Croatia travelled to the global footballing showdown in the summer of 2014 with plenty of motivation and their sights set high. They were also handed the honour of contesting the Opening Match against five-time world champions and hosts Brazil. Vatreni (The Fiery Ones) were keen to make a good impression on the world stage and make the knockout stages for the first time since 1998.
They had every reason to be confident as the east Europeans boast a wealth of accomplished players from top European clubs, including Luka Modric of UEFA Champions League winners Real Madrid, Barcelona-bound Ivan Rakitic from Europa League winners Sevilla and Bayern hitman Mario Mandzukic, to name but the most obvious.
You win some, you lose some
But for all the good intentions a sense of gloom has now descended on the Croat camp. Niko Kovac’ team impressively defeated Cameroon 4-0 but a pair of 3-1 defeats to Brazil and Mexico meant they failed to qualify for the last sixteen. “I'm especially sorry for the people in Croatia," defender Dejan Lovren told FIFA, explaining that lack of experience may have been his team’s undoing: "We're young and we've failed to show what we’re really capable of. A handful of the more senior players will leave us now, but we still have lots of quality and we believe in ourselves."
Coach Kovac, who only took the helm in October 2013 immediately before the European qualifying play-offs, also swiftly turned to the future when he spoke to FIFA. "I'm going home with overwhelmingly positive memories. We've shown ourselves to be a new, better organised Croatia with our eyes on the future. We conceded goals due to carelessness in defence, but we're heading in the right direction and we certainly won't give up now. We can hold our heads high and carry on. These things happen in sport. You win some, you lose some."
Focus on France 2016
Kovac feels a storm of criticism from the media at home, where commentators railed at a “debacle", “shipwreck" and “catastrophe", was too harsh. "We played good football and injected a fresh spirit into the tournament."
The 42-year-old and his assistant and brother Robert feel they have the credentials to stay in the post. The next target is UEFA EURO 2016 in France. Malta, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Italy and Norway provide the group opposition when qualifying gets underway in September. "This team has very good prospects. We've made a lot of progress in recent months and we’ll continue down the path we've set ourselves," the head coach declared.