Sackings, Corruption and Sulking Stars…

Croatia triumph over adversity

Croatia have made the Quarter Finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018; a not entirely unexpected feat given the plethora of talent in their squad and of course their relatively easy progress to the last eight – victories against a nervous Nigeria, a decaying Argentina and likeable, but limited, Iceland and Denmark, have seen them within touching distance of their best ever Finals.

However, it could’ve all been so very different for them given the disasters the squad and the Croatian Football Association has faced over the last nine months. In October 2017, just days before their crucial World Cup qualifying game, away to Ukraine, Croatia sacked their coach, Ante Čačić, after the team took just four points from their previous four qualifying games; defeats to Iceland and Turkey before a dreadful 1-1 draw, at home to Finland, sealed Čačić’s demise. The Croatian FA certainly took a huge gamble and appointed current coach, Zlatko Dalić, with immediate effect. Dalić’s future wasn’t assured, with an underwhelming and less than confident statement from Croatian FA president and former Croatian legend, Davor Šuker, in regards to Dalić taking the job permanently he sulked, “coaches live and die by their results, so we’ll see”.

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England know all too well about the upset in continuity and stability which can be caused by changing your coach with a qualification or a tournament on the horizon; Roy Hodsgon took England to Euro 2012 having had only two previous games with the national team, this after Fabio Capello resigned months earlier after he was gloriously undermined by the FA over the John Terry trial issue.

The gamble paid off for Croatia in Kyiv as two Andrej Kramarić goals confirmed their 2-0 win and their runners up place. They kicked off their Play Off game against Greece with renewed optimism and a sense of relief having overcome the Ukraine obstacle and they hammered Greece 4-1 on aggregate to book their place in Russia.

Having successfully qualified for Russia the squad could focus on preparation for what could be their current squad’s last attempt to emulate their 1998 counterparts, with Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Vedran Ćorluka, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić all reaching the twilight of their careers, one would realistically expect them to have handed over the international reigns when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar.

However, their preparations were thrown into crisis once more as two of their star players were caught up in a shady transfer scandal. Both Modrić and Dejan Lovren coud face prison sentences if found guilty in a trial involving former Dinamo Zagreb Chief Executive, Zdravko Mamić, and the personal profits he made when both Lovren and Modrić moved from Dinamo to Olympique Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

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Mamić has a long history of dubious political, media and sporting connections and has never denied signing personal contracts with the players when they were in the Zagreb youth academy. By doing so it meant the players would share a proportion of their earnings with him. One can argue this is slightly naïve on the players’ part, however, the picture becomes clearer when we find out the players were being represented by Mamić’s son, and football agent, Mario. The focus for the prosecution was the clauses were put in place after their transfers and were backdated to their youth academy days. Mamić was found guilty and fled to neighbouring Bosnia, he is awaiting sentencing at present.

For Modrić and Lovren, they face a nervous few months. Modrić has already been charged with perjury after he changed his statement, he revealed the clause was written into his contract after his transfer, but then changed his version of events. Lovren has also reportedly changed his statement and is waiting to hear the outcome of the court ruling, although given Modrić’s charge for the same offence, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lovren charged too. Both could face between one and five years in prison.

Modrić has gone on to become one of Croatia’s key players at the World Cup, while his presence in the Croatian midfield was expected for a man of such talent, his performances are much more impressive given the mental strain he is under at present; a leader and captain on the pitch, who has had to battle more than most. However, his and Croatia’s next complication was just around the corner; just days before their massive World Cup Group D encounter with Argentina.

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The day after a Modrić-inspired Croatia secured their first win of the tournament against Nigeria, striker, Nikola Kalinić, was sent home. According to the Croatian FA he had refused to come on as a substitute during the second half of the Nigeria game. The player citied a back injury, while the coach, pointed to a lack of commitment on the part of Kalinić. Dalić stated the same problem had occurred during the team’s friendly against Brazil at the beginning of June and with good reason, wanted only players who were 100% committed to the Croatian cause to be part of the squad in Russia. Kalinić is certainly one of Croatia’s better players, and although inconsistency has hit his time in Italy’s Serie A, he could’ve been a big loss. Again it has been a huge gamble by Dalić and the Croatian FA, but one has to applaud their decision to not pander to the whims of their star players. Their subsequent qualification from the group with three wins from three games is a testament to squad morale, togetherness and determination.

They remain dark horses, as they usually are, but given the above average nature of the teams ahead of them, they have to be confident of at least a Semi Final place. Modrić may well end up in some very hot water over his perjury charge but he may well also be lifting the World Cup trophy in Moscow a week on Sunday. Given the turbulent 9 months they have had it would be just Croatia’s luck to have their captain jailed in the same year they reach the pinnacle of world football.

Croatia looking to make the leap from perennial dark horses to champion thoroughbreds

Assessing the Vatreni ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Despite only being a recognised nation since 1993, Croatia have been to five of the last six FIFA World Cups. The famous team of the mid to late 1990s were previously unknown to many but their now distinctive red and white checked shirts, mixed with a little eastern European enigma, put Croatia firmly among the world’s best and shot them to fame as they achieved third place in France 98. That squad with players such as Golden Boot winner, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Igor Štimac and Zvonimir Boban, were the toast of France with their stylish attacking play.

