Kramaric: I still get goosebumps thinking about Russia 2018

  • Croatia are second in Group H in European qualifying

  • They face a ‘virtual final’ against Russia on Sunday

  • Andrej Kramaric discusses the 2018 finals and his 2022 hopes

European qualifying Group H for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ is the place to go if you are looking for tension and drama across the last two matchdays. Leaders Russia and 2018 runners-up Croatia will do battle for top spot, and on Sunday the latter will have home advantage against the former.

TeamPlayedPointsGD
Russia819+8
Croatia817+10
Slovakia810+1
Slovenia8100
Malta85-9
Cyprus85-10

"We’ve got a good feeling about our chances – the most important thing is that we have our fate in our own hands," a bullish Andrej Kramaric told FIFA.com. "We believe in our own strengths, we’ve been playing very well over the past two months, we’ve got a strong bond in the squad and a lot of very experienced players who know how to handle the kind of pressure that comes with these matches. We obviously need to bring that all out on to the pitch, beginning on Thursday against Malta.

"A win over Malta is an absolute must, since without the three points there, the Russia result will probably be irrelevant. We can’t afford any slip-ups. We need to be 100 per cent on our game right from the off. We need to be active, aggressive and have the right shape – and if we can do all that, then our quality will give us the edge that we need."

Zlatko Dalic’s team are unbeaten in their last seven World Cup qualifiers (with five wins and two draws) and have kept a clean sheet five times in their last six away qualifiers. "If we can get the three points then we can turn our focus to Russia, and I’m sure that everyone is looking forward to that match," Kramaric said. "Ninety minutes with a spot at the World Cup at stake – you can’t get any more exciting than that."

Sunday’s opponents will bring back happy memories of Croatia’s finest hour on football’s biggest stage. In the summer of 2018, the Vatreni made it all the way to the Final, where they came up just short in a 4-2 loss to France. Two rounds earlier, however, they had managed to squeeze past the host nation 6-5 on penalties.

"It was a period in time that will go down in the annals – not just in Croatia but around the world," the 30-year-old said. “I get the feeling that fans across the globe were delighted that the outsiders from a little country like Croatia managed to beat footballing giants like Argentina and England and make it through to the World Cup Final.

"It’s still an incredible feeling when I think back to it now. There are so many memories that I can cherish – every win and every celebration, the dramatic penalty shoot-outs against Denmark and Russia, the incredible victory over England, and then the disappointment mixed with pride after our defeat in the Final.

"I’ll never forget the incredible atmosphere within the team throughout the tournament, and then the unbelievable parade through the streets in Croatia, where more than 500,000 people turned out to welcome us home with so much emotion, pride and tears in their eyes. It took us five hours to drive from the airport to the main square in Zagreb, and the streets were lined with people all the way. I still get goosebumps when I think back to those moments.”

Those same fans could well prove to be the 12th man on Sunday in the decisive match, since the stadium in Split is set to be full capacity once again after the pandemic. "All of the tickets were sold out within a day,” said the Hoffenheim man. “People can hardly wait to see a big match like this one on home soil. We’ll be able to feel their support throughout the whole 90 minutes, and that will help us get through any tough passages of play." If Croatia do manage to secure their World Cup berth on Sunday evening, then coach Dalic will be able to look back with pride at having brought through a whole new crop of players. After the World Cup in Russia, many of the golden generation, including Mario Mandzukic, Vedran Corluka, Danijel Subasic and Ivan Rakitic, retired, with youngsters having to be blooded.

"They bring a whole new level of energy and ambition, and at the moment we have a decent blend of youth and experience in the squad,” said Kramaric. “They are obviously going to suffer some setbacks and learn from them, as was the case with us in the tournaments prior to the World Cup. "We took a lot from EURO 2020 this year, and I think that for the players who didn’t have any big-tournament experience, it was good for them to go through something like that, with the highs and lows we had last summer.

"There are still some very important elements from the Russia squad, not least captain Luka Modric, who is still on top form for Real and for Croatia, and players like [Ivan] Perisic, [Marcelo] Brozovic, [Dejan] Lovren, [Domagoj] Vida, [Mateo] Kovacic and also me, who have experience of a World Cup. For some of us, Qatar might be the last tournament, but not for others. That’s the way football is."

"In general, though, we have a lot of sporting talent in Croatia, and not just in football – we have plenty of World and European champions, Olympic medal-winners and globally successful athletes in so many different disciplines. "We’ve always been at the top of the tree in team ball sports – we have the highest number of NBA Hall-of-Famers outside the USA, we were Olympic gold medal-winners in handball and water polo, and we made the semis or the final at the football World Cup twice in 20 years. That’s incredible for a population of just four million.

"We’ve got a good system in place with experienced coaches, and there is a real sense of pride about representing our little country on the world stage. When we pull on the red-and-white jersey, we feel as if the whole country is right behind us and that we can beat any one, because we’ve seen the likes of Drazen Petrovic, Davor Suker, Toni Kukoc, Janica Kostelic and many more do it before us. I feel humbled and honoured to be part of a generation that inspired so many kids with what we managed to achieve in 2018."