Croatia - World Cup 2014 Team Profile
Ozren Podnar reports
Road to Brazil
Croatia struggled in qualifying, losing home and away to Scotland in UEFA Group A and were lucky to draw Iceland in the play offs. Croatia came through 2-0 on aggregate with a 0-0 draw in Iceland followed by a 2-0 win in Zagreb.
Croatia Kit 1
Croatia Kit 2
Croatia could have done without the preparations and the friendlies for the World Cup and without QPR reaching the Championship play-off final against Derby County too. Perhaps their squad would not have been so sadly depleted on the eve of the World Cup.
Left full-back Ivan Strinic and midfielders Milan Badelj, Mate Males and Ivo Ilicevic all went down with injuries in excruciating training sessions imposed by manager Niko Kovac. Then another midfielder Niko Kranjcar suffered a ruptured muscle against Derby at Wembley.
The most recent casualty was the only other left full-back in the squad Danijel Pranjic, who is currently out of action with a severely bruised left ankle. Ironically, he was hacked by Australia's Ivan Franjic in a friendly in Salvador last Saturday.
The similarity of the surnames is not a coincidence, since Franjic is one of seven ethnic Croats in Australia's World Cup team.
Add Joe Simunic, banned by FIFA for his politically charged chants after Croatia's qualifier with Iceland, and one realizes Kovac will have to be quite resourceful in deciding line-ups against Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico, the rivals in the Group A.
Croatia also paid a high price for their play-off win over Iceland, the high-flying Mandzukic was sent off for a reckless studs-first tackle somewhere near the half-way line with Croatia 1-0 up. A one-match ban ensued so he will be out against Brazil in the World Cup opener on June 12th in Sao Paulo.
Worse things were to happen when the 36-year-old defense stalwart Simunic celebrated the qualification by inviting the crowd to chant the infamous slogan "Za dom - spremni!" (For the homeland - ready!) used among others by the Croatian pro-Axis regime during the Second World War.
Simunic, born in Australia to Croatian immigrants, claimed that he literally saluted his homeland, without any reference to political ideology. FIFA did not buy it, slapping the defender with a ten-match ban, effectively ending his international career. And giving Kovac much headache regarding the composition of the national team's defense.
Elsewhere the picture is rosier, Mandzukic overcome Pep Guardiola's hostility at Bayern finishing the Bundesliga season as the second-best scorer with 18 goals.
Veteran Ivica Olic had a wonderful season at Wolfsburg and the Brazilian born Sammir experienced revival after transferring from Dinamo Zagreb to La Liga's Getafe in January.
Kovac's starting eleven looks quite mighty, specially from the midfield upfront, with the super talented Mateo Kovacic from Inter and the battle-hardened goal-poacher Eduardo da Silva. However, the draw was less than friendly to the Slavs.
Opening the group (and the Mundial itself) against hosts and favourites Brazil is a double-edged sword for both sides, but Croatia is still likely to lose that one despite putting on a brave display.
Formation: 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1
Ideal starting eleven: Stipe Pletikosa - Darijo Srna, Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko (Domagoj Vida) - Ognjen Vukojevic, Luka Modric - Ivan Rakitic, Sammir, Ivan Perišic - Mario Mandzukic (Ivica Olic)
Key player: Luka Modric
Croatia's most talented player has gone unscathed through the gruelling club season and subsequent preparations for Brazil. Midfield general Luka Modric played the best football of his career last season, helping Real Madrid to the coveted "la décima" (Spanish for tenth) Champions League.
One to watch: Ivan Rakitic
Ivan Rakitic asserted his phenomenal potential leading Sevilla to their third Europa League and earning himself a cool transfer to Barcelona.
Coach: Niko Kovac
For the time being, the 42-year old coach has been doing well since his surprise appointment last October. Croatia's FA chairman Davor Suker was courageous to hire the former Leverkusen, HSV and Bayern midfielder a month before the World Cup playoffs while still not knowing Croatia's opponent.
Under the previous boss Igor Stimac, Croatia looked a good bet for a direct qualification, but the shock home defeat to Scotland in Zagreb (0-1, Snodgrass) upset the players so much that they collected just one point in the remaining three games.
While Belgium cruised to the top of the group, Stimac was sacked and Kovac brought to try to put Croatia past whoever the draw awarded them in the playoffs. Their rivals turned out to be Iceland and Croatia went through easily with a 2-0 aggregate, Mario Mandzukic and Dario Srna scoring both goals in the second leg on their home soil.
2002, 2006 Group Stage; 1998 Third Place.
After facing Brazil in the opening match of the tournament, he next two matches promise to be even harder. On June 18th the chequered shirts face Cameroon in Amazona's capital Manaus, labelled a"tropical hellhole" by a British magazine. The Africans, who recently drew 2-2 in Germany, may feel more comfortable in the heat and humidity of Manaus.
Finally, on June 24th, there awaits Mexico in the scorching coastal city of Recife with the climatological factor clearly in their favour. And Croatia will probably have to win that one, that is, if they still have any chance left in the first place.
The calendar is also highly hostile to Croatia. Playing Brazil in the third match, when the hosts have (presumably) already qualified would have been far easier. As it happens, it is Cameroon who will have that advantage.
If this World Cup were played in, say, Sweden or England, Croatia would likely reach the last 16 as the second placed team in the group with the same rivals. In Brazil, the odds, the temperatures and the insects are wholly against them.
2014 World Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Sammir (Getafe).