Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.
While the top half of the World Cup draw is business as usual – featuring Brazil and France – there’s quite a lot of shock at the other. Following Russia’s victory over Spain, there was an overwhelming string of tweets explaining the situation in the weaker draw, which made it sound like an international minnow was heading for the final.
That’s still being done now, as Croatia, Russia, England and Sweden compete for a spot in the showpiece game. However, writing off the Croatians as some sort of lucky finalist doesn’t give them credit. There’s a squad packed with talent there; their midfield alone comes from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter. With a member of Europe’s meanest defence and two Juventus forwards, Croatia are the real deal. They may be waiting 20 years for a strong World Cup run, but this side looks capable.
We should look back with more shock at their recent tournament displays, which have seen far too many early exits. That’s the weight that burdens Croatia ahead of their clash with Russia in Sochi on Saturday. They’ve had impressive options for 10 years, but tournament success has never arrived. Croatia could be about to change that, as they look to forget a decade of international failures.
Croatia 1-1 Turkey (1-3 on Penalties)
Croatia’s modern golden generation were seen to take over, as a member of the 1998 World Cup side took charge. Slaven Bilic helped change Croatian – and English – football during the Euro 2008 campaign. His first two years in charge saw a lot of momentum surround the team, and that carried in to the tournament in Austria and Switzerland. They won all three group games, seeing off Austria, Germany and Poland to secure top spot in their group.
A hard fought clash with Turkey followed, and Croatia were strong for 118 minutes in that quarter-final. They must have been confident of doing well at the tournament, and that would have only grown after Ivan Klasnic scored a 119th minute strike to put Croatia ahead. A semi-final rematch with Germany loomed, a side who they had already beaten. A potential run to the final was on the cards, until Semih Semturk scored three minutes later to make it 1-1.
Croatia suffered from that late blow, and Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mladen Petric missed from the spot. Turkey won 3-1 in the shoot-out, and booked a spot in the semis. They tested Germany in a 3-2 defeat, which would have left Croatia feeling like this was a missed opportunity. They were still applauded on their return home, and Bilic renewed his deal as he looked to the 2010 World Cup.
Spain 1-0 Croatia, Euro 2012
Of course, Croatia never made it to the next World Cup, so Bilic’s second and final international tournament came at Euro 2012. The optimism which acted as the springboard in 2008 had evaporated, and they ended up in a difficult group in Poland and Ukraine. They opened up with a victory over the Republic of Ireland, but meetings with Italy and Spain were to come.
After a 1-1 draw with the Italians, the group was tight ahead of the finale. Italy took control of their final match against the Irish to move on to five points. Croatia and Spain were level on four, but the Croatians had to win in order to make it out of their group. However, the Spanish were defending European and World champions, on their way to Euro 2012 success.
After a tense game, Jesus Navas broke the deadlock in the 88th minute to secure a 1-0 win. That result, combined with Italy’s victory, left Croatia heading home after just three matches. That brought an end to Bilic’s time as Croatia boss, and this group’s success in 2008 was just a distant memory.
Croatia 1-3 Mexico, World Cup 2014
Two years on, it was another group exit for Croatia, who were now coached by Niko Kovac, after Bilic’s replacement Igor Stimac struggled. However, the Croatians lost their opening game in Brazil to the host nation. A string of controversial refereeing decisions played against Croatia, who followed up that defeat with an impressive 4-0 thumping of Cameroon in their second game.
Just as Croatia saw shoots of recovery in this side, they faltered. Just as they had two years before, they lost a must-win final game and crashed out of the tournament. They were solid for the most part in the clash with Mexico, getting to the 70th minute with the scores level. However, Mexico scored three times in 10 minutes to book their place in the last 16, despite Ivan Perisic scoring a late consolation goal.
That marked 16 years since their run to the semis of the 1998 World Cup, since then they’d never made it past the group stage. Aside from the tournament they missed in 2010, three group exits brought just two victories, as this talented generation of players once again came up short.
Croatia 0-1 Portugal (AET), Euro 2016
Perhaps Croatia’s best ever chance of tournament success came two years ago, as they finally ended their group stage struggles. They made it through their pool with seven points, which included a 2-1 victory over Spain in their final game. That win sent them top, which helped to erase memories of their collapse against the Czech Republic, amid fan unrest.
Their football association drew the wrath of fans, who took it out on the players just as they began to peak. They had changed their manager again – with Ante Cacic coming in. However, he had a positive impact, and Croatia were many people’s dark horses in an open tournament. They lost to eventual winners Portugal, after Ricardo Quaresma’s 117th minute winner. Just as they looked like tournament contenders, they crashed out again. They had a favourable run of Poland and Wales ahead of them, but Croatia disappointed again.
Croatia vs Russia, World Cup 2018
This time around, Croatia seem to be making the most of their opportunity. Three wins in the group and a shoot-out win over Denmark have brought them to the quarter-finals. It’s their first last eight appearance in 10 years, with the potential for a first semi-final in 20. Can they recreate the 1998 heroics with a victory over the hosts? Years of disappointment may burden them, but with their talent the last four should be no shock.
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