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From bloody Balkan war to World Cup heavyweight: the making of Croatia as a soccer nation

<i>Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images</i><br/>The Croatia players celebrate a goal against France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals.
Bongarts/Getty Images
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
The Croatia players celebrate a goal against France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals.

By Ben Morse, CNN

Panama, Mauritania, Georgia and Eritrea are four countries with roughly the equivalent population sizes of Croatia.

Those four nations share one World Cup appearance between them and that was when Panama played at Russia 2018, finishing the group stage with three defeats and conceding 11 goals.

Croatia’s World Cup pedigree is an altogether different story. In six World Cup appearances, the country has reached the semifinals on three occasions, while four years ago Croatia contested the final, ultimately losing to France.

Croatia only gained independence in 1991, during the bloody Balkan war which lasted until 1995 and its population is just under four million, though you’d never have known given the way it traded blows with soccer superpower Brazil in the quarterfinals, before winning a penalty shootout.

That success was very much a case of David knocking out Goliath given Brazil’s population is 214 million people.

Next up for Croatia is Lionel Messi and Argentina — population: 45 million.

Igor Štimac, who played in all of Croatia’s 1998 World Cup matches during its run to third place, told CNN that the country’s recent history has helped play a part in forging elite competitors.

“Our people went through many difficulties in its survival, in its independence, fighting for it, in the aggression which we suffered from our neighbors,” Štimac, who coached the Croatia national team between 2012-13, told CNN.

“These things are helping to stay with a great mental strength, great discipline, staying humble and surviving with the pride, whatever difficulties there are in front of us.

“But we cannot say that only the last war which happened here helped in these things because the wars were going on through this region for many occasions. It’s something also about this region in regards to the climate, in regards to the culture.”

Croatian football journalist Srđan Fabijanac, who has been on the ground in Doha to watch this current iteration of the national team, says the squad’s harmony has proved vital in another extraordinary World Cup for the the Vatreni (the ‘Blazers’)

Fabijanac calls the team — constructed with a blend of experience from the likes of Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren with new faces such as Joško Gvardiol and Borna Sosa — as like a “family.”

“You’ve seen what’s happened in this World Cup; Brazil have excellent players, Portugal have excellent players, Germany have excellent players but in my opinion, they have spirit and they don’t have a team,” Fabijanac told CNN. “That’s the problem. Croatia is too strong as a team.”

From the rubble

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, democratic movements swept across much of Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia. With the election of non-communist governments in four of Yugoslavia’s six republics, the Federation began to crumble and ethnic divisions resurfaced.

By 1991, the prosperous Croatian republic sought to create a loose confederation or to dissolve the union entirely. Less wealthy Serbia opposed this. In June of 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence.

Fighting soon began as the Yugoslav army, consisting primarily of Serbs, tried to prevent Slovenia from establishing its own border posts. In July, fighting also broke out between Croatian forces and Serb militiamen.

Among the other republics, only the smallest — Montenegro — sided with Serbia. The two remaining republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, voted in favor of independence.

In 1992, the Serbian minority in Bosnia, helped by the federal army, attempted to carve out enclaves for itself, laying siege to Sarajevo.

By the time the United Nations dismissed Yugoslavia from its General Assembly, some 20,000 people had died and up to two million had become refugees from fighting and “ethnic cleansing.”

Back in 2018, Lovren recounted his memories of his escape as a young child from war-torn Bosnia in 1992.

“I just remember when the sirens went on,” Lovren said. “I was so scared because I was thinking ‘bombs’ or that something will happen now.

“I remember my mum took me and we went to the basement, I don’t know how long we’d been sitting there, I think it was until the sirens went off. Afterwards, I remember mum, my uncle, my uncle’s wife, we took the car and then we were driving to Germany.”

Lovren’s family settled in Germany, but after seven years they were told to leave and had to start life again in Croatia.

Fabijanac admits while some of the squad were not even born during the bloody Balkan war, it is something which still hangs over the country, spurring its players on.

“We want to put the things which happened in the 1990s far from us,” he explained. “There are sports, but we have very strong national emotions and this … is why the Croatian football players always play with the full heart for the national teams.

