Croatia can now look forward to joining the world’s greatest footballing powers in Brazil next summer, following their absence from South Africa 2010. However, their path to the finals was no walk in the park, having only secured qualification after two tense encounters with Iceland in the play-offs. FIFA.com looks back at Croatia’s World Cup qualifying experiences over the past few months.
Emotive duels against neighbours Serbia
Back in July 2011, the Group A draw garnered a great deal of attention when it emerged that Croatia and Serbia, two countries who spent many years locked in civil war, would encounter one another in qualifying.
“It’s always a very special fixture because everyone knows the history. It’s an absolutely top match for the people of both countries,” Ivan Perisic explained to FIFA.com. Captain Darijo Srna added: “I want to stress that, despite our rivalry, the history between our two countries has no place on the pitch. We play football. None of us can change the past, but we can influence the present. We have to set a good example and play a major match together without any scandals.”
And they did exactly that. Both teams fought hard in both matches, but the Croatians emerged as the more mature side. Their 2-0 home win, with goals from Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic, and the 1-1 draw (goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Mandzukic) ended Serbia’s hopes of World Cup qualification, while Croatia’s Fiery Ones could continue to dream of qualifying directly from Group A.
A squad illuminated by world-class names
The Croatia squad is peppered with an array of star players. Top scorer Mandzukic, who also gave his team their 1-0 lead in the play-offs against Iceland, is currently riding on a wave of success. Last season, he not only contributed significantly to Bayern Munich’s historic treble, but was also among the top performers in World Cup qualification.
The same is true of Luka Modric, who has made another leap forward since transferring to Real Madrid in 2012 and has long been a thinker and leader in Croatia’s midfield. However, the team has now been led for many years by its captain, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Srna. The 31-year-old right-back has a wealth of international experience and is expected to lead his team to Sugar Loaf Mountain next summer as well.
Nevertheless, national team coach Niko Kovac knows that the success of the team is not based solely on individual skill, as he explained to FIFA.com shortly after being appointed ahead of the play-offs. “We have really been lacking the very thing that made Croatia formidable in the past. Previously, we were a single unit on the pitch, and I have to say that it doesn’t seem that way right now.” In light of the team’s success against Iceland, Kovac appears to have got the message across to his team.
Negative run of results has little impact
The final Group A table paints a clear picture, with nine points separating Belgium in first place from Croatia in second. Only Group D showed a similarly large gap between the Netherlands and Romania.
However, these positions were not always so clear-cut. After six of ten qualifying matches, Croatia were on course to top the group, with five wins and one draw to their name. However, this was followed by one draw and three defeats, including two home reverses against Scotland (1-0) and Belgium (2-1). Ultimately, Croatia were only able to finish in second in the group, three points ahead of Serbia, thanks in large part to their strong start.
A well-timed change of coach
A day after completing the group matches, Igor Stimac resigned from his post as Croatian national team coach, with former Bundesliga player and previous U-21 coach Kovac replacing Stimac, alongside his brother Robert (as co-head coach).
“Of course, it’s a great challenge, but a very difficult one. A lot is certainly expected of us in Croatia. My team and I are aware of that, and I think we’re reasonably confident,” said the 42-year-old shortly after being appointed. That confidence ultimately proved to be well founded.
Iceland make life difficult
The Croatians may well have welcomed the results of the play-off draw after being drawn against Iceland, ranked down in 46th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. However, the Nordic nation turned out to be formidable adversaries, a fact they had hinted at when defeating Slovenia and Norway in their qualification group and losing only to Switzerland.
The teams played out a goalless draw in the first leg in Reykjavik, despite the hosts playing much of the game with ten men. In the return leg in Zagreb, however, the Croatian players' greater international experience shone through. Despite later picking up a red card that will rule him out of the start of the World Cup, Mandzukic, together with Srna, scored to seal a 2-0 victory and send their country into a collective frenzy.
As a result, Croatia can now look forward to the world’s premier football tournament with relish, and national coach Kovac can hardly wait for next summer’s tournament to begin, as he explained to FIFA.com: “It will be such a spectacle! A World Cup is always a spectacle anyway, but we will be playing in a country that is crazy about football.
"Everything there will probably be all about football, 24 hours a day," he went on. "It’s a long way from Europe and we’ll certainly have to travel a lot once we’re there, but I’m looking forward to it! I’ve already experienced it as a player, but many of my players have not yet experienced a World Cup, so it will definitely be a milestone in their careers.”