Since gaining independence in 1991 following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia has slowly developed into one of the world’s top soccer nations. The country boasts a rich and colorful history in the sport that is closely intertwined with its turbulent political past.
Panama, Mauritania, Georgia, and Eritrea populations are all relatively comparable to those of Croatia. Together, these four countries have only ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup once, in 2018, when Panama participated in Russia and ultimately went winless in their group while allowing 11 goals.
Croatia is a small country (population: slightly under 4 million) that just became independent in 1991 following the terrible Balkan war that lasted until 1995. However, you wouldn’t know that from how it fought with soccer powerhouse Brazil in the quarterfinals before winning on penalties.
The history of Croatia at the FIFA World Cup is another matter. Croatia has made it to the World Cup semifinals three times in six attempts. Just four years ago, Croatia was within a goal of winning the tournament before succumbing to France in the championship game.
Igor Stimac, who started every game for Croatia at the 1998 World Cup as the team finished in third place, told CNN that the country’s recent past has contributed to the development of elite athletes.
“Our people went through many difficulties in its survival, in its independence, fighting for it, in the aggression which we suffered from our neighbors,” Croatia’s former national team coach Stimac made this statement to CNN in the 2012–2013 season.
“These things are helping to stay with a great mental strength, great discipline, staying humble and surviving with the pride, whatever difficulties are in front of us.
To see the current national team, Srdan Fabijanac, a Croatian football journalist in Doha, Qatar 2022, says the team’s unity has been crucial to the fantastic Vatreni (the ‘Blazers’) run at this World Cup.
Fabijanac says that the team is like a “family.” It comprises experienced players like Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, and Dejan Lovren, as well as new players like Joko Gvardiol and Borna Sosa.
“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.”
However, with Luka Modric as captain and superstar striker Mario Mandzukic among its ranks, Croatia made it to this year’s final against France – only to lose 4-2. Nevertheless, this remains one of Croatia’s most significant sporting achievements and has brought joy to a nation that has been through some tough times recently.
Soccer is deeply ingrained in Croatian culture and provides a common thread for Croatians from all walks of life – no matter their political or religious views. This was evident throughout the World Cup when fans came together behind their team, draped in red-and-white checkerboard flags.