Croatia Wants to Surprise the World (Again)

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Croatia is the smallest country to play in the World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950 (HNS)
(WFI) No matter what happens on Sunday, Croatia is already a winner.

Even before playing for the World Cup title against France in Moscow, the Croatians have conquered the hearts of those in the football world who value resilience, hard work and the refusal to die displayed by the Balkan team throughout the tournament.

Croatia is simply breaking lots of molds: with a population of only four million people, it’s the smallest country to reach the World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. It is also the first Eastern European team to play for the biggest prize in football since 1962 when Czechoslovakia lost against Brazil. Czechoslovakia, of course, no longer exists.

Croatia has not had it easy. The team has had to survive three straight 120-minute matches—against Denmark, Russia and England—too make to the World Cup final. Before every extra-time, lots of voices predicted that the Croat players did not have enough stamina to sustain the opposition. After all, they pointed out, Croatia’s key players are veterans with lots of games accumulated throughout the season; captain Luka Modric is almost 33 years old, Mario Mandzukic is 32 and Ivan Rakitic is 31. The latter, a Barcelona midfielder, has played the most (71 games).

And every time, Croatia survived. Despite their team average age of almost 28, Zlatko Dalic always came back from the ashes. In fact in the semis against England, the Croatian coach did not make the first substitution until well into the extra-time period and then only because defender Ivan Strinic was injured.

What Croatia has shown is almost opposite of England has accomplished. The football inventors will go home knowing they wasted a golden opportunity to reach their first final since 1966. In the knockout stages they played against Colombia, Sweden and Croatia, all good teams, but none a member of football’s royalty. The English have used like no other the static balls - 9 of their 12 goals have been from set pieces, but as Modric says, perhaps Harry Kane and the rest of England did not recognize the real quality of their opponents.

“They underestimated Croatia and that was a huge mistake,” Modric said. “All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired.' They should be more humble and respect their opponents more."

“The difference was mental,” Croatian defender Dejan Lovren added. He plays for Liverpool in the English Premier League.

Another Croatian defender, Sime Vrsaljko was even more blunt .

“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls up field, but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven't," Vrsaljko said.

Croatia’s deepest previous World Cup run came in 1998 when it lost to France in the semifinal. Back then, Dalic was only another supporter.

"I had to go home later because then I was a player in activity and I had to prepare the preseason with my club, but I watched all the matches and, of course, that semifinal," he says.

"Everyone in Croatia remembers when (the Frenchman Liliam) Thuram scored 2-1 and we lost, it's been a talking point for the last 20 years, I remember we were celebrating the goal of (Davor) Suker and as soon as we got back we had already been tied (with another Thuram goal)," he recalled.

From fan to perhaps winning coach of a World Cup. Dalic though has a few concerns for Sunday’s “revenge” match against France including the animosity Croatia has created in Russia for Domagoj Vida’s social media posts . The central defender released recently two short video clips where Vida is heard saying pro-Ukraine comments.

The tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been high since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The phrase "Glory to Ukraine" has frequently been used as a slogan by Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalists, who strongly oppose the Russian annexation.

FIFA has reminded the Croatian delegation that according to its disciplinary code, any use of political slogans is strictly prohibited.

Vida has since apologized after both videos went viral, saying that it was only a joke.

In any event, on Sunday the world will see again lots of water polo caps in Moscow’s stadium. It is a tradition that started with the Croatian fans back in 2016,when midfielder Vedran ─ćorluka sustained a considerable head wound that wouldn't stop bleeding in a game against Turkey. So for the second half of the game, Corluka played with a water polo cap with the colors of Croatia — and the fan movement was born.

Croatia knows now that with or without the water polo caps, it is not going to sink on Sunday’s final. They have stayed afloat too long in this tournament to go down easily. France is the favorite, but the Croatians have been there before.

homepage photo: @HNS

By INSIDER Javier Monne

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