight the fact that they had been driven out of their homes by the dispute between Serbia and Albania over the ownership of Kosovo.
Before the 2018 competition, Ukraine in 2006 was the only Eastern European team to have made it as far as the quarterfinals of the quadrennial tournament. However, the emergence of clubs and players that are able to compete on a bigger stage over the last decade has seen the region regain some of the stature that it lost over the years.
Croatia could have made history by beating the French, in what was perhaps the biggest game the region has ever played. Although, Les Bleus trounced them in the final, European football has seen the return of a long-lost brother, who is gunning for the throne. The likes of France, England, Germany and many more would do well to be very wary.