On Tuesday, just a couple of days before the 2014 World Cup opener, a popular TV program in Sao Paulo called Sabe Ou Nao Sabe (Know Or Don’t Know) offered the Paulista on the street R$ 1000 (about USD 500) to tell where Luka Modric was from. “Real Madrid,” was the overwhelming answer. Then, the host put a bonus on the line for pointing Croatia out on a globe. The verdict was a 100% Nao Sabe (one contestant marked Croatia in Bangladesh).
But fate, and the luck of the draw, has given them another opportunity to set things straight. Were Croatia to beat the biggest team of them all, hosts and five-time champions Brazil, in the opening match on Thursday and do little else during the course of the tournament, Croatia would not just put themselves on the map but for a short while become the map itself.
Davor Suker, Croatia’s legendary marksman (Golden Boot winner in the 1998 World Cup who remarked after his exploits in France: “Of all the unimportant things in the world, football is the most important,”) for one, believes they have the team for it. “We will be the surprise package in Brazil,” Suker, now 46 and the current president of the Croatian Football Federation, is quoted as saying. That package comprises of names such as Modric and Ivan Rakitic, key components in Madrid and Sevilla’s midfield respectively.
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Like Modric, who helped Real end their long-standing wait for the club’s tenth Champions League title last month, Croatia’s striker Mario Mandzukic too knows what it takes to perform on Europe’s grandest stage. In 2013, the 28-year-old thumped in the opening goal in the final against Borussia Dortmund to give Bayern Munich the trophy. This time around, he finished as the Bundesliga winners’ top-scorer with 21 goals.
And up front with Mandzukic is Croatia’s most experienced attacking option, Ivica Olic. With 92 caps, Olic is their crisis man. He, though, will get the nod in Croatia’s starting eleven on Thursday ahead of the younger boots of Nikica Jelavic, not for any of the 18 goals he has scored for his country, but for the one he missed.
Back in 2005, as Croatia faced Brazil for the first ever time, Olic’s strike smacked against the post and was tapped in off the rebound by Niko Kranjcar. Croatia drew that friendly in Split 1-1 and Olic’s move was hailed as the turning point. From that team, however, only Olic and captain Darijo Srna remain, with Kranjcar out injured and midfielder Niko Kovac having taken up the country’s coaching post.
Croatia haven’t scored against the Selecao since, losing 1-0 in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup in their only other meeting. That stat makes Suker nervous enough to say: “From Group A, Brazil will of course qualify. The rest, Cameroon, Mexico and us, have a 33.3 per cent chance of entering the second round.”
Win the opening match, and that percentage balloons drastically.
Since the 1998 World Cup, when the field increased to 32 countries, only four teams spread across four World Cups have ever advanced to the Round of 16 or further after having lost their opening match. Spain, of course, is one of them, having won the 2010 World Cup after losing their first game to Switzerland.
But on the other hand, if you win the first match, you’re almost sure to go through. According to US magazine Sports Illustrated, 87 percent of teams that have gotten three points from the first game (40 of 46) have advanced to the Round of 16 since 1998. In this period, Brazil have expectedly won all their opening games — going all the way to the final in one (’98) and winning another (’02).
That win was achieved by Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil’s current coach. This time, though, he doesn’t just want to win the golden trophy but hearts as well. On Tuesday, he earned plenty of those by staying on in Brazil’s camp despite receiving news of his nephew’s fatal accident. “But he had a duty and acted with the professionalism already expected of him,” CBF, Brazil’s football federation, said in a statement.
Scolari is a father-figure to most members of this young squad, from the Chelsea boys of David Luiz, Oscar, Ramires and Willian to his strikers Hulk, Fred and Neymar Jr. On Thursday and right through this World Cup, they will look to heal some of his wound by winning. For that’s how important football is to them and their country. Or as Suker once said, the most important unimportant thing in the world.