World Cup 2018: Croatia’s second Golden Generation has almost achieved the impossible
As the final whistle blew in the Luzhniki stadium, England’s players sank to their knees while Croatian celebrations exploded. The luminescent lights of the scoreboard provided the backdrop, reading Croatia 2 England 1 (AET), and confirming what many Croatians still couldn’t believe. Back in Zagreb, fan zones erupted as the country began a party which lasted long into the night.
This was an achievement beyond the wildest dreams of any player, fan, or person affiliated with the small Mediterranean country. Croatia had reached the World Cup final, defying all pre-tournament expectations and predictions. Now a date with destiny and an opportunity to make history awaits.
It has been exactly 20 years since Croatia’s ‘golden generation’ suffered severe disappointment with a 2-1 semi-final defeat to France in the 1998 World Cup. Riding a wave of expectation while entering the 1998 tournament, the Croatians boasted an enviable squad with players such as Zvonimir Boban, Davor Sukur, and Slaven Bilic all at the peak of their careers. However, the French proved too strong on home soil and would go on to lift the trophy for the first time in their history. Croatia defeated the Netherlands and finished third in the tournament.
Croatia’s ‘golden generation’ never recovered from the disappointment of losing to France and failed to qualify for Euro 2000, finishing third in their qualifying group behind Yugoslavia and the Republic of Ireland. By the time the next World Cup came around in 2002, many of the players from the ‘golden generation’ had retired and the Croatians whimpered out at the group stages.
Therefore it seems very appropriate that this squad dubbed the ‘second golden generation’, has the opportunity to seek revenge against the same opponents that conquered their first ‘golden generation’ on the biggest stage exactly two decades later. However, their journey to the promised land of a first ever World Cup final has not been straightforward.
The Croatian squad flew to Russia on the back of an unconvincing qualifying campaign. Finishing second in a relatively weak group behind Iceland, the Croatians had to navigate a two-legged playoff against Greece to earn their place in the 2018 World Cup. A superb 4-1 victory in Zagreb all but secured qualification after the first leg. A 0-0 draw followed in Athens and ensured a comfortable aggregate win to send Croatia to the World Cup.
Entering the tournament, many recognized the strength of the Croatian squad, but few had them down to progress further than the first or second knockout round. With the majority of their World Cup squad playing their club football in Italy, a strong defensive setup was always going to be the core of this side. However, Croatia also boasted some world-class talent with the likes of Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic all capable of being game changers.
Placed in a group with Argentina, Nigeria, and Iceland, many predicted Croatia would do well to escape as runners-up with their results against Nigeria and Iceland key. They began with a comfortable 2-0 victory over a poor Nigeria side and sat at the top of the group after one game as Iceland and Argentina split the points in a surprising result.
Entering the second game against Argentina, Croatia knew that a draw would be enough to leave them in an excellent position for qualification to the knockout rounds. However, an exceptional performance by the Croatians, perhaps their best of the tournament so far, saw them cruise past a very poor Argentina side 3-0 and all but guarantee passage to the last 16. A last-minute winner in a 2-1 win over Iceland in their final group game saw Croatia enter the knockout stages as one of only three teams with a perfect record in the tournament.
Their reward for topping the group was avoiding France in the last 16 and entering the so-called ‘easy’ side of the draw. A date with Denmark awaited the Croatians in the Nizhny Novgorod stadium on July 2nd. Croatia hadn’t qualified for a World Cup quarter-final since 1998 but expectations began to rise back in Zagreb as hosts Russia defeated Spain the previous night, leaving their side of the draw wide open.
A frantic opening five minutes saw Denmark take the lead after a matter of seconds only for Croatia to peg them back three minutes later. The remainder of the game was played with extreme caution from both nations due to the early goals. Extra time couldn’t separate the sides and a penalty shootout saw Ivan Rakitic net the decisive spot kick to send Croatia through 3-2 after penalties.
Croatia's victory gained them a World Cup quarter-final place and a match against the host nation Russia. The Russians had entered the tournament as the lowest ranked team but had defied expectations to this point. They had recorded some impressive results, putting five past Saudi Arabia, three past Egypt, and eliminating one of the pre-tournament favourites, Spain, on penalties. Croatia knew they were in for a battle – against both the strong Russian team and the home crowd.
A tense match saw Russia take the lead after 31 minutes, only for Croatia to pull level just eight minutes later. For the second time in a row, for both nations, the game went to extra time. Croatia would be right to think they had it won when Domagoj Vida scored in the 100th minute, sparking wild celebrations. However, the host nation fought back and equalized in the 115th minute. Yet another penalty shootout for Croatia and Russia ensued and once again Ivan Rakitic scored the decisive kick to send Croatia into the World Cup semi-final with a 4-3 win on penalties.
Croatia had now become only the second side in World Cup history to win two consecutive penalty shootouts (Argentina in 1990 are the other team). They had also equalled their best ever World Cup performance by reaching the semi-finals where they would face England. Prior to the match, questions about the fitness of the Croatian side were brought up as they had endured two very tough games in a row, both of which went all the way to penalties.
However, the Croatians responded perfectly to these questions against a well-organized English team. For the third game in a row, Croatia went to extra time. A Kieran Trippier free-kick had put England ahead before Ivan Perisic equalized for the Croatians. They had now come from behind in every knockout game to force an additional 30 minutes. Just when it seemed that the Croatians were headed for a hat-trick of penalty shootouts, Mario Mandzukic rose to head in the winning goal for a 2-1 victory after extra time.
Croatia’s journey to the World Cup final has been long, tough, and tiring. However, their achievement in reaching this stage of the tournament is nothing less than exceptional. With a population of 4.1 million, Croatia could become the smallest European nation to lift the World Cup since its inception in 1930.
To put this into perspective, the population of Croatia is approximately 322 times less than the population of India (1.32 billion), 50 times less than the population of Brazil (207 million), and 20 times less than the population of 2014 World Cup winners, Germany (82.6 million).
Whatever happens against France in the final, the small Balkan country has been on an extraordinary journey and this group of players has most certainly earned the title of Croatia’s ‘second golden generation’.