Fifa World Cup: We are a small country, but we have a big talent for football, say Croat fans

Supporters say Croatia keep finding a way to punch above their weight in the biggest soccer tournament



Zvonimir (centre) and Dario (left) with another Croatian fan. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty
Zvonimir (centre) and Dario (left) with another Croatian fan. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty
by

Michael Gomes

Published: Tue 6 Dec 2022, 7:20 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Dec 2022, 7:25 PM

Zvonimir’s smiles were not the only reason that made Dario happy in 1998. Zvonimir, Dario’s son, was born in 1998 when Croatia made history as a new independent nation.

Just a few years after the end of the War of Independence, Croatia qualified for the 1998 World Cup, their first appearance at the world’s greatest sporting event.

That World Cup in France became famous for Zinedine Zidane’s heroics in the final that stunned a star-studded Brazil team.

But it was the stirring run to the semifinals from the Croatian team featuring Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban that captivated the world.

Dario says he will never forget the day when Croatia beat Lothar Matthaeus, Juergen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff’s Germany in the quarterfinal.

“It was a wonderful match in Lyon against Germany. It was a special moment in my life,” Dario told this reporter after Croatia’s victory over Japan in the round of 16 of the Qatar World Cup.

“Beating Germany 3-0, it was an unforgettable experience. The 1998 World Cup was a very proud moment for us because we had just earned independence after fighting for it for so long.

“But I was not surprised by 1998, we expected very good results. We had an excellent team.”

Dario was also in Russia when the Croats reached the World Cup final in 2018.

“Yes, I was in France 1998. I was in Russia 2018 when we reached the final and now I am here in Qatar. We are in the quarterfinals now and ready for Brazil,” he said.

With just over four million people, Croatia keep finding a way to punch above their weight in the biggest football tournament.

“I think we are a very talented sports nation. We are a small country, but we have a big talent pool for sports,” Dario said.

Croatian fans Ana, Hrvoje with their daughter Elena. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty
Croatian fans Ana, Hrvoje with their daughter Elena. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty

But Zvonimir, his son, says it’s the resilient nature of the Croats that helps the team overcome the biggest of obstacles on the big stage.

“I believe it’s about our will and our commitment. We never give up and it’s not over until it’s over. So we always try to give our best no matter the circumstances. We stick together,” he said.

One shining example of that resilience is Luka Modric, the 37-year-old playmaker, who is pulling the strings for the team tirelessly in Qatar.

“He is ageing like fine wine,” Zvonimir said.

“Not a lot of players can do that. That proves that he is a phenomenal football player. He is so very important to our team.

“Also, this team is a good mix of the old players from the 2018 World Cup and new players. We have Joško Gvardiol, who is only 20, but he is already among the world’s best defenders.”

Vjeko, who travelled to Qatar with his nephews, Ivan and Mario, from Germany, says watching Croatia get to the knockout stages of the World Cup and the Euros, is an indescribable feeling.

Vjeko (right) with his nephew Mario. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty
Vjeko (right) with his nephew Mario. KT photo by Rituraj Borkakoty

“It’s something you cannot describe. You have to understand that we are only four million Croatians. So it’s a very big thing for us that our players go to the knockout stages of almost every World Cup and the Euros,” said Vjeko whose family has been living in Germany for many years.

Vjeko was only 14 when the Suker-inspired Croatian team put the country on the world football map with their third-place finish.

“Suker got the golden boot. I watched every game in Germany. We knocked out Germany in the quarterfinals, it was crazy. We were driving all night in Germany, screaming and celebrating,” he recalled.

“The 1998 World Cup was special because it was our first World Cup as an independent country!”

Vjeko says football is as big in Croatia as it is in Brazil and Argentina.

“Football is the number one sport, by a long, long margin. Then we have basketball and handball,” he said.

“When Croatia plays football in an event like the World Cup, the whole country comes to a standstill.

“Nobody is working during the match, the streets are empty.”

Those streets in Zagreb and across the country will be empty on Friday when Croatia face Brazil in the quarterfinal in Qatar.

And Dario will be hoping that the likes of Modric and Gvardiol can do to Brazil what Suker’s team did to Germany in 1998.

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