On This Day One Year Ago, Croatia Became World Cup Finalists

Daniela Rogulj

Slobodan Kadić

July 15, 2019 – On July 15, 2018, the Croatia national football team achieved the greatest success of any sports team in the history of the country. On July 15, 2018, Croatia became World Cup finalists.

Like most Croatians around the world, I’ll never forget July 15th – and the emotions that come with remembering that date one year on are just as overwhelming. 

However, also like many Croatians around the world, I initially presumed that a shot at the World Cup final was impossible. For starters, while we’re always full of pride, Croatian fans are also shockingly realistic. Recall, this squad was constantly plagued by poor coaches and lousy luck – curses that not even Luka Modrić could reverse. And at this World Cup, we had to overcome Argentina (and Lionel Messi) to get out of our group. Impossible. 

But that summer in Russia carried a different aura. We had a new coach that Croatians could relate to, even though we knew nothing about him before he was called to lead the team through the biggest tournament in four years.  After an atrocious year under Ante Čačić which killed our dreams of advancing to the World Cup at all, Zlatko Dalić restored our faith in the simple fact that he knew tactics and where to position our players who fought for the biggest football clubs in the world. But most of all, Dalić revived a team that was dull, disoriented, and disheartened from the failures experienced before, and returned a wave of positivity to the squad that had been missing since Croatia’s World Cup bronze in 1998. Croatia under Dalić had a spark in their eye – and one that ultimately lit the way for the country’s first ever World Cup final. 

Croatia’s road to the final really showed its legs once they tragically topped Argentina 3:0 in the group stage – a result that is still hard to believe one year later. Croatia finished at the top of their group, and fans around the world gained faith in the fact that if Croatia continued to play like this for the remainder of the tournament, they could upset anyone. 


But as all things Croatian require a splash of drama, this team took the long road to the final, one that came with twists, turns, and numerous bouts of nausea. In the round of 16, Croatia met Denmark. While Denmark was a team that shouldn’t have been underestimated, considering they flaunt Tottenham superstar Christian Erikson in their ranks, Croatia was expected to pass without too much difficulty – though that quickly changed after Jorgensen scored for Denmark in the first minute of the game. Croatia was lucky to equalize from a Mandžukić goal three minutes later, but their wearied bodies on the pitch denied them another goal, and the game went to extra time. Croatia had the chance to seal the deal after Ante Rebić was fouled in the penalty area, though captain Luka Modrić missed – and Croatian fans began familiarizing themselves with that fatal fact that it just wouldn’t be their year. However, heroics from goalkeeper Danijel Subašić saved the day in the penalty shootout – and Croatia secured a spot in the quarter-final against Russia.


Another grueling 90 minutes against the host nation that ended in a tied result pushed Croatia to another extra time, another draw, and another penalty shootout. Croatia’s spark had to fizzle now, I thought. But they were fearless. After fortunately failed penalties from Russia, Ivan Rakitić stepped up last and sent Croatia to their second World Cup semi-final ever. 


Croatia met England in the semi-final, a team also riding a wave of zeal and self-confidence as their fans thought they’d win it all. It was England’s first World Cup semi-final in 28 years. On the eve of the semi-final, journalists around the world questioned if Croatia had the stamina to surpass England, a nation who thought it was their year to bring football home, and who had an advantage over Croatia because their last two games didn’t move to penalties. Croatia was said to be mentally and physically exhausted after brutal battles against Denmark and Russia, and the legs on their fairytale were destined to buckle. 

Many of us worried that the media’s prophecy would be true after Trippier scored for England just five minutes into that historic semi-final at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Croatia’s fatigue hardly carried them through the first half, which ended at 0:1 for England. Even the biggest believers in Croatia questioned if football really was going home to England that year. 


But Croatia’s second wind carried them through the second half, and Ivan Perišić scored the equalizer in the 68th minute. As the clock ticked to the final minute, time stopped for Croatian fans who feared they didn’t have a nerve left to spare to get them through another grueling extra time – especially one that decided their fate in the World Cup final. But with 10 minutes to go, Mario Mandžukić confirmed just why he is our Super Mario – and scored the goal that assured Croatia’s first ever World Cup final. The country erupted into madness. 

I remember the day of the World Cup final clear as day and as a total blur – like a dream you wake up wondering if it actually happened. The nation was more united than ever, we were honored, full of spirit, and football fans around the world had jumped on the Croatia bandwagon to watch the happy ending of our fairytale unfold. And in the end, it didn’t matter that the outcome wasn’t in Croatia’s favor. 


Slobodan Kadić

Croatia and the powerhouse that is France met in the World Cup final on July 15, 2018, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Decked out in their classic red and white checkers, Croatia came out playing the best football they had all tournament. An unlucky own goal by Mario Mandžukić put France in the lead in the 18th minute, though a left-footed rocket from Ivan Perišić made it 1:1 ten minutes later. 

A dreadful and quite questionable penalty was awarded to France after the referee consulted VAR – and Antonine Griezmann scored for 2:1 at the half. 

Croatia’s chances dimmed after Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe scored in the 59th and 65th minute for 4:1, though Croatia wouldn’t let the negative result stop them from tenaciously fighting through their first World Cup final. Mandžukić managed one more for Croatia in the 69th minute for 4:2, and France ultimately won the World Cup title. 

Though Croatia was defeated by a result that didn’t correctly reflect their heroics on the pitch, they had just achieved the greatest sporting success in the history of their country. 

While Croatia failed to become World Champions, their team did feature the best player of the World Cup, Luka Modrić.

“I’m sad because we lost, but I’m proud of everything we did in Russia. The feelings are mixed, but surely when the time passes, we will become aware of the incredible success we’ve achieved,” Modrić said a year ago, and went on to win every individual football award that season. 


Slobodan Kadić

And thanks to Croatia’s hero’s welcome in Zagreb which continued throughout the country for weeks, you’d think Croatia won it all.


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