An independent nation since 1991, Croatia can already look back on a short but successful international football history. They have taken part in three FIFA World Cups™, and reached the quarter finals at UEFA EURO 1996 and the 2008 edition of the continental finals.
The young nation's finest hour to date was third place at France 1998, though the men in the chequered shirts subsequently failed to get beyond the group stage at both Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006. South Africa 2010 was the first time Croatia failed to qualify for a FIFA World Cup, and naturally it came as an enormous disappointment for all concerned.
The Vatreni are now hoping to put that setback behind them by qualifying directly for EURO 2012 in Poland/Ukraine. Slaven Bilic's charges face the likes of Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta in European Zone Group F, which makes their mission feasible according to Ivan Rakitic.
"Expectations in our country are huge," the Schalke playmaker told FIFA.com. "We've got plenty to improve on and it's up to us to forget about the mistakes we made in World Cup qualifying and change things for the better. I think we got a decent draw, so now we have to win those games and make sure we qualify for the EURO."
Capped 28 times at senior level, Rakitic has been with last season's Bundesliga runners-up since 2007, establishing himself as a key member of coach Felix Magath's squad with 11 goals in 83 Bundesliga appearances and a further 22 assists.
The 22-year-old enjoys similar standing for his country. As the only member of the squad to appear in all ten qualifiers for South Africa 2010, the lively midfielder chipped in with three goals but was ultimately helpless as England and Ukraine took the top two spots in the group, leaving the Croatians to watch the greatest show on earth from the comfort of their living rooms.
Rakitic is now hoping to remain a major part of coach Bilic's plans as his charges begin their quest to qualify for EURO 2012. "It's up to the coach of course, but I'll be doing everything I possibly can to make sure I'm a part of the squad which hopefully will qualify for the European Championship."
Croatia will be looking to get their campaign off to a positive start as they travel to Latvia this coming Friday before entertaining 2004 champions Greece in Zagreb four days later.
"We need to iron out the little things that went wrong in World Cup qualifying," Rakitic said. "We can't afford any more matches like the ones against Ukraine (0-0 and 2-2). That said, I'm convinced that we have the quality to play a major role at major tournaments. We need to give 100 per cent, and if we can do that I'm sure we'll be there in Poland/Ukraine."