The Croatian National Football Team had another good World Cup, their 3rd top 3 finish out of 7 they have been eligible to compete in as an independent nation so far.
In the 2022 edition, Croatia finished 3rd Place after a great 2-1 victory over Morocco.
But, what is more impressive is how Croatia was able to rebound after finishing 2nd in 2018 with what many thought to then be an old team.
On the 2018 team, Croatia featured 7 players over 30 years old, 4 players that were 29, and 3 players that were 28. In the starting lineup, Croatia featured 5 30+ year olds, and 4 of those were considered 4 of Croatia’s top 5 players, including their top 2 players: Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. The other 3 players were star striker Mario Mandžukić, star goalkeeper Danijel Subašić, and the only starter not considered one of Croatia’s main players being starting left back Ivan Strinić. All of these 30+ year olds were not expected to be elite anymore or as good, or starters, or even playing come 2022.
In addition, other starters were 29 such as another one of Croatia’s key 5 players, star winger Ivan Perišić, and starting center-back Domagoj Vida. Both of these players relied on their speed in their positions so they were both expected to not be elite for the 2022 FIFA World Cup anymore.
But, Croatia’s fear of being too old for the future were not done just there yet.
Another starting center-back was Dejan Lovren at 28, and other key players were what many considered to be the captain off the pitch and a rotational player, then 32 year-old center-back Vedran Ćorluka, and another rotational player, then 29 year-old left back, Josip Pivarić. None of these players were expected to be back, or to be very good.
But then, it got even worse because Croatia’s #2 striker, Nikola Kalinić, was 30, and also sent home, and then another key Croatian midfielder, Milan Badelj, was 29. These two were not expected to be back either.
Therefore, Croatia’s World Cup stars from 2018 that were expected to be back consisted of then Croatia’s #3 striker, who became the #2 and a starting CAM, Andrej Kramarić at 26, starting winger Ante Rebić at 24, starting right back Šime Vrsaljko at 26, rotational midfielders Mateo Kovačić (24) and Marcelo Brozović (25), plus promising young defenders Tin Jedvaj (22) and Duje Ćaleta-Car (21). Also, a #2 goalkeeper, Dominik Livaković (23), was considered a future starter, but no one was quite sure he would be good, let alone anywhere close to the man that won them two FIFA World Cup penalty kick shootouts, Danijel Subašić!
Other players expected to battle for a spot were wingers Marko Pjaca (23) and substitute goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinić (28). Midfielder Filip Bradarić (26) was also considered a potential future player.
But the point is, Croatia’s 2022 hopes seemed to fall upon Andrej Kramarić, Šime Vrsaljko, Ante Rebić, Mateo Kovačić, Marcelo Brozović, Tin Jedvaj, Duje Ćaleta-Car, and Dominik Livaković.
None of these players at the time were considered to be as good as any of the top 5 Croatian players. And therefore, it was predicted that there would be a huge drop-off.
And to the critics’ credit, Croatia first competitive match after the 2018 World Cup Final was a 0-6 loss to Spain in the newly created UEFA Nations League!
Croatia looked doomed.
But, Croatia rebounded and by the end of the group, Croatia almost past through to the Semi-finals, barely losing out and then were relegated (ended up staying in the top division due to a re-formatting of the UEFA Nations League). It was a very tight group which saw Croatia tie England, beat Spain, and lose after a 1-0 lead over England away, that would have seen Croatia through to the Semi-finals as group winners. These results suggested Croatia were still an elite team, minus that strange 0-6 loss.
However, Croatia went into the next UEFA Nations League losing big, 1-4 against Portugal and 2-4 against France. Furthermore, Croatia finished the group 1-0-5 barely staying in the top division by winning a tiebreaker over Sweden.
After this 2019-2020 UEFA Nations League, Croatia appeared lost.
Croatia had other peculiar performances, both earlier and after, in friendlies and qualifiers such as a 1-2 friendly loss against Tunisia, close 2-1 wins over Jordan (friendly), Georgia (friendly), and Azerbaijan (European Championship Qualifiers), as well as a 1-2 loss against Hungary in European Qualifiers.
And in the World Cup Qualifiers prior to the European Championship, Croatia struggled against Slovenia losing 0-1, and against both Cyprus in a 1-0 win and Malta in a 3-0 win. Croatia would also go onto tie Armenia 1-1 and lose to Belgium 0-1 in friendlies.
