Having come so close to a first World Cup in 2018, the world is finally starting to take notice of Croatian football and their illustrious pool of past and present stars.
Croatia caused a stir when they made the 2018 World Cup final against all odds, losing 4-2 to France at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. However, this was not the first great year for their men's national team.
Croatia's current generation of players features the likes of 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Dejan Lovren. In the past, they have produced heroes such as Slaven Bilic, Niko Kovac and Davor Suker.
Croatia's football federation, the HNS, governs their national team.
Croatia's early history
Croatia had active national teams during periods of political unrest in Yugoslavia. Examples were the Banovina of Croatia from 1939 to 1941, or the Independent State of Croatia from 1941 to 1944. However, most Croatian players represented Yugoslavia during their period of activity on the international football stage from 1920 to 1992.
1991 was the last recorded time a Yugoslav team featured a player of Croatian descent, in a match against the Faroe Islands just days before their independence referendum, despite an unofficial Croatian team forming in 1990 and playing their first official game against the United States.
The Croatia national team has existed in its current format since 1994. Their qualifying campaign for the 1996 European Championships was essentially the team's birth and they impressed by beating Italy to top spot in their group.
Goran Vlaovic scored the team's first recorded international goal in 1996 at the City Ground in Nottingham following a 3-0 victory over Denmark, the reigning champions at the time.
Croatia and 1998 World Cup
Croatia enjoyed a superb campaign at the 1998 World Cup in France.
They beat Jamaica 3-1 and Japan 1-0 to qualify for the round of 16, although they lost 1-0 to Argentina in their last group match.
A Davor Suker penalty saw Croatia beat Romania 1-0 in the last 16 and they followed that up with a stunning 3-0 upset victory over Germany in the quarter-finals to qualify for a semi-final matchup with hosts France.
Suker opened the scoring for Croatia at the Stade de France, but two goals from Lilian Thuram ensured that France progressed to the final, where they eventually beat Brazil 3-0.
Meanwhile, Croatia had to settle for a spot in the third-place play-off, where they beat the Netherlands 2-1. Suker ended up as the tournament's top goalscorer with six strikes to his name.
Croatia and the 2000s
Croatia failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and manager Miroslav Blazevic's six-year stint in charge of the team came to an end in 2000 with 33 wins, 24 draws and 15 defeats to his name from 72 matches in charge of the side.
Under Otto Baric, Croatia fared no better at the 2004 European Championship, also getting knocked out in the group stage there.
Zlatko Kranjcar took Croatia to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, where they were put in a difficult group with then-defending champions Brazil, as well as Australia and Japan.
Croatia put up a decent fight in a 1-0 defeat to Brazil in Berlin. Their next two matches ended in draws - 0-0 against Japan and 2-2 against Australia. Due to the fact that Australia beat Japan 3-1, the Socceroos were able to beat Croatia to second place in the group behind Brazil. Croatia were thus eliminated from the group stage of yet another World Cup.
Along came Slaven Bilic to take over as manager. Bilic had played for Croatia from 1992 to 1999 and became one of their most successful bosses. In his 65 matches in charge, Croatia won 42, drew 15 and lost eight.
Eduardo, Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka were promoted to the first team early in his spell in charge and Croatia qualified for Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. However, Eduardo suffered a major injury in a Premier League match for Arsenal against Birmingham City and Bilic was forced to adapt his squad.
In the quarter-finals, Croatia were eliminated by Turkey on penalties following misses from Luka Modric, Mladen Petric and Ivan Rakitic.
That was to be the pinnacle of Bilic's reign as Croatia failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and were then eliminated at the group stage of Euro 2012.
Croatia and the 2018 World Cup
After six years under Bilic's guidance, Croatia went through another period of six years which was relatively unstable. They were knocked out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in the group stage and eliminated from the round of 16 at Euro 2016 in France.
Zlatko Dalic took over as national team manager on 7 October 2017 after Ante Cacic was sacked after a period of poor results. This meant that the new boss had little time to prepare his players for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Croatia began the tournament with a 2-0 win over Nigeria and then followed that up with a 3-0 upset victory over Argentina. In their final group stage match, a late Ivan Perisic winner ensured that they beat Iceland 2-1 and they progressed to the next round with a perfect nine points out of nine.
After a 1-1 round of 16 draw with Denmark after extra time, Croatia progressed on penalties to the quarter-finals. There, they faced hosts Russia in Sochi and once again had to do things the hard way, winning the penalty shootout 4-3 after a 2-2 draw after extra time.
Croatia faced England in the semi-finals at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, hoping to return there for the World Cup final. The Three Lions took the lead early on through Kieran Trippier, but Croatia equalised through Ivan Perisic before an extra-time winner from striker Mario Mandzukic.
The World Cup final was essentially a rematch of Croatia's fiercely contested 1998 semi-final against France. A Mandzukic own goal put Les Bleus on the front foot, but Croatia levelled through Perisic. An Antoine Griezmann penalty put France 2-1 up heading into half-time.
After the break, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe put the match beyond reach as France went 4-1 up. A Mandzukic goal from Croatia shortly afterwards proved nothing more than consolation.
Luka Modric was the star of the show in their 2018 World Cup campaign and won the Ballon d'Or that year, ending a period of dominance from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Croatia had, incidentally, humbled Messi's Argentina 3-0 in the group stage.
Slaven Bilic and Niko Kovac are two great former players for Croatia who have become highly-respected coaches and enjoyed stints managing the national team.
Bilic enjoyed lengthy spells with the team both as a player and a manager, playing 44 times for his country and scoring three times before managing them between the periods of 2006 and 2012.
Kovac spent 12 years representing his country before taking the reins in the managerial hot-seat between 2013 and 2015, and has also represented Bundesliga giants, Bayern Munich as both a player and manager.
Hailed more for his club performances rather than those of his country, attacking midfielder Zvonimir Boban made a name for himself throughout European football for his successful stint with Dinamo Zagreb and more notably a decade at AC Milan.
Croatia's biggest rivals
Croatia have a strong rivalry with Serbia, as the two teams became adversaries and independent states following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Serbia continued to play under the Yugoslavia banner following the formation of Croatia's national team, but later split themselves.
Another prominent rivalry for Croatian football players and fans alike is the Derby Adriacito (Adriatic Derby) held between themselves and Italy, a side who Croatia haven't lost to since 1942. Two famous incidents at both Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 qualifiers saw games being stopped as a result of crowd trouble and flares entering the field of play.
The national team enjoys passionate support from fans who associate it with the country's split from Yugoslavia and its independence. However, there have been various unsavoury incidents from Croatian supporters, including racist abuse of Emile Heskey in 2010.
Among supporters it is customary to display your city of origin on the country's flag when attending a game to indicate where you are from, enabling large groups of fans from around the country to band together.
For the last few years, Croatia fans have received a number of UEFA imposed sanctions for violence, pyrotechnic offences and racial incidents, despite the government's efforts to try and contain them.
- Dec 01, 2022
- Dec 01, 2022