The only significance June 13, 2014 holds for world football is that the 2014 FIFA World Cup began that day in Brazil. For a number of Croatian footballers though, it features the start of a journey that will come full circle when Croatia face Brazil on Friday.
When Brazil kicked off a home World Cup with a routine 3-1 win against Croatia that day, the latter were but an afterthought. Yet looking back, it was the initiation of a number of members from Croatia’s second golden generation to World Cup football. Starting that day was Luka Modric, who had made the squad when Croatia last qualified for the World Cup in 2006, but had not started a game.
Also in the starters’ list were Ivan Perisic. who scored their only goal against Japan on Monday, Dejan Lovren and Mateo Kovacic. Another starter from Monday Marcelo Brozovic was on the bench while Domagoj Vida was an unused substitute in both matches.
With the exception of Kovacic somehow, still only 28 every other name from that list will be playing the World Cup for the last time. And the journey in between, when they took Croatia from group stage also-rans to a serious threat to any team in the tournament, has been memorable.
The highlight, of course, will always be that improbable run to the final of the 2018 edition, when they wore down opponents by taking every knockout game they played beyond regulation time. After two penalty shootout victories and an extra time winner over England, they fell in the final to an imperious France. Their penalty shootout victory against Japan one of the fittest teams of this tournament showed that their reputation for wearing down opponents over two hours is still intact. Brazil would do well to be weary.
Regardless of when their World Cup journey ends, this generation will have redefined what football means to Croatia. Football has always been part of the nation’s psyche the popular legend goes that the Yugoslav wars that birthed the modern Croatian state started with a particularly violent and riot-filled match between the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbian Red Star Belgrade.
Then, in 1998, the newly-formed nation, still finding its place in the world, celebrated with pride as the Croatian side led by Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker reached the semifinals of the World Cup in France.
That 1998 side is the only competition that this generation faces in the debate over their place in history. “In terms of achievements, both the semi-final in 1998 and the final in 2018 were more than unexpected,” says Dario Brentin, a researcher in sports and politics in the Balkans.
“And both were celebrated equally in Croatia. Arguably, Croatia was politically in a much more difficult political situation compared to 2018 and hence that semi-final had additional political weight. On the other hand, a final is a final, so one could say simply by the fact of taking one step further that the 2018 generation usurped the 1998 generation in the overall hierarchy of Croatian sporting successes.”
One thing is unquestionable though. The current crop has influenced the notion of Croatian national identity every bit as much as that 1998 side. “Unquestionably both events influenced Croatian national identity and have become central in the way Croatians talk about themselves and their country,” says Brentin.
“It has become one of the sacred centres of society and whilst the generation of 1998 might have been instrumental in the establishment of that narrative, the generation of 2018 has made sure that this narrative will remain of significance for the foreseeable future.”
Of course, this debate could very well be set to rest by the time Qatar bids goodbye to the World Cup. All the Croatians need to do is extra-time their way to three more victories.