Since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia’s national football team qualified for six World Cups and finished on the podium in three. That in itself is a major accomplishment for a country of 4 million, yet the team’s performance at the 2022 tournament in Qatar which led to the bronze medal was arguably not on the level with that of the 1998 team that achieved the same result, let alone with the group that won silver in 2018. The team led by coach Zlatko Dalić this time around had a defensive, “safety first” approach to its play. This approach helped Croatia make it to the semifinals, but it hurt them once they were at that crucial point.
While the previous two successful Croatian World Cup teams also prided themselves on a solid backline, it was by no means the only thing in their tool box. The 1998 squad had Davor Šuker, the leading scorer of that tournament. In 2018, Croatia had the great Mario Mandžukić score unforgettable goals, like the 2-1 extra-time semifinal winner against England. This time around the team clearly lacked a natural goal scorer. Of course, this particular point is not a criticism against Dalić, who like any other coach has to work with what he has. But the often ultra-defensive tactics, especially those used against Belgium in that torturous final group game, were nothing like Croatia usually like to play. Yes, much of the reason why the team managed to get the scoreless draw that helped them advance to the knockout stages was good defending and excellent saves by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković. But ultimately, it all came down to the Belgian attacker Romelu Lukaku missing three absolute sitters that made the decisive difference. Had that not happened, Croatia’s World Cup journey would have ended unceremoniously in the group stage.
Most of the team’s other matches in Qatar were also lacklustre at the offensive end. The first group game against Morocco was a scoreless draw, where Dalić’s men lacked creativity and conviction in front of the opposition’s goal. Croatia’s second encounter of the tournament saw them take on Canada, which turned out to be a welcome exception to the team’s attacking troubles and saw them defeat their strong but tactically naïve opponents 4-1. Andrej Kramarić, playing out on the right wing instead of the nine position, scored a brace and won the Player of the Match Award. A Round of 16 encounter with the Japanese followed the Belgium game, both of which featured weak attacking performances. Against Japan, Croatia scored from their only meaningful attack to make it 1-1 via Ivan Perišić, before they won the game on penalties.
The quarterfinal against Brazil was great to watch, but mostly because of the team’s near-perfect defensive display. Once again, they came back from a goal down, this time, toward the end of extra time through substitute Bruno Petković. It was again the only meaningful attacking play for the team. That said, one should not fault Croatia for having played this way against Brazil, as it was the only realistic path to victory in that particular game. In the semifinal against Argentina, the first 30 minutes and change were actually quite impressive. Then came a counterattack by the Albiceleste, which caused a dubious penalty kick that went in and demoralized the Vatreni. Two more goals from Argentine counterattacks followed.
In the Third Place Match against Morocco, Dalić decided to experiment with a front two, a change of formation which seemed to benefit the team greatly. They won 2-1 after an impressive attacking display. One might think that this was also due to there not being much on the line, but both teams took the occasion more than seriously. It was a hard-fought match from start to finish and Croatia deservedly won it. The trouble is that that can only be said about that game and the one against Canada. In the semifinal against Argentina, there was no lack of trying. Yet, after the first set of adversity that was Leo Messi’s converted penalty kick, Croatia crumbled. In all of the four other Croatia games at this World Cup, defense seemed to have been the priority by far.
But even with all of that said, football is a results business. According to their results, Zlatko Dalić’s team excelled at the tournament. Only two of the other 31 teams finished ahead of Croatia. That is a great accomplishment by any measure, but especially for the national team of such a small country, participating in its sixth World Cup since independence. These lines are merely an attempt to critique the way the team played without trying to lessen the success that they had. But the fact remains: Croatia can do even better. They can certainly play a much more attractive brand of football than they showed in most of their matches in this past World Cup. Had they done that against Japan, for example, they might have beaten the Blue Samurai in regulation. This in turn would have meant less tired legs and minds when it came time to turn around the Argentina match.
Nevertheless, it makes little sense to go back and wonder what might have been. Instead, the Croatian federation should look to the promising future of what may yet be. There are some major attacking Croatian talents like Gabriel Vidović of Bayern Munich (currently on loan at Vitesse) and Roko Šimić of Red Bull Salzburg coming through the ranks. Provided that they and others like them choose to represent the country at the senior level, the future will indeed be bright.
After having finished the last two World Cups on the podium, Croatia may not for much longer be able to hide behind the “small country” excuse. Football is usually a game of 11 versus 11 after all, and the national team will be judged based on these last two World Cup finishes. Croatia has demanded respect from the world after those recent successes and rightly so. But with respect comes expectation.