Croatia, Cast in Underdog Role, Has the Look of a Champion

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MOSCOW — Something was bothering Croatia’s players and staff members as they reflected on the game that had brought them to the brink of greatness, and on the month that may culminate in what would — by most estimations — be the greatest achievement in World Cup history.

Luka Modric, the captain, suggested his team had been “underestimated” by the British news media in the days preceding Croatia’s semifinal win over England. He advised that, in the future, journalists and television analysts should be “more humble, and respect their opponents more.”

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A perceived lack of respect was something of a theme. Coach Zlatko Dalic, who would scarcely have been recognized in the streets of Zagreb before being handed the reins of the national team when qualification for this tournament was in doubt last year, picked up on it, too.

“Maybe England, or the English media, did not show enough respect to the Croatian team,” he said. “We deserved it, especially when you look at the clubs our players play for. Maybe this gave us extra motivation.”

Vedran Corluka, the veteran defender, was a little more mischievous.

Walking out of Luzhniki Stadium in the small hours of Thursday morning, he passed by the waiting English press cohort with a broad smile. “It’s not coming home, huh?” he said. He had made much the same joke a few days previously, after Croatia had seen off Russia in the quarterfinals. He was obviously pleased with it.

But much as blaming the English news media for various ills is a common trope in soccer — by fans and players of all nationalities, including the English themselves — Croatia’s sense that it has been overlooked seems to run deeper than simply feeling belittled by the sport’s most convenient ogre.

 

It was curious to note Dejan Lovren, the Croatian defender who plays professionally for Liverpool, claiming “people had mocked” Croatia for believing that its stellar victory over Argentina in the group stage might be a sign that it could go the distance in Russia.

Precisely which people he was referring to was not readily apparent: This has been a tournament marked by its openness, by the traditional favorites’ failure to justify their billing. By most estimations, Croatia’s win against Argentina ranked as the first truly significant performance of this World Cup.

To many, even before Croatia arrived in Russia, it had the air of a team that could pose problems for most opponents. Several observers picked Lovren and his teammates out as possible dark horses, the class of their midfield, of Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and the battle-scarred industry of Mario Mandzukic a clear threat to anyone who should cross their path.

Of course, that is not to suggest anyone could have foreseen quite how far they would go, quite how long they would last.

It should not be considered disrespectful to suggest that Croatia, should it overcome France at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, would be the unlikeliest champion in World Cup history.

True, it would not be the least populated country ever to be crowned world champion: That honor is unlikely to be removed from Uruguay, the victor in 1930 and 1950. But those triumphs came when this was a very different competition, one contested by just 13 countries, in a very different age.

The tournament itself was not quite so demanding, quite so exacting, and the circumstances of the sport were drastically different, too. Soccer was not so stratified, with its power hierarchies set, its resources concentrated in a handful of powerful nations in Western Europe. The gap between the consumers and the producers of talent had not yet yawned into a chasm.

It is not to belittle Uruguay’s astonishing achievements in those two tournaments to suggest that, with one more win, Croatia would outstrip them both.

This, after all, is a country of four million people where domestic soccer has long been debilitated by corruption, a country lacking either the resources or the foresight to invest in all the structures, and attendant paraphernalia, so often deemed vital to international success.

It is a country that has, in less than three decades since a bitter, brutal war for independence, reached one World Cup semifinal and now a World Cup final, and managed to churn out successive generations of high-caliber players. This is a team, too, that has overcome the most daunting of obstacles: All three of its knockout games have gone to extra time, and two to penalties. It has played a full 90 minutes more than France in this tournament; it has needed, in the words of Ivan Perisic, to show that it is “a real team at last.”

In those circumstances, to believe that this Croatia would be the most remarkable world champion of all time is to show not a deficit of respect, but a surfeit of awe. To suggest that it goes into Sunday’s final as an underdog is not to overlook its strengths, but to simply appreciate the scale of what it has already achieved.

Croatia does not have the economic power of France. It does not have at its disposal the greatest hothouse of talent in Europe. It does not have a state-of-the-art national training center. It does not have one of the strongest leagues in the world, one in which most clubs rely on selling young players, for a premium, to the aristocrats and parvenus of England and Spain.

In an era in which financial might so often makes right, when the traditional European powerhouses hold the balance of power to a greater extent than at any time in history, when they have been able to industrialize youth development and produce great squadrons of players, when they have availed themselves of the most advanced sports science and brought in the most expert coaches, Croatia’s achievement in making it this far is breathtaking.

It will go into the World Cup final on Sunday as the underdog because of financial reality, because of demography, because of history, because no country of its size has been world champion for almost 70 years, and not because its players are underappreciated or its talent is in doubt.

But it will not, by any stretch of the imagination, be underestimated. As Dalic said, this is a team drawn from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Monaco and Inter Milan. It has players who have won the biggest prizes in club soccer, played in the most pressurized games. It has, in Modric, one of the finest midfielders of his generation, surely a candidate now for world player of the year.

Whatever happens on Sunday — win or lose, fall at the last or defy the odds once again, secure a place in history, shock the world — this is a team that will not, for years to come, have to worry about a lack of respect.

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