- Croatia still basking in achievement of reaching World Cup Final
- Vatreni climbed 16 places to fourth in the latest World Ranking
- Zlatko Dalic and Luka Modric staying on to lead a new generation
“I still feel like we are all living our dreams,” Zlatko Dalic told FIFA.com recently. And if Croatia remains reluctant to emerge from its blissful FIFA World Cup™ slumber, it is easy to understand why.
When Dalic described the events during and after Russia 2018 as “the best sporting period of my life”, it seemed he spoke for an entire nation. Croatia were one of the tournament’s great success stories, after all, enjoying an unprecedented run to the Final and beating the likes of Argentina, England and their Russian hosts en route. Indeed, while the Trophy ultimately eluded them, captain Luka Modric left Moscow clutching the adidas Golden Ball, and returned with his team-mates to crowds of over half-a-million on the streets of Zagreb.
“Watch the footage and you'll get the feeling that we won the World Cup,” Dalic reflected. “We drove for six hours from the airport to the main square in Zagreb, and people were standing for ten hours in the sun just to see the players' bus for one minute.”
Croatia have also continued to reap the rewards of their World Cup success, with Modric and Dalic among the finalists for The Best FIFA Football Awards and the team rising 16 places to a record-equalling position of fourth in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Croatia’s World Cup in numbers
- 3 straight wins in the group phase – their longest-ever streak of World Cup victories
- 2 successive penalty shootout triumphs – the first team to achieve this since Argentina in 1990
- 4.2 million inhabitants made Croatia the second-least populace nation, after Uruguay, to reach a World Cup Final
- 20 Croatia’s position in the World Ranking ahead of Russia 2018, making them the lowest-ranked team to reach the Final since the system’s introduction
- 4 The team’s current Ranking position – they now sit above the likes of Spain, Germany, Argentina and England
Now, having scaled such lofty and uncharted heights, Croatia face a testing question: where do we go from here? The temptation to bow out on a high was powerful for the squad’s elder statesmen, and it proved irresistible for Mario Mandzukic, Danijel Subasic – the team’s talismanic centre-forward and penalty-saving saviour – and veteran defender Vedran Corluka.
There were suggestions, too, that Modric – with his 33rd birthday beckoning – may join these fellow stalwarts in international retirement, and that Dalic himself might call it a day. “I had decided to leave after the American tour (ahead of Russia 2018),” admitted the former Al Ain coach. “But when we returned from Russia and when I saw the reaction of the people, when I saw that I would betray those people, I stayed. The other reason was for my players. We were in Russia for so long and, afterwards, we were united. I see that they can do much more.”
Dalic also confirmed that Modric would be fighting on alongside him. "In our conversations, [international retirement] has never been raised,” the Croatia coach said of his captain. “He still has the strength and the team needs him: as a captain, a player and a man. It would be too soon to retire, and the next European Championship is ideal for him.”
But while Modric, Rakitic, Perisic & Co will continue to lead Croatia towards UEFA EURO 2020, a new generation is also emerging. At its forefront are already well-established players such as Ante Rebic and Mateo Kovacic, both 24, while the job of filling the Mandzukic-sized void seems certain to fall to Andrej Kramaric (27).
Among the younger age group, big things have been predicted for Ante Coric (21), with the skilful attacking midfielder having just completed a move to Roma. There is also plenty of emerging talent at the back, with towering 21-year-old centre-halves Duje Caleta-Car and Filip Benkovic bought by Marseille and Leicester City over recent months for a combined €35 million.
It all makes for an exciting blend of youth and experience, and with Dalic predicting another “good story” from his team in 2020, who would dare bet against another Croatian fairy tale?