Hrvatska / Croatia
- Capital: Zagreb
- Official Languages: Croatian
- Nicknames: Vatreni (The Blazers); Kockasti (The Chequered Ones)
- Association: Hrvatski Nogometni Savez; HNS
- FIFA Code: CRO
- Best World Cup Result (Men): FINALISTS (2018)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Euros Result (Men): Quarter Finals (1996, 2008)
- Best Euros Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 3rd (January 1999)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 44th (July 2003)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 125th (March 1994)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 65th (November 2010)
- Most Capped Player: Darijo Srna – 134 caps
- Top Scorer: Davor Šuker – 45 goals
Since declaring their independence from Yugoslavia and being admitted to FIFA in 1994, Croatia has been one of the most exciting, talented and identifiable sides in European football. Resplendent in their iconic red & white chequered shirts, the Croatian sides continuously produce exceptional talented players (something which they did during the Yugoslav era also), with the nation making their debut appearance in a major tournament at the 1996 European Championships before finishing in third position in the 1998 World Cup – an outstanding achievement for a small country (a population of just over 4m people), let alone a country having freshly gained independence. Not to mention providing the tournament’s top goalscorer in the legendary striker Davor Šuker.
The Vatreni would also break records twenty years later by becoming the second smallest nation (in terms of population and landmass) to reach the 2018 World Cup final after defeating England in the semi-finals, although they would subsequently lose 2-4 to France in the final. Such is the fantastic success and achievement of the Croatian national team, that the side has only failed to qualify for two major tournaments since its inclusion in FIFA (the 2000 European Championships and 2010 World Cup).
To talk about the 2018 World Cup finalists and one of the most talented sides in men’s world football currently, we interviewed the excellent Twitter account and podcast producer Croatian Football about the Vatreni. To find their social media accounts, follow the links below:
In addition, we also talked to K League United‘s Jeju United and Chungnam Asan columnist, Branko Belan. The South Korean-based Croatian writer, produces numerous excellent reports and articles on KLU about the two sides in the K League 1 and 2 respectively, and is also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet or talk to! To find his social media accounts, follow the links below:
- Twitter: @BBelan
Key: CF = Croatian Football; BB = Branko Belan
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
CF: The best player is definitely Luka Modrić as he’s won the 2018 Balon D’or and guided us to a historic World Cup final with an amazing squad who just wanted it more than anyone else we faced towards the final. For the manager…its between Zlatko Dalić and Ćiro Blažević, but I’ll go with Zlatko as he managed our best generation, in my opinion, to the World Cup final. But Ćiro is a really close choice as he managed the Vatreni in the 1998 World Cup when we almost beat France in the semi-finals and almost progressed into the final. We ended up getting 3rd then, beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-placed playoff.
BB: The best player for Croatia all-time would be our current captain Luka Modrić, widely recognized as one of the best at his position for a number of years now. To see what he is currently doing at Real Madrid at the age of 35 is absolutely incredible. Most players at his age would be winding down their careers playing in perhaps another part of the world, but he continues to be one of the most important players for Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Further evidence of his status as Croatia’s all-time best would warrant a second look at his performance for the national team at the World Cup in Russia in 2018 where he won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, leading the Vatreni to the final. His longevity with the national team, having debuted in 2006 also puts him on another level in comparison to others who have worn the national colours in the past.
In terms of best manager, that would have to go to Miroslav “Ćiro” Blažević. As the architect of Croatia’s first-ever generation of football players, he experienced success both at the European and world levels, reaching the quarter-finals at England ’96 before bowing out, albeit controversially, to eventual champions Germany, and then capturing bronze at the World Cup in France two years later. The revenge against Berti Vogts’ men in the quarter-finals was particularly satisfying, a 3-0 drubbing, the Germans’ worst defeat in the tournament in more than forty years at the time.
Blažević is perhaps the most charismatic manager Croatia has ever had, and continues to be a fixture in football life in Croatia. Some may consider him past his time at present, but his opinions have never been too far from the truth. Although he was widely criticized at times during his tenure, he will always remain a legend in the minds of fans of football in the Adriatic nation.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
BB: The first name which comes to mind for me is Robert Prosinečki. Arguably the most talented player of his generation, there is absolutely nothing he couldn’t do on the pitch. Talent aside, he was always the type of personality to speak his mind, and it would get him into hot water from time to time, but he truly embodied the Croatian spirit which came to be associated with the early years of the national team’s existence, and that is exactly why he was not only respected, but adored by many.
