Just 4.2m people, but Croatia make football history

Croatian supporters celebrating early yesterday after their team's 2-1 win against England in the World Cup semi-final football match in Moscow on Wednesday night.
Croatian supporters celebrating early yesterday after their team's 2-1 win against England in the World Cup semi-final football match in Moscow on Wednesday night.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • Almost three decades after Croatia achieved independence in 1991, the young nation and its 22 superb footballers made history in Moscow on Wednesday.

Croatia, with a population of 4.2 million, fewer than Singapore's 5.6 million, beat England 2-1 in extra time to become the smallest country since Uruguay in 1950 to advance to the World Cup final.

"For Croatian football and for Croatia, this is history being written," coach Zlatko Dalic said, as fans went wild in celebration.

Croatia has a rich football history, having kept talents and traditions from its days as part of Yugoslavia.

In 1998, the Croats remarkably advanced to the World Cup semi-finals in their first appearance as an independent nation before losing to eventual champions France. Since then, Croatia have failed to get past the group stage until this year. Yet nobody invites representatives of the Croatian Football Association to explain the secrets of their success; none will talk about the need to follow the Croatian model, to find their own Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic or Mateo Kovacic - who all, unsurprisingly, play their club football outside of Croatia.

There is a good reason for that: Croatian football is in a state of near-permanent chaos. The country's clubs exist hand-to-mouth. Hajduk Split, one of the giants, have twice come close to bankruptcy. There is no road map here. There is no state-of-the-art facility to gather together the very best young players in Zagreb and Split and Dubrovnik.

Croatia's place in the World Cup is not the natural conclusion of an intelligent, long-term project like that of Iceland's when they reached the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

It was simply down to the players who did not stop running, even when their bodies were screaming at them to stop, even when they could not catch their breath.

Sometimes, exceptionally gifted players emerge because of the challenges they face; and truly transcendent talent, like that of Modric, does not require immaculate training fields or a perfectly plotted development pathway to shine.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2018, with the headline 'Just 4.2m people, but Croatia make football history'. Print Edition | Subscribe