They have struggled to reach those heights since, but they’re constantly predicted to be in with an outside chance of at least the Semi Finals at every tournament they enter. With many of their players turning out for Europe’s top teams such as Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić and Luka Modrić, they will surely be rubbing shoulders with the elite in the latter stages in Russia.

As far as qualification was concerned they were drawn alongside UEFA Euro 2016 Quarter Finalists, Iceland, as well as Finland, Ukraine, Turkey and qualification debutantes, Kosovo. The questionable ability of their opponents will have filled Croatia with a ton of confidence, however with just one automatic place for the group winners, they would have to be consistent for the whole campaign.

The road to Russia began at the Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, in September 2016, however the hostile crowd wasn’t present after UEFA had ruled the team must play two games without fans present after they were found guilty of discriminatory chanting during two games against Israel and Hungary in March 2016.

Their first game against Turkey ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a decent start against a team who like their hosts had suffered a few down years after their 2002 World Cup Semi Final appearance. However, the match was dominated by Croatia and Rakitic’s penalty on the stroke of half time should’ve been the catalyst for them to win, but Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s equaliser just a minute later meant the points were shared.

All of the first round of games were 1-1 draws with Kosovo securing their first ever point in their very first competitive game, away to Finland. Kosovo’s draw was all the more remarkable as they had only been accepted as members of UEFA a few months prior to qualification commencing.

They were the next opponents for Croatia as they travelled to Albania for the game on 6 October, Croatia were a much more severe test than Finland as a hatrick from Juventus hitman, Mandžukić, helped the Croatians to an easy 6-0 win. England’s Euro 2016 subjugators, Iceland, jointly held the group lead with Croatia after two games after they defeated Finland, 3-2. Two Icelandic goals in injury time helped them snatch the win from the jaws of defeat.

Croatia took charge of the group three days later against luckless Finland. Mandzukic was the Croatian match winner once again as they won by a single goal. For Finland, their qualification campaign was all but over already and they failed to register a shot on target to further compound their grief. Iceland, however, continued to match the Croatians point for point in an early skirmish for group superiority as they eased past Turkey, 2-0 in Reykjavik.

The next international break saw the two group leaders clash in Zagreb, the second of Croatia’s games behind closed doors, the home team secured a vital 2-0 victory courtesy of a brace by Inter Milan midfielder, Marcelo Brozović. The hosts had Ivan Perišić sent off in injury time but it mattered little as they were now two points clear of nearest rivals Ukraine; they continued their decent start by seeing off Finland (poor, Finland!), 1-0 in Odessa.

A Nikola Kalinić goal was enough to secure a win over qualification rivals, Ukraine, at home in March 2017, while Iceland kept the pace with a 2-1 away in against Kosovo.

The top two met in Reykjavik for their return fixture on 11 June; a win would put Croatia within touching distance of the Finals, however an injury time winner from Hördur Magnússon gave the hosts a priceless win and put them joint top on 13 points. Turkey and Ukraine also recorded wins, versus Kosovo and Finland, to move them to within two points of the leaders.

The tense final rounds in September saw both joint group leaders lose, first Iceland suffered a shock 1-0 loss in Finland, this while Croatia were easing to a 1-0 home victory over Kosovo. Three days later it was the turn of Croatia to lose, this time a trip to Turkey saw them lose only their second game of the campaign and the group leaders were tied again.

Croatia were set up nicely to visit Ukraine in their last game and secure qualification, however the penultimate game away to Finland saw the host’s Pyry Soiri score a last minute equaliser to cancel out Mandžukić’s fifth goal of qualifying in Rijeka. This gave Iceland the chance to overtake them and they did just that with a tremendous 3-0 win in Turkey. They now lead by two points with just one game remaining. Croatia had seemingly been cruising through qualification but now relied on Kosovo taking a point or more from their group rivals in the last round of games on 9 October. Croatia played their part as they won 2-0 in Kiev, however, as expected Iceland held their nerve and comfortably won, also 2-0.

That meant Croatia were sent into the lottery of the Play Offs, they were comfortably one of the best eight runners up after amassing 20 points. Due to their impressive qualifying record they were seeded and could’ve face either Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden or Greece; none of them particularly easy.

They were drawn against Greece, with the first leg to be played in Zagreb. The game started in a whirlwind of action as five goals were scored before the hour, four to Croatia. Modrić, Kalinić, Perišić and Andrej Kramarić fired them into a very strong position going into the return leg three days later. The tie was all but over before a ball was kicked in Piraeus and the teams played out a 0-0 draw.

Despite their brief lapse in concentration in qualifying Croatia have made another Finals and will fancy their chances against Argentina, Nigeria and, in a delightful twist of irony; qualification rivals, Iceland. However, they will need to be more robust in attack after scoring just 15 goals in ten games (England and France scored 18, Spain, 36 and Germany, 43). Conceding a mere four goals in qualifying shows they’re durable at the back, and with the return of veteran, Vedran Ćorluka, they could be a match for Lionel Messi and company in the Group Stage.

Much is expected of qualification top scorer, Mandžukić, Barcelona star, Rakitić and Real Madrid veteran, Modrić, especially as they could all be playing in their last Finals. The Croatia squad has a profusion of talent but simply playing in the Group Stage isn’t enough and they will be disappointed if they don’t better their previous two World Cup performances.