Until a few weeks ago, Croatia's qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ had suffered barely a hiccup. The East Europeans’ five victories and a draw from six matches included a marquee 2-0 victory over neighbours Serbia, and a creditable 1-1 draw away to closest group rivals Belgium.
But without warning, the Croat express was derailed on 7 June, as coach Igor Stimac’s side fell to a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Scotland. It was the unfancied Bravehearts’ first win in qualifying.
“We were heading in the right direction, but the Scotland game was a setback," Ivan Perisic, still fuming about the early summer slip-up, told FIFA.com. "We played really badly, and that shouldn’t be happening,"
The Vatreni (literally the Fiery Ones) are now three points off group leaders Belgium with three matches to play. “We have to win the lot, so our sole focus for now is the Serbia match," declared Perisic, refusing to be distracted by the potentially decisive head-to-head with the Red Devils in October.
The midfielder has appeared in five qualifiers to date, scoring his first and to date only goal for his country against the Belgians.
“We have a good group at the moment with first-class players, and we’re worth a place at the World Cup," the player continued. "But it's easier said than done. I hope we make it."
For that to happen, another victory over neighbouring Serbia is all but a must. The Croats won the first meeting in March in front of their home crowd thanks to goals from Bundesliga stars Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich and Perisic’s Wolfsburg team-mate Ivica Olic.
Perisic joined Olic at Die Wölfe (The Wolves), his second German top-flight club, in January this year. The 24-year-old was born in Split in the former Yugoslavia and came up through the ranks in France with Sochaux, moving first to Belgium and then to Borussia Dortmund in 2011. He was part of the double winning squad in 2011/12, but the first half of the next campaign proved unsatisfactory, and the man who names Zinedine Zidane as his idol switched to Wolfsburg for a reported €7.5m.
“Basically, I wasn't playing as often as I wanted to in Dortmund, so I took the decision to move on," Perisic declared. "However, I had a few problems with a string of injuries in my first half-year and lost almost three months. But I’ve put it behind me now. We will start again from scratch."
The versatile midfielder has begun the new campaign well, adding his name to the score-sheet in Wolfsburg's first competitive fixture of the term, a German cup first-round tie. “It was a perfect start," he acknowledged, “but the most important thing is that I stay fit and healthy, and hopefully come through the season without injury. I want to achieve the maximum possible with Wolfsburg, and help the national team reach Brazil."
Perisic’s progress at club level can only be realistically measured in a few months’ time, but in terms of his FIFA World Cup aspirations, the alarm bells are ringing right now. When Croatia meet Serbia on 6 September, the three points are not the only prize at stake.
“It's always a really special match, because everyone knows the history behind it," he said. "It's the biggest game of the lot for the men and women in the street. But if we give it everything we have in Serbia, we can come away with a good result."
Top ten regulars
After that, Group A leaders Belgium visit Croatia on 11 October, before the Vatreni conclude their qualifying campaign in Scotland.
“Going to the World Cup would mean a lot to me," Perisic stated. “A World Cup in Brazil has to be a career highlight for any player. Everyone wants to be there. A World Cup in Brazil only comes along every 50 years. The best players in the world come from Brazil, and the new stadiums look really magnificent."
Croatia and their big-name stars such as Luka Modric and captain Darijo Srna will not be short of confidence as they approach the immediate challenges, although their FIFA World Cup record has been patchy to say the least: after sensationally finishing third in 1998, they packed for home after the group stage in both 2002 and 2006, and failed to qualify for the 2010 edition. However, the Vatreni have rarely slipped out of the top ten in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in recent times.
“In my opinion, we're still one of the best nations in the world," Perisic confidently told FIFA.com.
By mid-October, we will know whether deeds have matched words, because missing out on the FIFA World Cup for the second time in a row would plunge the proud footballing nation on the Adriatic into despondency.