Despite only gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and joining FIFA the following year, Croatia already have considerable pedigree in the international arena and have become accustomed to taking their place at the biennial footballing festivals.
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ they were disappointed to go out after the group stage, a consequence of two draws with Japan and Australia that followed defeat in their opening fixture, 1-0 to Brazil. In a do-or-die struggle with Australia, the 2-2 scoreline prevented them making progress and the red cards shown to Josip Simunic and Dario Simic completed an unhappy exit.
They had been far more impressive in the qualifiers, completing their section undefeated with seven wins in ten games. Moreover they scored 21 goals with only five conceded. Sweden had finished with the same points total but lost out because Croatia had by far the better of things in the head-to-head combat. The crucial game came at the start of the campaign when Darijo Srna's goal won the contest with Sweden in Gothenburg. The same player then decided the return game, this time from the penalty spot.
Reaching the finals for the third successive time was no mean achievement but Croatia have not been able to reach the heights of their first time in elite world company. That came in France 1998 when the Balkan nation harvested the fruits of an outstanding generation, the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Robert Jarni and Igor Stimac, who had helped Yugoslavia win the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 and were approaching their prime 11 years later.
The result was a thrilling run to the semi-finals, which included a 3-0 quarter-final victory over Germany before France beat Miroslav Blazevic's side one step from the biggest stage of all. There was some consolation with a 2-1 win against the Netherlands in the play-off for third place, where Suker struck his seventh goal of the finals to secure the Golden Shoe.
That set a template the Croatians were unable to follow four years later even though they had again dealt with the qualifying challenge quite comfortably, finishing top of their group without any defeats. Their Korea/Japan 2002 results were a curious mix: defeats against Mexico and Ecuador bookending a 2-1 victory over Italy. They went home early as they did also at UEFA EURO 2004.
After Germany 2006, former defensive stalwart Slaven Bilic was
named as successor to Zlatko Kranjcar and a surge of optimism soon
took hold among his countrymen. The new coach, a member of the
successful 1998 team, had an immediate impact and Croatia stormed
to a place at the EURO 2008 finals, finishing above Russia and
England and beating the latter home and away.
Bilic has built his team around a core of players he used to coach at U-21 level, like Niko Kranjcar, son of the former manager, Vedran Corluka and the currently-injured, Brazilian-born attacker Eduardo da Silva.