MOSCOW: Croatia has just over four million people, about half as much as Chennai. The country is younger than a lot of its players, only declaring its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, sparking off the Balkan Wars. Yet, on Sunday, they will contest the World Cup final.
Many of Croatia’s players are former refugees. Captain Luka Modric spent his childhood in a hotel after his village was burnt down and his grandfather executed by Serbian rebels.
Defender Dejan Lovren and Mario Mandzukic, who scored the winner against England, fled to Germany. Defender Vedran Corluka fled through Yugoslavia, trying to outrun the war. Ivan Rakitic was born in Switzerland to Croat refugees.
The country is at a crossroads right now, plagued by an economic downturn. Their football body is trying desperately to wash off the taint of corruption with a former administrator fleeing the country to avoid arrest.
Just before the World Cup started, Modric and Lovren were charged with perjury in a related case. They were further plagued by internal issues after striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home for refusing to come off the bench in their opening game.
Their exploits would fit no country better than Croatia because over there football is so much more than a game.
One of the founding myths of Croatia is that the war that gave birth to the nation was started off by a football match. Internal tensions were high when, in 1990, Croats and Serbs clashed during a match between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb.
One of the enduring images of that riot is that of their future captain Zvonimir Boban kicking a policeman, trying to save his fellow Croats from the Yugoslav police. Eight years after that, Boban led Croatia into a World Cup semifinal, where they lost to France. On Sunday, once again, France stands between Croatia and its destiny.