In 1998, Croatia sensationally won a bronze medal at the World Cup in France, and that result still stands out in the team’s history. At that time, their squad contained stars such as Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Slaven Bilic and Robert Jarni, who played for top European clubs and contributed a lot to the national team. Twenty years later, the Balkan nation can again rely on a number of world-class players - and for this “golden generation”, the tournament in Russia may become the last chance to win a medal as many of them grow older.
Many veterans in the squad
Indeed, let us have a look at the age of Croatia’s most prominent figures. The captain Luka Modric from Real Madrid will turn 33 in September. Another creative midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who plays for Barcelona, is 30. The defender Vedran Corluka, who has just won the Russian league with Lokomotiv Moscow, is 32, as many as the striker Mario Manzdukic from Juventus. Another experienced defender Ivan Strinic from Sampdoria will turn 31 in July, and Monaco’s goalkeeper Danijel Subasic is already 33. A few more players are in their late twenties, such as Domagoj Vida, Milan Badelj or Ivan Perisic, who are all 29.
Possibly this squad will not play together again at EURO 2020, and most definitely not in the next World Cup, so now it is really the last chance for the generation to write their names into football history. Of course there are younger quality players in Croatia, too - the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Marko Rog, Tin Jedvaj and Marko Pjaca. Probably they will make up a backbone of a new excellent generation in future, yet it will be a totally different story.
Bumpy road to Russia
Some Croatia’s symbolic figures, including Ivica Olic, Darijo Srna and Eduardo Da Silva, have already retired from international football in recent years. After reaching the quarter-final at the EURO 2008, this generation failed to show any similar results. They failed to progress from the group at both EURO 2012 and 2014 World Cup, and were defeated by eventual champions Portugal at the Last 16 of the EURO 2016. Given the number of high-profile players in the squad, those results did not make Croatian fans too happy.
The team’s road to Russia was not smooth either. The Balkan side played a solid first half of the qualification campaign, but struggled to follow in the same way. A poor run, which included defeats against Iceland and Turkey and a draw against Finland, piled pressure on the head coach Ante Cacic, who was unpopular with many players and fans. His abilities to handle the team and select the right players were strongly questioned, and the captain Modric openly blamed the coach for the team’s lack of form, so ultimately the federation decided to replace Cacic by Zlatko Dalic.
Dark horse wants to win
That happened just two days before the decisive qualifier against Ukraine and looked like a good decision. The coaching change gave the team a boost as they beat their direct rivals in Kiev (2:0). In the competitive Group I, Iceland stayed on top and directly booked a ticket to Russia, while Croatia advanced to the play-offs, where they comfortably beat Greece, 4:1 and 0:0. During the whole campaign, the team conceded only five goals, so good fedence was the key to success even despite the presence of a few prolific attackers.
At the World Cup finals, Dalic’s team will face Iceland once again. Besides, their group include Argentina and Nigeria, so it certainly will not be easy for the Balkan side. However, Croatia have plenty of talent in their roster, and with Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic and other high-profile footballers, they may show a decent result. After the memorable success in 1998, the team have never advanced from the group at the World Cup, and it is high time to reach farther than that.