“Because we are a small country, we have a very, very ugly war which made many traumas for many people in Croatia.

“And sports and players in football and in other sports are national heroes. And that is the reason why they always play for the national teams one level higher than the highest. When we play for the national team in football, in any sport, we play with more than 100%, we play with 110%.

“They put their last atomic force on the field to do something for the country.”

A new story

The Croatian Football Association applied and gained admittance to soccer’s world governing body FIFA, in 1992 and Europe’s governing body UEFA in 1993.

“We have football in the blood. Every male child in Croatia wants to be a football player,” Fabijanac said. “First they learn how to walk, after that they take a football or something to play football.”

Fabijanac added: “For a small country like us, it’s very important to have this fantastic national team because my granddaughter is three years old and she doesn’t play with dolls, she plays with the ball and says only: ‘ Modrić, Modrić, Modrić.’ That’s something which is amazing.”

It didn’t take long for Croatia to make its mark on the international soccer stage.

First, Croatia reached the quarterfinals of the 1996 Euros — beating a star-studded Denmark along the way.

Two years later, in its first ever World Cup appearance, Croatia got to the semifinals of the 1998 edition in France, eventually finishing third.

Thanks to its first golden generation of players — led by Davor Šuker and with Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban adding a sprinkling off stardust — Croatia qualified with two wins from its group, then beating Romania and Germany in the knockout stages, before losing out to eventual-winners France in the semifinals.

Šuker finished as the 1998 tournament’s top scorer and with its distinctive red and white kit as well as its propensity for shocking football’s traditional heavyweights, Croatia became an immediate favorite for neutrals.

Štimac said that his former teammates and squad had the responsibility of laying down the foundations for Croatia’s modern soccer heritage.

“Our generation was the one that we had the most difficult path because we were responsible to create a cult of Croatian culture in football and to make the road for the generations to come,” Štimac told CNN.

“And as a newly recognized country, it was obviously very difficult when you are such a small country in the football world and nobody appreciates to consider you at all as important part or subject.

“And from that point of view, we had the most difficult situation and we did well and that’s obviously helped generations which followed.”

The arrival of Zlatko Dalić as Croatia’s coach in 2017 has also proved pivotal.

Having been appointed after the team’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Dalić came with pressure on his shoulders.

With many of the team’s star players in their prime — in particular, the midfielder three of Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Marcelo Brozović — Croatia was expected to perform well.

Croatia did better than just perform well.

Thanks to the harmony Dalić was able to engender in the team, Croatia exceeded everyone’s expectations by reaching the final — showing remarkable grit and resilience to win twice on penalties followed by an extra-time victory over England in the semifinals — before being overpowered by France in the final.

Returning to Croatia and a hero’s welcome, with more than 500,000 fans turning Zagreb’s streets into a tapestry of red and white to celebrate the players’ success, the team was feted for surpassing the so-called “bronze” generation of 1998.

“In the past, we also had very good teams. In 1998, we had much better players maybe in the time like Boban, Šuker, Prosinečki, (Robert) Jarni, but maybe they don’t share the chemistry between them to do what this team has done in the past few years,” said Fabijanac.

“We only have one star, it’s Luka Modrić. The other players are not stars, like Kylian Mbappé or Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar. But the rest of the team is a family and does the most important thing for us.

“When Dalić came to be head coach, when he chose the team … he looked for characters.”

With Modrić at his magical best and goalkeper Dominik Livaković in imperious form and with the team able to seemingly pluck a goal out of thin air when needed, this Croatia side has continued to surprise, just like it did four years ago.

“When we come to represent the national team, all the egos need to disappear,” said Stimac.

“There is no place in the national team dressing room of Croatia for big egos, and everyone knows that. No one is bigger than the team, no one is bigger than the manager and that’s what is taking us forward.”

Back in 1998, Štimac came off the bench to face Argentina and the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Juan Sebastián Verón.

On Tuesday, Croatia will meet Lionel Messi and the next generation of Argentine stars knowing two wins stand between them and a new age of glory.

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