It was June 18th 2006. The occasion was a mostly dull, scoreless match between Croatia and Japan on Match Day 2 in Group F of that year’s World Cup in Germany. Both teams would take a point from the encounter, a point which would ultimately prove to be useless in either side’s quest to reach the knockout stages of that tournament. Yet, looking back on it, that match would unexpectedly turn out to become a significant part of Croatian World Cup history. It was the match where their wonder boy, a certain Luka Modrić, would for the first time ever set foot on a World Cup pitch. More than 16 years have passed since then and now, at age 37, the wonder boy has become the undisputed leader of his national team. Now as Croatia managed to get past the Japanese in the Round of 16 of this year’s World Cup and are about to take on heavyweights Brazil in the quarterfinals, one fears that it will be Modrić’s last match on the world’s greatest stage.
Modrić has won everything there is to win in club football, in some cases many times over. His trophy cabinet includes no less than five UEFA Champions League titles, four FIFA Club World Cups, four Spanish and European Super Cups each, three La Liga titles…the list goes on and on. We have not even begun to mention his individual awards. They include seven Croatian Player of the Year awards, one Ballon’d Or, one UEFA Player of the Year award, as well as a FIFA Men’s Best Player trophy.
It is not as though Real Madrid simply had great success while Luka was there. In fact, he was the engine behind that success. Modrić was and to some degree remains the unsung hero of that team. In the national side, the situation is different. His name and those of Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic – his partners in the Croatian midfield line – are known by virtually every child in the country. Where Modrić goes, so does the national team.
Croatia had heroes before Modric, of course. There was Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and the rest of the 1998 World Cup bronze medal-winning team. They were a special generation of players, one that many thought would remain a one-off in the country’s football history. But then Russia 2018 happened. At a time when people believed that the chance for a Modrić-Rakitić golden generation may have passed, they and their teammates outdid the side of 1998 and reached the final.
It was a tournament that brought their small population, always hovering around the 4 million mark, to the brink of ecstasy. It was more than just joy that filled the streets of Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and beyond. It was a month of watching history being written in a way that it had never been written before. The people were witnessing something that was far greater than themselves. Yes, football may just be a game, but it has the ability to become so much more. It gives extra meaning to lives and makes people happy in a way that few other things can. The World Cup amplifies all of these best characteristics of the game. It has the capacity to unite especially a relatively poor nation like Croatia and give it a common purpose, where one could otherwise be difficult to find. Regardless of someone’s politics and socioeconomic status, everyone can and seemingly does support the “Fiery Ones,” or Vatreni, the affectionate nickname of the national team.
The 2018 World Cup brought so much to Croatians and they are longing for the current competition to do the same. Despite reaching the last eight, the performances of the team especially offensively have been rather underwhelming so far. But with Brazil as the opponent, Croatia clearly will be the heavy underdog. If they could pull out a win against the five-time world champions, it would surely be the biggest victory in their World Cup history. It would surpass the 3-0 victory in the 1998 quarterfinal against Germany and perhaps even the 2018 extra-time semifinal win against England. That is how mighty an opponent the Brazilians truly are. They have world-class players in every position on the field, as well as on the bench. What makes them even more dangerous is the fact that these Brazilian players are hungry for World Cup success that has eluded them since 2002. Even a narrow loss for Croatia must be seen as a success. Yet, for the most part, the Vatreni have fared quite well in the World Cups against superior opposition. In 2018, they stunned Argentina 3-0 in group play. In 2002, Croatia defeated Italy in the section where they lost to Mexico and Ecuador. Then in 2006, they opened their tournament against the then-defending champions Brazil and only lost 1-0. Even in 2014, when they were on the wrong side of a 3-1 defeat to the same opponents, they were arguably unlucky with several key refereeing decisions going against them. Even the 2018 4-2 loss in the final to France can be explained by the fact that the team had been physically and mentally drained after having gone the extra time three times in a row, with two of those games being decided on spot kicks. Clearly, Croatia will go into the quarterfinal against Brazil as underdogs. But it is a role that they have always relished. There is plenty there to guard the Brazilians against any complacency when they take the field vs. the Vatreni tonight. Defensively, the Croatians have been good so far in this tournament. If they were to overcome Brazil, “good” will have to become “flawless.” The question is, will wonder boy Modrić end his World Cup career against the same opponent he began it with, albeit as an unused substitute, or will his dream of winning silverware for his country continue into the semifinals? A nation anxiously awaits the answer.