Half the size of England and with one-tenth of its population, Croatia have outgrown their geographic and demographic stature to reach the World Cup final, becoming the smallest country to do so after Uruguay in 1950. Should they win Sunday, like Uruguay 68 years ago, Croatia, with a population of 4.1 million and expanse of 56,594 sq km, can lay legitimate claim to be footballing giants.
To put the enormity of their 2-1 semifinal victory Wednesday night against England in perspective, Croatia was not even a country when their rivals last reached a World Cup semifinal in 1990. The most hyped league in world, the English Premier League, was still in conception when the country declared its independence in 1991.
But the war-ravaged country has always punched above their weight. In seven years, they shocked the football fraternity to reach the semifinal in France, losing eventually to the hosts in a heated match.
After a temporary spell of underwhelming performances — there was never a dearth of quality, but they somehow froze in the knockouts — they have bettered the achievement of the feisty side of Davor Suker to reach within a step of winning the World Cup, fittingly in the presence of the legendary striker himself.
France will offer them the sternest test yet, but the reputation of the Les Bleus would hardly daunt the resolute Croats.
Some call this batch of Croatians their best generation of footballers ever — there are stars, spearheads of some of the most glittering clubs in the world.
Both Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric are indispensable cogs of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Mario Mandzukic, the sparkling hero of the semifinal, represents Juventus, the other goal-scorer Ivan Perisic plays for Inter Milan, and Dejan Lovren is the rock of Liverpool.
And yet, in the build-up to the World Cup, there was a tendency to brand them as a functional, hard-working group rather than one blessed with electric flair. But Croatia hardly bothered about such stereotyping, and instead glorified the often understated virtues of courage and resilience.
Sample this: They have been on the field for nearly 400 energy-sapping minutes in the knockouts alone. Their opponents in the final, France, spent only 270 minutes, which is an entire match less. And on all the three instances, they had to fight back from a goal in deficit. It was especially daunting against hosts Russia, with the crowd raucously jeering and booing them.
On Sunday, in an adrenaline-charged Moscow arena, Croatia believe they will rise once again. Modric, who was stumbling towards the dressing room Wednesday night, said: “We are tired, yes, but the smile on the faces of my countrymen is enough to energise me.” He then threw the jersey towards the enclosure where around 1,000 supporters were frenziedly waving the white-and-red flags.
“We are confident of making history, and it will be the most historic moment in the history of our country,” he said, before nearly sinking to the ground in fatigue.
A few minutes earlier, as the match limped to a close, Mandzukic was down with cramps, the English players imploring him to get back on the field, thinking it was a deliberate time-wasting tantrum. Dejan Lovren and Domajog Vida were prowling like zombies. “It’s worth all these efforts when we are in the final,” Rakitic told reporters.
It will also mean a lot to a generation of footballers who spent their childhood in other countries — Rakitic in Switzerland and Mandzukic in Germany — to flee the war and unrest. “You can say Switzerland made me a player, but my sensibilities are Croatian. We might be 4 million, but we are a proud stock,” Rakitic once told Spanish daily El Pais. On Sunday, it will be those 4 million versus France.