World Cup finalist Croatia bringing rebuilt team to Qatar
Was Croatia’s run to the 2018 World Cup final a one-off? Don’t be so sure.
Only five of the 11 players who started the 2018 final are still in the squad — led by the 37-year-old Luka Modrić — but Croatia’s rebuild fuses that experienced core with a talented new generation.
Wins over World Cup champion France, Denmark and Austria in the Nations League this year show Croatia is getting back on track following a period of underwhelming results after 2018.
With more than 150 games for Croatia, Modrić will join the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the most experienced players at the World Cup in Qatar. The Real Madrid veteran is joined by old partners Ivan Perisić of Tottenham and Marcelo Brozović of Inter Milan. Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovačić, an unused substitute in the 2018 final, is also key.
Notable absentees include midfielder Ivan Rakitić, who retired from international soccer in 2020. Winger Ante Rebić hasn’t played since he criticized coach Zlatko Dalić following the team’s last-16 loss to Spain at last year’s European Championship.
The draw has been relatively kind to Croatia, whose main threat in Group F is Belgium.
The Croatians start on Nov. 27 against Morocco and then play Canada four days later, before taking on Belgium on Dec. 1.
A pre-tournament friendly with Saudi Arabia has also been scheduled.
The veterans on the team have combined well with younger players like 20-year-old Leipzig center back Joško Gvardiol, widely considered one of Europe’s best young defensive players and already a regular in the Bundesliga and Champions League.
He’s not the only new face with links to Germany.
Last year, the German team hoped to recruit left back Borna Sosa, who was playing for Stuttgart and qualified for a passport thanks to his mother, who was born in Germany. Just before the European Championship, however, it became clear he didn’t meet FIFA eligibility rules.
After a profuse apology on the Croatian federation website and some strong performances in a Croatia shirt, including a goal in September’s 2-1 win over Denmark, the 24-year-old Stuttgart defender is a valuable member of the team.
There’s also the Germany-born right back Josip Stanišić, increasingly a first-team player for Bayern Munich and Croatia.
With 3.8 million people, fewer than Oklahoma, Croatia has the second-smallest population of any of the 13 European nations at the World Cup (only Wales has fewer people).
Despite its relatively small size, Croatia is a regular at major tournaments, having only missed one World Cup since placing third in its debut in 1998 following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Croatia’s recipe for success includes a passionate soccer fanbase and elite youth academies at clubs like Champions League regular Dinamo Zagreb.
Strong links to the Croatian diaspora abroad have helped Croatia count on players like Rakitić, who was born and raised in Switzerland, or Stanišić and young Austria-born midfielder Luka Sučić.
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