His goal in the third place match in France against the Netherlands was vindication of sorts for the fact that he played only limited time against the hosts in the semi-final, which Croatia lost in the end, and to this day, many contend Croatia would have been in the final had he been in the starting eleven that afternoon.
CF: In the past it’s Davor Šuker, he was just lethal in front of goal in his prime. Nobody could stop him! 45 goals in 69 games for Croatia is just brilliant! And in the present as I already mentioned Luka Modrić but Mario Mandžukić is pretty close as he’s a big warrior for whoever he plays for.
Q. In Croatia, who would you say is the best player from the country currently?
BB: It surely has to be Luka Modrić. His recent performances at club level have been nothing short of impressive, with the world simply marvelling at the things he is still able to do at his age. Croatia are a completely different team without him. His vision and ability to pick a pass at any given moment have deservedly earned him consideration as one of the best at his position even now, with some even going as far as to put him at the top of the list.
What is even more amazing is the fact that he seems to have found a scoring touch at Real Madrid recently. If he can produce that kind of form for Croatia on the international stage, they could well be in for another deep run at the coming European Championships this summer.
Q. How would you describe the current state or performance of the national team?
CF: Ok. On a scale from 1 to 10, I would give them a rating of 4. We didn’t get a lot of points in the UEFA Nations League, but we played great football against France in both matches and I think we deserved to have won one match against them [they lost 2-4 away and lost 1-2 at home]. However, we perform in the big competitions so I’m looking forward to the European Championships in 2021.
BB: Croatia barely managed to stay afloat in Nations League play, but will stay in the top bracket nonetheless. It has to be stated that they went up against current World Cup holders France and current European champions Portugal, so the competition could not have been more difficult, but they need to elevate themselves a bit more if they want to be considered among the elite in the world.
Their World Cup qualification group doesn’t look as difficult, however, and they shouldn’t have much trouble qualifying for Qatar next year. The Euros, should it go ahead in June is an entirely different matter, as they open against England and also have the likes of the Czech Republic and Scotland to contend with, so with a full calendar ahead of them, fitness and form will be paramount if they are to achieve the results to put them among the world’s best once again.
Q. Are there any Croatian players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
CF: I’ve been saying it since I started my Twitter account – Nikola Vlašić. An attacking midfielder who was crowned as the best player in Russian football this year! An absolutely amazing player! He signed for Everton in 2018 but never got a real chance at the Toffees, so he moved to CSKA Moscow and is now performing week-in, week-out.
BB: One player who really comes out at me is Joško Gvardiol. He’ll finish this season at GNK Dinamo Zagreb before making the switch to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga in July. The U-21 international is one of the most intriguing talents to come out of Croatia in recent years.
He has drawn comparisons to Bayern Munich’s David Alaba as a left-footed center back. He is physically strong and has developed confidence on the ball as he has gained first team experience with the Croatian champions. His name has been floated out to the top clubs in Europe for some time now, and a switch to play in a Big Five league is a natural step for his progression.
Q. Looking at the Croatia’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
BB: As much as the run to the final at the World Cup in Russia in 2018 is talked about these days, it has to be said that Croatia’s maiden appearance at the tournament twenty years previous trumps anything the country has done on the international stage. To even try to imagine that a country and team making its debut on football’s grandest stage and to finish among the medals is unthinkable, but that is exactly what Croatia did in France in 1998.
The performance against Germany in the quarter-finals particularly stands out because of the revenge-payback factor, whichever way one chooses to label it. The most endearing moment of the entire match occurred on the stroke of halftime, with Robert Jarni finding himself in space on the left and then firing home his only ever international goal for his nation, a left footed blast which nestled finely into the left corner, and the scenes which followed will forever be repeated in Croatian football lore.
