DOHA, Qatar — There’s a spot on the Corniche promenade in Doha where the 2022 World Cup organising committee erected a flag each time a new nation qualified for the tournament.
Croatia‘s went up in November 2021 and, while heavyweights like Germany, Spain, England and Brazil have all had theirs removed now they are out, the red, white and blue of the small Balkan country with a population similar to that of US 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. Beat 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 shoot-out victory over favourites Brazil in the quarterfinals — the eighth of their last 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.”
For Milkovic, it’s a mentality borne out of Croatia’s turbulent history. Incorporated as a republic into Communist Yugoslavia following the end of the Second World War, Croatia declared its independence in 1991. It triggered a war fought against the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army which lasted until 1995 and during which thousands died and many more families were displaced.
“We have heart and we have fight, but that’s not just for the football team, it’s for all the people,” Milkovic tells ESPN. “Our history is not easy. We are fighters from birth, I think so.”
It’s a spirit which has been adopted by the Croatia national team since they were officially recognised by FIFA in 1992. They didn’t enter the World Cup in 1994 but qualified four years later and finished third, narrowly losing to eventual champions France in the semifinals.
Croatia’s appearance in the final four in Qatar will be the third time they’ve reached that stage in the last 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.
In 1998, they could call on cultured midfielder Robert Prosinecki, who played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Zvonimir Boban, who spent 10 years at AC Milan. Striker Davor Suker, who arrived at the tournament in France fresh from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid, won the Golden Boot after scoring six goals in seven games.
The baton has now been passed to Luka Modric, winner of five Champions League titles during a 10-year spell at Real Madrid.
Born in Zadar, a city of fewer than 100,000 people on the Adriatic Sea, Modric was named the world’s best player after the World Cup in 2018, ending a decade-long run during which the Ballon d’Or award had been won by either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Still going at 37, he has become much more than just Croatia’s No. 10.
“Luka Modric is not just a football player, he’s a symbol for our country,” Milkovic tells ESPN. “I think someone like him happens one time in a life of a country like Croatia. He doesn’t miss any training, he doesn’t miss any games. He is a symbol for Croatia all over the world. Anywhere in the world and you say Croatia, the people say ‘Luka Modric.'”
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 like 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol, one of the tournament’s standout young defenders. The RB Leipzig centre-back impressed against Brazil and Croatia will need him to shine again when they line up in their semifinal against Argentina.
Argentina will start as favourites, 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 and company on Tuesday.
If nothing else, it will be a battle, which is never easy against a nation of “fighters.”
Croatia, Luka Modric ready to fight for World Cup final spot