Football Features

Croatia: Pound-for-pound Europe’s highest-achievers since their first World Cup?

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 17:00, 17 December 2022

There’s nothing more inspirational than a David and Goliath story. Morocco’s escapades in Qatar took some of the shine off Croatia, who for a second tournament running put many of their European brethren to shame.

Four years ago, Croatia (with a population of approximately 4.15 million) became the smallest country other than Uruguay to contest football’s greatest prize. Despite falling short against France (which had a population over 15 times greater), their inspirational midfielder Luka Modric was crowned best player.

It felt like déjà vu this time, with Modric and company making another improbable run — they started the tournament with 7/1 odds of making the semi-final. However, on this occasion, they ran into a hungry Lionel Messi, who ensured their second-ever World Cup exit at the semi-final stage and third final-four finish across 24 years.

Their first semi-final finish came all the way back in 1998, when Croatia made their World Cup finals debut and was ultimately inflicted by a Lilian Thuram brace. In fact, from that edition onwards, they’ve been to more semi-finals than England, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Argentina (though it’s fair to note that in their only appearances Italy and Spain went on to be crowned champions). Along the way, Croatia have eliminated the likes of Germany (1998), England (2018) and Brazil (2022).

Most startling, only Germany and Les Bleus have played more World Cup semi-finals than Croatia in this period. A remarkable statistic given the considerably smaller talent pool and resources. Of all 13 Uefa nations to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, only Wales has a smaller population than Croatia. Meanwhile, only Serbia has a lower GDP for 2022 than all sovereign states represented in Qatar.

These two factors go some way to explaining Croatia’s inconsistent World Cup showings. A near ever-present since 1998, having only failed to appear in 2010, they have either played the final two games (third, 1998 and 2022; runners-up, 2018) or gone home early (group stage exits in 2002 and 2006).

With just seven members of their Qatar 2022 squad aged under 25, it’s a team on the older side. And for Modric, this is certain to be his curtain call. But he can rest knowing the nation has a footballing heritage when it comes to punching above their weight.

Croatia are proof there is more to success than money and population size. As Jim Collins put forward in his bestseller “Good to Great,” the secret of long-term success lies in cultivating a distinctive set of values. This usually means promoting from within and laying down deep local roots. For one thing, regional powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb were according to a recent CIES Football Observatory report responsible for producing the fourth-most footballers (69) active in 31 top divisions leagues of Uefa member associations. Ajax (85), Benfica (73) and Dynamo Kyiv (72) proved to be more productive. Hajduk Split (48 players trained) was 19th on that list ahead of Manchester United (46), Feyenoord (42) and Arsenal (41) as well as Chelsea, Manchester City, Bayern München and Atlético Madrid.

“A lot of credit must go to the coaches, but we have also shown a good eye for recognising talent – we can’t afford to miss any talented players,” said Romeo Jozak, the former head of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) technical committee, in 2014. “A couple of years ago, our academy was recognised as one of the best six youth schools in Europe, along with the likes of Barcelona, Inter, Arsenal and Sporting. We work with a budget of around €1m a year, while the other clubs have up to €8m to spend.”

And when it comes to producing those playing in Qatar, it’s another fourth-place spot for Dinamo Zagreb (8) with Hajduk Split (5) not far behind. Josko Gvardiol, the latest to come off Dinamo Zagreb’s conveyor belt of talent, has already been earmarked for a big move from RB Leipzig with the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City reportedly keeping tabs. Among those graduating from Hajduk Split’s academy is Ivan Perišić, who has proven to be instrumental for Croatia’s second “golden generation”. Only Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann (5) have more assists than Ivan Perisic (4) over the last two World Cup finals.

Croatia ended an incredible 2018 run with a silver medal. It wasn’t to be in Qatar, but they still didn’t return home empty-handed. Perišić and Gvardiol combined for the opener in their bronze medal game against Morocco, who have been nothing short of inspirational. Centre-back Achraf Dari immediately levelled things before Mislav Orsic netted the all-important winner, ultimately ensuring Zlatko Dalić’s men emulated their heroes of 1998.