It is an incredible time to be in Croatia, and I doubt there is a country around the globe that has more passion than Croatia when it comes to football. As I posted in a recent video (below), in life and in death, Croats are the world champions of celebration.
But this year’s run to the World Cup Final seems a little different, to me at least, as the hope of the underdog of 2018 has been replaced with something else – belief.
When I wrote the text for the Croatian National Tourist Board to accompany the promotional video featuring the World Cup stars last time, I called it Take a Tour of Champions in the Tiny Country Which Dared to Dream.
And what a dream it was! The young, tiny country of 4 million with the most passionate fans at Russia 2018 defied the odds again and again, eventually reaching the final itself, before being finally beaten 4-2 by France.
An incredible 550,000 fans waited hours to line the streets of Zagreb to welcome their heroes home, and Croatia won the hearts of millions all over the globe for their efforts both on and off the pitch.
Fast forward to 2022 and, although the Croatian team was arguably stronger than last time around, even though they only just qualified, the main hype surrounded the last hurrahs of Messi and Ronaldo, with Brazil the strong favourites.
Things started inauspicously with a goalless draw with Morocco (not the terrible result it perhaps appeared at the time, given that Morocco beat both Spain and Portugal to reach the other semi-final with France). A thrashing of Canada, inspired perhaps by the Canadian coach’s promise to ‘F’ with Croatia, was followed by another goalless draw with Belgium, which should have been a defeat – at least if Lukaku had known where the goal was.
And then the steel emerged. First Japan, and then favourites Brazil, were cast aside, both on penalties. A new hero, Dominik Livakovic, emerged and is being touted as the new Minister of Defence after his goalkeeping heroics, including an astonishing 4 penalty shoot-out saves. Livakovic is not the only one to attract the interest of the big clubs, with 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol one of the players of the tournament.
And how can one mention Croatia without their talisman Luka Modric, also playing his last World Cup? The spark that makes Croatia tick, Modric has been an inspiration for club and country for as long as we can remember, and he will be desperate to finish with a winning medal. Perhaps all the more so, as Croatian media report, that the final will take place on December 18, 31 years to the day since a 6-year-old Luka lost his beloved grandfather, with whom he used to herd goats, as he was murdered by Serbs in the Homeland War.
‘All’ that stands in the way of Modric and co lifting the trophy is Messi’s Argentina – a man on borrowed time and a mission of his own – and a potential repeat of the 2018 final, unless Morocco can pull off one more shock to become the first African team to reach the final.
Four years ago, that might have been a daunting task for the tiny country which dared to dream, but the 2022 Croatia team – and the country in general – are so full of belief, it would almost be a shock if Croatia did not go on and win. This Croatian team has shown guts, passion, precision and a never-say-die attitude. Someone told me that Croatia has only been ahead in 8% of the matches so far.
And yet, here there are, on the cusp of history. It is not how much you are ahead during the match, but at the final whistle.
Good luck to all my Croatian friends, it is sure to be one hell of a night.
What is it like to live in Croatia? An expat for 20 years, you can follow my series, 20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years, starting at the beginning – Business and Dalmatia.
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