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What’s Croatia’s secret

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(Top L-R) Croatia’s defender Dejan Lovren, Croatia’s defender Ivan Strinic, Croatia’s forward Mario Mandzukic, Croatia’s forward Ante Rebic, Croatia’s goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, Croatia’s forward Ivan Perisic, (bottom L-R) Croatia’s midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia’s defender Domagoj Vida, Croatia’s midfielder Ivan Rakitic, Croatia’s defender Sime Vrsaljko and Croatia’s midfielder Luka Modric pose prior to the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV

On the morning after the night before, eyes learning to refocus again after giddily celebrating Croatia reaching a first World Cup final, Anita Sambol jumped into her car and made the 60 kilometre journey to Zagreb. She needed a passport. Urgently.

She, like her country’s footballers, was on her way to Moscow for the World Cup final, to be a witness to a momentous moment in her country’s history.

“It’s been really crazy, crazy, crazy here during the World Cup,” she says, speaking to CNN Sport from her Croatian home.

“Wednesday it all went on a completely other level. It was just pure happiness, pure celebrations.”

It was on floodlit Wednesday night in the Russian capital, of course, that Croatia’s footballers dug into their infinite reserves of energy to crush English dreams in a gripping World Cup semifinal.

By beating England’s youthful side 2-1 in extra-time, Croatia had emphatically answered those who doubted its staying power following consecutive 120-minute matches and penalties in the last 16 and quarterfinals.

Its victorious team sang on the team bus, chanted outside its hotel, while in Zagreb thousands gathered in the capital’s centre, filling the sky with plumes of red smoke.

The following day, Croatia’s government all wore the country’s national football shirts to its weekly meeting.

“This is the first time it’s happened to us ever. Not a lot of people had high expectations for this World Cup, some weren’t even sure we’d get through the group stage because the group was not easy,” adds Sambol.

“There have been parties in every single place in Croatia, either watching together in city squares or in pubs and after the match ended the way it ended there were fireworks, firecrackers, cars driving around honking all the time, traffic stopped. It was amazing.”

A country of four million — one-13th the size of England’s — had overcome demographic and economic odds to reach football’s pinnacle.

Should Croatia beat France in Moscow today, not only would it be a sensational win over a footballing heavyweight but this Balkan country would become the smallest to win football’s biggest prize since Uruguay in 1950.

What is the secret to Croatia’s success at this World Cup? First, it should be noted that it is not just in football that the country excels, suggesting there’s something in the country’s makeup, in its character, in its attitude towards sports.

Croatia’s men are the reigning water polo champions and at the 2017 handball world championships its men came fourth, while at the 2016 Rio Olympics Croatia was 17th in the medals table, finishing ahead of the likes of Canada (population 36 million), Argentina (population 43 million) and South Africa (population 56 million).

But for all the country’s success in handball, volleyball and water polo, Croatia is a footballing country, much like Brazil, England, Argentina and France.

The prospect of breeding brilliant footballers increases when that country is in love with the beautiful game.

Teams do not reach world finals without gifted players and, in Luka Modric, Croatia has a very gifted midfielder widely regarded as the best in the world in his position.

The 32-year-old’s intelligence has stood out in Russia and yet, despite being a superior talent to many of those around him, the captain is also willing to suffer for his team.

No player has covered as much ground in Russia as Modric’s 63km (22.7km when not in possession). He has also scored twice in the tournament.

Outplayed in the first half by England, it was 5ft 5in Modric – his passing, his harrying, his unwillingness to yield — which dragged Croatia to victory.

Alongside Modric in midfield is Ivan Rakitic, a player who has covered just 0.2km less than Real Madrid star and spends most of his weeks in Barcelona colours, supplying the great Lionel Messi.

Two world-class midfielders is a boon to any team.

• By Aimee Lewis, CNN
Culled from CNN.COM


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