A war-torn country in the mid-1990s which failed to qualify for its first FIFA World Cup post-independence simply on a technicality, Croatian football first captured the world’s attention in 1998 when Miroslav Blazevic led the Vatreni to the semi-finals of the France World Cup, a feat which remained unparalleled until this summer in Russia. That semi-final appearance in their maiden World Cup inspired an entire generation of young Croats to take up and strive harder at the beautiful game; after all, sports has been an immensely crucial aspect of the small European nation which has produced fine sportspersons in a variety of disciplines starting from lawn tennis to basketball, boxing to skiing.
As the second-smallest nation to participate in this edition of the World Cup stands on the cusp of ultimate glory, the world has finally begun to take notice of the incredible work behind the scenes and the tiniest of details which has allowed Croatia’s golden generation to come within touching distance of lifting the World Cup.
A lot has been written about the diversity of Didier Deschamps’ managerial style at France – how the 1998 World Cup winner, inspired by his time at Juventus under Marcelo Lippi, has orchestrated a defensively disciplined performance from his entire team, even the more flamboyant operators like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann to take France to two successive finals in as many major international tournaments, yet has not been boxed into a single, defined style of play. However, the fashion in which Croatia has barged into the finals, while awe-inspiring, has mostly been deemed due to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic's midfield brilliance.
The current Croatian setup is undeniably being led by the vibrant blanket of Modric and Rakitic’s mastery at the centre of the park, but the Vatreni possess a unique style of play which succeeds repeatedly only because it is ingrained in the entire squad and not merely a few players.
Effectively shutting out opponents who aim to press them high up the pitch by exploiting the gaps between the inside channels due to the supreme passing range of their central playmakers, Croatia ensure their ball retention is not only a way to build attacks but also defend efficiently. Transitioning from their backline to forwards mostly through the wide channels in counter-attacking situations, Croatia’s style of play resembles that of a slow-burning candle, glimmering more and threatening further as the match progresses.
While international teams can be beaten into a certain shape over the years, with managers imposing their own ideologies, Croatia have followed a different route, especially considering the fact that Zlatko Dalic has been in charge of the national team for less than a year. Instead, Croatia have at their disposal a group of footballers who have coincidentally experienced identical schools of football purely due to their individual club careers.
All four of Croatia’s attackers’ have honed their craft in the Serie A and the Bundesliga at some points in their career. While the youngster Marko Pjaca has been sent on loan to Schalke 04 from his parent club Juventus, the veteran sharpshooter Mario Mandzukic has spent a large chunk of his career in Bayern Munich and Juventus with a spell at Atletico Madrid sandwiched in between, operating in a variety of roles which makes him such a perfect candidate for the marksman Croatia need in the later stages of the game. Andrej Kramaric is currently at Hoffenheim while Ante Rebic has donned the shirts of Fiorentina and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Marvellous Modric is the only notable exception among Croatia’s attackers and midfielders who did not spend a season in Italy or Germany – even Ivan Rakitic burst onto the scene for the first time during a 2007/08 UEFA Champions League fixture with Schalke. On one hand, Brozovic and Kovacic have enhanced their reputations at Internazionale; on the other, there is Ivan Perisic who learnt the best of both worlds with Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan.
Playing in Serie A taught them how to shut out teams purely on the basis of intricate midfield triangles, while Bundesliga have provided lessons on quick transitions and countering high press. Their extensive tutelage under different managers in two of Europe’s tactically astute leagues has allowed Croatia to operate with a sublime level of precision and prowess – adding sheen to their underdog status on Sunday.
“I had wonderful players, full of a sense of patriotism. Players who were ready to do big things for their country. One of the biggest advantages Croatia has in sport is that patriotic feeling,” Blazevic had said after Croatia’s third-place finish in 1998. This class of players have more than simply patriotism in their kitty, talent in their midst – attuned to each other not only due to their similar outlook to the game, but because of identical individual journeys through their professional careers.
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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 14:36:20 IST