CF: Best Performance = 2018 World Cup
The best result/game has got to be the match versus England in the semis of the 2018 World Cup. It was so good to beat England, and as most of the English supporters were arrogant and already seeing themselves in the final, it was just sweeter than I thought it would be!
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
BB: As previously mentioned, Croatia’s luck in the UEFA Nations League has not been particularly noteworthy, and never was that more apparent than their 6-0 defeat to Spain after the World Cup. Marco Asensio shone brightly on the day, scoring once and assisting three. That it happened so soon after a major success wields questions about the future of the national team once the likes of Luka Modrić walk away from the international stage.
CF: Not making the 2010 World Cup was the biggest disappointment for the Croatian team without a doubt. It was the first World Cup we had missed out on since our debut in 1998.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Croatian national team?
CF: Well the worst one is the way that we win. We always get ourselves on the back-foot at the start and then creep back and steal it but your heart-rate is going through the roof from when you concede to the final whistle.
The best thing is knowing that you can create an upset at any given time if we play to the performances like I know we can!
BB: Croatian football fans are legendary. The pride, the passion, the brevity displayed by followers of the Vatreni is second to none and has been showcased in football grounds all over the globe since the team played its first match back in 1990. The football team is a brand of its own, one which has garnered respect all over the world. It is perhaps one of the most identifiable aspects of Croatian culture to people from other countries. They may not know much about the country’s history or even cuisine, but if you mention football, the light bulb switches on in their head almost immediately.
Perhaps one of the worst things about being a fan of the national team is the number of failures and unfulfilled potential at several tournaments in the past. Failing to qualify for EURO 2000 just two years on from a World Cup bronze medal is a perfect example of this, and that it took twenty years to progress to the knockouts on the world’s biggest stage is also perplexing considering the notable talent the country has produced through the years. The hope is that the current young crop of players will be able to take the reigns to lead future generations to success.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
BB: Fan anthems have been a thing with the national team since its inception. There is usually a new one for every tournament for which Croatia has qualified and regardless of the number of supporters in the stadium or in the streets, Croatian voices never fail to be heard.
CF: Bježite ljudi, bježite iz grada, stiže ekipa pijana,
Bježite ljudi dok postoji nada, jer ovdije igra HRVATSKA,
Ale-ale ale-ale ale-ale
Run people, run from the city, here comes the drunk team,
Run people there’s no hope, because here plays CROATIA,
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
CF: The 1998 home kit! Without a doubt one of my favourite shirts even if I wasn’t born and able to watch that team.
BB: The Lotto kits for EURO ’96 were great, as was the blue strip for the World Cup two years later, but I like the direction the kit design is going in now with the navy and black second kit in Russia standing out. It’s an intimidating look – in fact, Croatia have always played well in their second strip; it’s to a point where it’s become tradition for them to win big matches playing in “away” colours.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Croatian national team?
BB: Croatia needs to show well at the upcoming European Championships; failure to do so will set them back a few years as could have been the case when Danijel Subašić, Mario Mandžukić, and Vedran Ćorluka retired after Russia 2018. There are concerns as to what the makeup of the national team will look like once Modrić hangs up the boots, but Croatia has been known to produce some of the world’s finest footballers for a number of years.
What will be key for Croatia moving forward is ensuring that the coaching setup is akin to the current talent base. One of the reasons for Croatia’s success in reaching the World Cup final was due in large part to the job done by Zlatko Dalić and the coaching staff. It is absolutely necessary that the coaches be able to identify with the players as a main source of motivation to achieve the sort of results that the team is capable of.
The second half of the generational change will soon take effect, but younger talent is already being infused into the national program, with the likes of Nikola Vlašić, who was just named the best player in the Russian Premier League in 2020 sure to have a constant presence in the years to come.
CF: My hopes are very high but realistic. I want us to make it to the quarter-finals of every European Championships and World Cup minimum, and hopefully make another big final in the near future. The dream is winning the World Cup, I mean who doesn’t want their country to win it. We’ve shown that we can make it to the final, but if given a second chance, I think we’ll take it!!
A massive hvala vam puno to Croatian Football and Branko Belan for answering our questions on the amazingly talented Croatian men’s side. Remember you can find their excellent social media accounts in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions or even your own answers for the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.