France v Croatia, World Cup final: How nation of four million reached final

By Juraj VrdoljakCroatian football writer
2018 Fifa World Cup final, France v Croatia
Venue: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow Date: Sunday, 15 July Kick-off: 16:00 BST
Coverage: Watch on BBC One, BBC Sport website and iPlayer; Listen on Radio 5 live; Text commentary online

When Croatia beat England in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday, football history was made.

Croatia, with a population of just 4.1 million, became the smallest country to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. To give that some context, Croatia has pretty much the same population as Mauritania and Kuwait.

By the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Croatia's population could be reduced even further as a large number of young people continue to leave the country in search of a more prosperous life in the West.

The team's run to the final in Russia has sparked debate about how such a small country has consistently produced so many great players - but if you expect a heart-warming story, it is more likely you will be left disappointed.

Ever since Croatia's first president Franjo Tudjman described athletes as the "country's best ambassadors", sport has largely become a matter of national identity.

People define themselves through the triumphs of sporting teams and individuals, seeing their success as perhaps their own.

"You did an amazing thing," Tudjman said to the members of the Croatia team back in the glory days of the 1998 World Cup, when they reached the last four.

"Now the world will see us differently and talk about Croatia in a more brighter tone."

For a young democracy their team reaching the World Cup semi-finals was a massive feat, and a fantastic means of promotion.

But the story of Croatian football success (and sport in general) is mostly one of achievement in spite of numerous obstacles put in front of the athletes, rather than the result of a well-thought-out and organised system.

For instance, Croatia only has five pitches that meet Uefa's international standard. The infrastructure is mostly appalling and the investment in grassroots football is basically non-existent.

Talented players are forced to leave their clubs early because of the bad financial situation most Croatian clubs face, which prompts them to sell their prized assets once they hit double-digit caps.

There are just two home-based players in Croatia's World Cup squad - Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and Rijeka midfielder Filip Bradaric. Between them they have played less than half an hour in Russia.

In order to obtain a proper Uefa coaching licence in Croatia you had to be a professional footballer, and having international caps is a must if you want to reach the final stages of your coaching education. That narrows the pool in a country desperate for quality coaches.

To add to these problems, there is corruption in the highest ranks of Croatian football.

Just a month ago three of the most powerful people in Croatian football - with Zdravko Mamic the most prominent figure involved - received jail sentences on a set of serious football-related charges involving transfers of players from Dinamo Zagreb.

National captain Luka Modric and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren were involved in the trial as well, and their involvement caused a heavy divide between sets of fans.

Modric now faces trial for perjury committed during the Mamic trial, though his lawyer told the BBC he had done nothing wrong and hoped he would not go to court.

But his testimony at Mamic's trial caused a particular division between the fans.

To some, Modric is a god-like figure and a symbol of this generation; according to them he should not have to be seen through these non-football circumstances because it is not up to him to change the face of Croatian football, only to play it in his brilliant way instead.

But for the critics it is all about that. If you ask them, the only way things should have developed was for Modric to use his position and his influence to take a stand against the irregularities that became the main feature of Mamic's reign.

When he did not, some even denounced this national team as their own.

While England's World Cup campaign is seen as a success of planning and stability, the same cannot be said of the team that knocked them out.

A panicked Croatia changed coach on the eve of a crunch qualifier last October, and sent Nikola Kalinic home from Russia after he refused to come off the bench in their opening game against Nigeria.

It has left people looking everywhere for answers to explain the team's success.

A kind draw, a refusal to cave in despite falling behind in every knockout match and a smattering of world-class players in good form have obviously helped. As well as a goalkeeper in Danijel Subasic who has made vital saves at key times.

But, in a country with an extremely high percentage of religious people, many are talking about some kind of divine intervention.

Others will seek answers in some form of genetic predisposition; Croats are among the tallest people in Europe and there is a notion they have a solid basis to build on when it comes to genetics.

But we must remember something that Croats are good at: doing things in spite of.

There are more than a few stories of young people training in improvised venues, often overcrowded or downright dangerous. Stories about sharing basic equipment, raising money to travel to various tournaments from their own pockets and countless sleepless nights spent in vans they rented out themselves.

Unfortunately that perfectly suits the institutions who legitimise their own passivity with these fantastic achievements.

No-one dares to suggest a dire need to impose a clear system or a sustainable development programme, even though it would significantly improve the possibility of achieving long-term results.

But that will all be put aside, at least for a few weeks, regardless of the result on Sunday.

As always, Croats seek escapism from the bleak reality of everyday life, and that includes avoiding any form of criticism when there are results to celebrate.

A perpetual cycle of disillusion and euphoria interchanging, all so characteristic for Croatia as a nation, will once again close on Sunday.

And if it does with the team as world champions, it will be one of the most peculiar cases of sporting success in history.

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