DOHA, Qatar ( Associated Press) — Croatia has a population of just 4 million, a factor that magnified the magnitude of its World Cup quarterfinal victory over Brazil in Qatar.
Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić put it this way: he said it was “unthinkable” to reach the semi-finals in two consecutive World Cups.
The 2018 finalists continued to advance in Qatar, trailing 4-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw on Friday.
“Knocking out of the tournament one of the big favourites, probably the best team… only Croatia could do that,” boasted Dalić.
Granted, it didn’t cause the same paranoia as the Argentina defeat to Saudi Arabia. But Croatia’s win over the five-time champions can be counted among the surprising results in a tournament that refuses to stick to the script.
And it’s clear from the shocked faces of Brazil’s torsadores and the sadness of the players that they weren’t planning to return home at such an early stage.
Perhaps he should have taken a deeper look at Croatia’s World Cup trajectory, and the spirit of a team that apparently didn’t know the phrase “give up”. Perhaps no one thought Croatia could beat Brazil, but they reached the final in Russia four years earlier and were semi-finalists in their first World Cup as an independent country in 1998, losing to France both times.
Meanwhile, Brazil has made it to the quarter-finals only once since lifting the cup in 2002.
So how does the world’s 128th largest country in terms of population fare better than the bigger nations on the biggest stage?
Perhaps it should be placed in the context of Croatia’s struggle for independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when thousands of Croats were killed in the conflict.
Players and Daliks often point to the militancy of the country.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livacovich said, “That’s how we were brought up.” “We always go to the end, we leave everything on the pitch and we keep fighting. That’s the reason for our success.”
Domineering midfielder and captain Luka Modric set the stage before the opening whistle against Brazil.
“We believe in ourselves. We are capable of anything,” said the 37-year-old Real Madrid star, adding that Croatia is “simply a talented nation.”
This is an important aspect: the quality of the Croatian players.
Modric has won the Champions League five times with Madrid, and has received the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player, the biggest individual award in world football.
He achieved this in 2018 against Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and especially world champion France star Kylian Mbappe.
Defeated finalist Modrić was named player of the tournament.
To this the Croatian adds his expertise on penalties: fighting spirit, tenacity and quality. Twice in Russia and now twice in Qatar, the Croat has scored thanks to shooting from 11 metres.
“When we reach the penalty spot, that’s when we become favourites. I think the opponent thinks they’ve already lost,” Dalik said.
With four draws in five matches, Croatia may not be the most attractive team in this World Cup.
But when it comes to brawn and tenacity, he is not easy to beat.
Perhaps their semi-final opponents, Argentina, would do well to keep this in mind.