Yet, all these lack luster results could not curb the fact that Croatia had qualified for the European Championship on top of their group, getting wins over Hungary (3-0) and Wales (2-1), plus a 4-0 win and a 3-1 win over Slovakia.
In the European Championship, Croatia would finish 1-1-1 in their group with a 0-1 loss against England, a 1-1 tie with the Czech Republic, and a 3-1 win over Scotland.
Croatia appeared to be below an elite team level, a level expected to possibly make a World Cup, and then battle for possibly a Round of 16 spot. This was not expected to be a top team and their match against Spain in the Round of 16 in the European Championship seemed to suggest this at first. Croatia found themselves down 1-3 with less than 10 minutes left, only to get two goals before the end of regular time to take the match into extra time. Croatia went onto lose 3-5, but this match gave Croatian’s hope that maybe Croatia could be an elite national team again.
Croatia would follow this up with a very good finish to their World Cup Qualifying and an even better UEFA Nations League Group Stage for the 2022-2023 edition.
Croatia would finish their last 6 matches 4-2-0 in the qualifiers with two ties against Russia (0-0 away) and Slovakia (2-2 home), and then four wins over Slovakia (1-0 away), Slovenia (3-0 home), Cyprus (3-0 away), Malta (7-1 away), and Russia (1-0 home). These results qualified Croatia for the 2022 World Cup.
Croatia then had friendly matches against Slovenia (1-1 tie) and Bulgaria (2-1 win) in Qatar, before their Nations League first match for 2022-2023. Croatia opened up with a 0-3 home loss to Austria, but then followed that up with a 1-1 home tie against France, a 1-0 away win over Denmark, a 1-0 away win over France, a 2-1 home win over Denmark, and a 3-1 away win over Austria to win Group 1 with a 4-1-1 record. The Croatians were now elite again, at least temporarily.
Croatia’s 1-0 friendly win over Saudi Arabia as a final warm-up before the 2022 FIFA World Cup served as a question mark.
Would Croatia do well or not?
But, of course Croatia had a very difficult group! Belgium was the #2 team in the World, the defending 3rd Place winners at the World Cup (2018), Canada were the best team in World Cup Qualifiers from North America, and Morocco were a top African side.
Croatia would tie Morocco 0-0 and go down early to Canada. But their 4 goals to win 4-1 over Canada and their subsequent 0-0 tie against Belgium meant that Croatia were through to the knockout stages.
Shootout victories over Japan (Round of 16) and Brazil (Quarter-finals) displayed that Croatia were once again one of the best teams in the world, a title they have had for a while according to many, but one they have only definitively been labeled as in 1998, 2018, and now 2022.
Croatia did suffer a very difficult Semi-final loss to eventual 2022 World Champions Argentina, 0-3, but it was not a match seen as Croatia being bad, but more of Lionel Messi being so good, and Croatia being a bit unlucky, and to many, ripped off on a bad call that led to an opening goal against. And Croatia’s 2-1 3rd Place Match victory over Morocco brought Croatia back up to their high status.
But now, Croatia must focus on their next tasks. One, they must qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Next, Croatia must rebuild their roster for the next World Cup.
And the way Croatia must start rebuilding is how Croatia did it this past 4.5 year cycle for the next 3.5 years. Croatia must use the European competitions to bring in new players and to find a solution to their goalscoring problems.
However, the development might need to be a bit delayed, as Croatia have a chance this June to win their first competitive trophy as an independent nation as they play in the UEFA Nations League 2022-2023 Semi-finals, and hopefully Final. A trophy in this competition could serve as a confidence booster and an extra sense of comfort in the future as Croatians will be able to look back on this success as a champion, a title they most wish to hold for a World Cup.
Furthermore, not only does Zlatko Dalić need to find new players, but also needs to re-engage with those who have fallen out of favor or were not on the 2022 World Cup team.
For example, had Croatia had another speedy center-back like Southampton’s Duje Ćaleta-Car, Croatia might have been more able to defend a speedy attack like Argentina better. And, either Ćaleta-Car or Gvardiol could have helped out in one of the full-back positions. AC Milan forward Ante Rebić also needs to be brought back, as does VfL Wolfsburg forward Josip Brekalo, SL Benfica striker Petar Musa, Bologna FC midfielder Nikola Moro, US Lecce defender Marin Pongračić, and backup goalkeeper, Hajduk Split’s Lovre Kalinić. Even Šime Vrsaljko who is retired currently could be brought back into the mix as a right back if he decides to comeback.
