The current Vatreni squad could script history if they defeat France in the final of the tournament.
It is often said that history keeps repeating itself and football is no exemption to that rule. This World Cup has seen history being played on a loop, with Croatia upsetting all the odds to make it all the way to the final. On the way, they have taken down heavyweights like Argentina and England and are the hipster’s favorite to win the competition.
Of course, the small Eastern European country had achieved similar heights in 1998, when they lost to France in the semi-finals. Until now, it was their best ever finish at a Mundial, but history has presented itself in a unique way to the Vatreni: it seeks to be rewritten, and they face Les Bleus in the final this time.
In 1998, the Croats finished second to Argentina in Group H, beating both Jamaica and Japan. In the Round of 16, they edged past Romania thanks to a Davor Suker penalty. The quarters saw them thrashing Germany 3-0 with Suker again on the score-sheet. In the semis, they led the eventual champions France by a goal thanks again, to the brilliant Suker, but a late double from Lilian Thuram sank their ship.
However, their magical run did end on a high as they got the better of another European football powerhouse, the Netherlands, when they beat them 2-1 in the third-place playoff. The unstoppable Suker netted again and ended the tournament by scoring six goals and winning the Golden Boot.
In 1998, Croatia looked set to win the World Cup until a Lilian Thuram-inspired France beat them in the semi-finals
This year, Croatia came into the tournament as the unfancied outsiders. They were on a poor run of form ahead of the competition, but they got their act together. Pitted against Argentina, Japan and Senegal in the group, they started firing on all cylinders right from the word go. The Vatreni ended up winning the group, beating the Lionel Messi led La Albicelestes 3-0.
Regarded as one of the upsets of the tournament, they then went on to beat Denmark and Russia in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively. In the semi-finals, they got the better of an English side that was riding on the wave of hype and fervor. In fact, the Croats came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 and set their date with glory at the Luzhniki Stadium on the 15th of July.
20 years ago, Croatia were making their first bow at the World Cup. Buoyed by the weightlessness of little or no expectation, they stepped up their game in an incredible manner. The likes of Zvonomir Boban, Suker, Alen Boksic and Robert Prosinecki combined to produce exciting, attacking football that captured the imagination of the world. The steeliness provided at the back by Slaven Bilic also played a massive role in helping them produce one of the most memorable runs ever seen at a World Cup.
The Croatian team in this edition is built on the same philosophy, but they have already gone past their illustrious predecessors. Built on the impeccable technical quality and play-making abilities of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield, the side boasts of the goalscoring threats of Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic as well as the defensive grit of Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko.
In goal, they have the excellent Danijel Subasic who was instrumental in saving several penalties during their shootout wins over Denmark and Russia. Their manager, Zlatko Dalic has focused on playing a brand of possession-based football which has caught the eye of the neutrals, just like they did in 1998. As such, despite having played extra-time in all of their three knockout matches, they will be stepping on the green grass in Moscow, as fresh and as charged as ever.
Come Sunday evening, Captain Modric will be stepping out onto the pitch to lead the first Croatian team to ever play in a World Cup final. The odds, as always will be stacked against them, but they are no strangers to that situation. The country of just 300m people, which was ravaged by civil war for years, has produced a team whose childhoods have mostly been marred by memories of bombs and blood. But, they are now standing on the verge of history. Let’s hope they can make some more of it while the world applauds them, once again.