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 Modri? — 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, Modri? 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 Perisi? of Tottenham and Marcelo Brozovi? of Inter Milan. Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kova?i?, an unused substitute in the 2018 final, is also key.
Notable absentees include midfielder Ivan Rakiti?, who retired from international soccer in 2020. Winger Ante Rebi? hasn’t played since he criticised coach Zlatko Dali? following the team’s last-16 loss to Spain at last year’s European Championship.
Group FThe draw has been relatively kind to Croatia, whose main threat in Group F is Belgium.
The Croatians start on November 27 against Morocco and then play Canada four days later, before taking on Belgium on December 1.
A pre-tournament friendly with Saudi Arabia has also been scheduled.
New bloodThe veterans on the team have combined well with younger players like 20-year-old Leipzig centre back Jo?ko 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 Stani?i?, increasingly a first-team player for Bayern Munich and Croatia.
Aiming highWith 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 Rakiti?, who was born and raised in Switzerland, or Stani?i? and young Austria-born midfielder Luka Su?i?.___By JAMES ELLINGWORTH
AP Sports Writer