There’s a spot on the Corniche promenade in Doha where the 2022 World Cup organizing committee erected a flag each time a new nation qualified for the tournament.
Croatia’s went up in November 2021. While heavyweights like Germany, Spain, England and Brazil have had theirs removed now they are out, the red, white and blue of the small Balkan country with a population similar to that of U.S. state Oklahoma is still there.
It was the sixth to go up and will be one of the last to come down after Croatia reached the semifinals for the second successive World Cup. Defeat Argentina at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday and they will make it back-to-back finals — a staggering achievement for a country which only declared its independence 31 years ago.
Ask the fans walking around Doha wearing Croatia’s red and white chequerboard shirt how it’s been possible and most, like Luka Milkovic, will answer the same way.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he says with a smile. “We have big hearts and the players we have love to play for Croatia.”It was the theme of the news conferences after the dramatic penalty shootout victory over favourites Brazil in the quarterfinals — the eighth of their past nine knockout ties at major tournaments to need at least extra time. Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was asked how Croatia had managed to come back from 1-0 down and without a shot on target in 115 minutes to eventually beat the five-time champions. “We are fighters,” he said. “In Croatia, we are raised as fighters.”
Croatia’s appearance in the final four in Qatar will be the third time they’ve reached that stage in the past 24 years.
To put it into context, it’s the same number of World Cup semifinal appearances as Brazil over the same period and more than Argentina, Italy, Spain and England.
With a population of 3.9 million, Croatia is the fourth-smallest country to play at this World Cup behind hosts Qatar, Wales and Uruguay, yet the team’s ability to keep producing players capable of competing on the world stage shows no sign of slowing down.
With 160 caps for his country, Modric is the figurehead of this Croatia team, but their run in Qatar isn’t just the last dance for an ageing generation. There are other players from the run to the final at Russia 2018 including Dejan Lovren and Ivan Perisic, both 33, but coach Zlatko Dalic has also sought to inject some youth into his squad.
Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, key four years ago, have been replaced with players such as 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol, one of the tournament’s standout young defenders. The RB Leipzig centre-back impressed versus Brazil and Croatia will need him to shine again when they line up in their semifinal versus Argentina.
Argentina will start as favorites, just as Brazil did in the last round, but speaking at a news conference on Sunday, right-back Josip Juranovic said Croatia would have “nothing to fear.” It’s an attitude which made them so dangerous at Russia 2018 and will concern Messi & Co. on Tuesday.
If nothing else, it will be a battle, which is never easy against a nation of fighters.