World Cup 2018: Can Croatia become the first East European nation to win and end Western Europe's dominance?
The 2018 World Cup at Russia has been a tournament of upsets and thrown up many unexpected results so far. At the start of the tournament, traditional powerhouses like Germany, Brazil, France, Argentina and Spain were dubbed as strong title contenders and expected to go the distance and win the coveted trophy. Meanwhile, England, Belgium, Uruguay and Portugal were deemed as formidable challengers.
Defending champions Germany’s early exit from the group stage left football fans in a state of shock and dismay. Argentina which were given a jolt by the Croatians in the group stage managed to scamper through but could not survive the onslaught of the French in the second round.
Many heartbroken Argentina fans saw the despair on the face of their star Lionel Messi and some other greats who would possibly end their careers without a World Cup Trophy. Uruguay and Portugal scored goals aplenty in the group stage but faltered in the knockouts. Five-time champs Brazil marched onto the quarters but Belgium had the devils luck against them .
Spain who played a boring brand of football fell to host Russia in a tantalizing penalty shootout. So after the heavyweights, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Spain crashed out, only two former champions England and France remained on course for winning the title.
France earned a well-deserved place in the grand finale after topping their group stage. The ‘Les Blues’ knocked out Argentina in the second round, Uruguay in the quarters and defeated a power-packed Belgian side in the semi-finals.
Croatia has been the surprise finalist of the tournament courtesy their giant-killing run at Russia. The Croats topped their group after convincing victories against Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria. The held their nerves when they edged past Denmark and hosts Russia in two nerve raking penalty shootouts. The last twist in the tale came when they handed England a 2-1 defeat in the semis.
Croatia has thereby broken the strong dominance of West European nations at World Cups and became the first Eastern European nation since Hungary in 1954 to book a berth in the title clash. Croatia’s dream march to the title clash has been arguably one of the biggest fairy tale stories in World Cup history.
If we go down in the history of the World Cup finals, the showpiece event has been dominated by South American and European giants. Out of 20 World Cups contested so far, eleven have been won by European nations and nine have been lifted by South American countries.
It is notable that all the European team which have won the World Cup trophy hail from Western European region (West Europe, Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles). All the past World Champions namely Germany, Italy, France, Spain and England are West European soccer heavyweights. If we go a step beyond, the past finalists like Netherlands and Sweden are from North Western Europe and Scandinavia. The only two notable exceptions to the list are Hungary and Czechoslovakia which come from the Central Eastern part of the continent.
Czechoslovakia reached the finals in 1938 and 1962 and Hungary were the losing finalist in the 1938 and 1954. So history could be scripted if Croatia win the finals against France and become the first East European nation to lift the World Cup
WEST EUROPEAN NATIONS AT FIFA WORLD CUP (CHAMPIONS AND FINALISTS)
GERMANY Champions 1954, 1974, 1990 , 2014 Finalist 1966, 1982, 1986, 2002
ITALY Champions - 1934, 1938, 1982 ,2006 Finalist - 1970, 1994
FRANCE Champions 1998 Finalist 2006
SPAIN Champions 2010
ENGLAND Champions 1966
NETHERLANDS Finalist 1974, 1978, 2010
Despite the strong showing by a West European team in the past editions, there have been a few Central and East European nations which made it to World Cup finals and semifinals. However, a title still eluded the region.
CENTRAL AND EAST EUROPEAN NATIONS AT FIFA WORLD CUP
Hungary - Finalist 1938,1954
Czechoslovakia - Finalist 1934,1962
Yugoslavia - Semifinalist 1930,1962
Austria - Semifinalist 1954, 1934
Poland - Semifinalist 1974,1982
Soviet Union - 1966
Bulgaria - Semifinalist 1994
Croatia - Semifinalist - 1998
Turkey - Semifinalist 2002
CROATIA - RECORD AT THE FIFA WORLD CUP
Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and inherited a proud footballing legacy from the erstwhile European football powerhouse. A lot of bloodshed led to Croatia’s independence but the war-torn nation’s spirits weren’t deterred and they made rapid strides for themselves in the global sporting arena.
Croatia can boast of a proud record at the FIFA World Cups. They made the semi-finals in 1998 FIFA World Cup and ended up finishing a creditable third. Croatian striker Davor Suker won the 'Golden Boot' award for netting six goals in the tourney. They also successfully qualified for 2002, 2006 and 2014 editions of the tournament.
The Croats are having their best ever run at the World Cup by reaching their maiden finals in the ongoing 2018 edition at Russia. The Croats also made it to the quarterfinals of the 1996 and 2008 European Championships.
CROATIA NATIONAL TEAM AT 2018 FIFA WORLD CUP
Many football pundits have hailed the present Croatian team to be better than the Davor Suker led ‘Golden Generation’ which made it to the semis in 1998. The Croatian midfield led by Luka Modric is regarded as one of the best in the world. The trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic are immensely creative with their ball passing abilities and build up most of the goal scoring opportunities besides scoring a few stunning goals.
In Mario Mandzukic, they have a goal-poaching centre-forward who is tremendous in the air and lethal inside the penalty box. The defence looks well grouped under Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Šime Vrsaljko. In goal, they have an acrobatic keeper in Danijel Subasic who has made some crucial saves in penalty shootouts against Denmark and Russia.
Croatians have proved to the world that size of a nation really does not matter in global sport. It is the willpower, resilience and natural talent of sportsmen to compete at the very highest level backed by a good supporting culture and robust infrastructure which propels smaller nations to loftier heights in international sports. We have seen numerous examples in the past - Cuba in boxing, West Indies in cricket and Jamaica in athletics where smaller nations have dethroned the big guns and become the undisputed kings of their sport.
One can fairly conclude that Croatia has proved its mantle at the biggest stage in international football. If they go onto win the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals against France on July 15th, it would be one of the biggest success stories in modern day sport and serve as an inspiration to many other underdogs to achieve their dreams.