Furthermore, players that were already on the team should be given matches including US Sassuolo Calcio center-back Martin Erlić, Bayern Munich defender Josip Stanišić, Dinamo Zagreb center-back Josip Šutalo, Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Luka Sučić, and Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Kristijan Jakić.
Josip Šutalo (22) and Josip Stanišić (22) started in the 3rd Place Match and both played very well. Kristijan Jakić also played in the 3rd Place Match as a sub and did well while in.
Martin Erlić (24), Luka Sučić (20), Ivo Grbić (26), and Ivica Ivušić (27) all did not receive any appearances in the 2022 World Cup, but undoubtedly received a valuable experience.
Lastly, a key factor, maybe not for 2026, but definitely for future World Cups after will be Mateus da Silva who is currently 12, and plays in CR Flamengo’s system in Brazil. His father, Eduardo da Silva, is Croatia’s fourth all-time leading goalscorer with a goalscoring efficiency only surpassed by Mario Mandžukić for players who have played many matches for Croatia. Eduardo and Mateus, plus the rest of their family were seen rooting for Croatia over Eduardo’s native Brazil during the 2022 World Cup. Mateus is presumably eligible for both Brazil and Croatia. So, the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) should look into bringing Mateus onto the U-17 National Team in a few years time.
There are many more Croatians that are likely to feature in the National Team conversations in the future such as SS Lazio midfielder Toma Bašić, Hajduk Split midfielder Luka Ivanušec, Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Martin Baturina, and Hajduk Split forward Stipe Biuk. A revamped career by Empoli FC forward Marko Pjaca and others like Cagliari Calcio midfielder Marko Rog could spark the team as well. Lastly, Ante Palaversa is a player still with potential playing for ESTAC in Ligue 1 on loan from Manchester City as a CDM.
With Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovačić, Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozović, Torino FC midfielder Nikola Vlašić, Atalanta BC midfielder Mario Pašalić, Stade Rennais midfielder Lovro Majer, all of the defenders except Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, and all of the goalkeepers coming back, Croatia look ready to strike another World Cup run. Even with Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida and the forwards, they too could come back as all these players will be anywhere from 31 to 37. Of course, it may be too much to hope for Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Luka Modrić, Ivan Peršić, Andrej Kramarić, and Ante Budimir to come back as they will all be 35+, with Luka being 40, and the others being 37 or younger. But, if Perišić could make a surprise comeback, that could go along way in strengthening the attack. Either way, it is good that Croatia’s oldest spot are their forwards because that was their worst performing players so a change should help.
Furthermore, Croatia should look to revamping their 4-2-3-1 formation they brought back for the 3rd Place Match and used throughout the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In addition to testing and priming other formations, Croatia needs to continue to improve upon this 4-2-3-1 formation as it works very well for them.
Therefore, the future is bright for Croatia. And keep in mind, there are many Croatians coming up we have yet to hear of. These players may be the next Mario Mandžukić or Davor Šuker, which is exactly what Croatia needs.
It is important to remember that many of the players that were expected to lead Croatia again in 2022 after the 2018 FIFA World Cup did not feature in the 2022 edition despite their high class skills as other players had come up that were also very good. So, some of these players may be replaced by even better players in 3.5 years time.
So, Croatia nor Croatians need to lose hope for their national team if the press get negative or the results get bad. What we saw over the last 4 years is a Croatian side that is consistently improving for their most important competition, the World Cup. However, I think all Croatians would enjoy more consistency and more success including European trophies in future in-between years, in addition to successful World Cups like the last two.
However, Croatians must continue to hold themselves to a high standard, and not for the “we are a small country” mindset as that has blinded Croatia in the past and continues to do so in many other things besides association football.
The point is that Croatia should continue to dream for the World Cup because their ceiling does not exist. Croatia should become FIFA World Cup Champions in the future, and it could come as early as 2026. That is what Croatia is capable of, and if they continue to work hard, be humble, not overlook any nation, be disciplined, celebrate each victory, be patient, and continue to develop, Croatia should be World Champions sooner rather than later. In other words, as long as Croatia keeps being Croatia, and improves just a few of their negatives, Croatia will be World Cup Champions in the future!