In 1998, the previous golden generation of Croatian football, sporting Davor Suker leading the line, achieved bronze triumph at France 98. This feat was particularly special, given Croatia had just recently gained long sought independence off the back of a turbulent and cruel civil war.
Suker at France '98
Exactly 10 years later, a new generation of stars began to be discovered. A young Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic starred at Euro 2008. The team continued to develop, and by Euro 2016, a formidable starting XI was formed. Modric and Rakitic were joined by Marcelo Brozovic in midfield. Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic formed the attack, Domogoj Vida and Ivan Strinic slotting into centre-back and full-back, respectively. Despite looking solid, much like the 2014 World Cup and the previous European Championships, the team failed to jell.
Modric at Euro 2008
Enter Zlatko Dalic. A widely criticised managerial appointment, Dalic transitioned from a variety of Croatian and UAE first division teams to having at his disposal some of the very elite of European football. The Vatreni qualified for Russia 2018, and routinely beat a very slick looking Nigerian outfit, who had at their disposal likely the best home shirt of the tournament, but which was only worn once against Iceland.
Croatia truly made their mark in the second group game. Competing against Messi and co., Modric won man of the match, and in the first feature of their black and navy away shirt, Dalic guided his men to a comprehensive 3-nil victory. They had already qualified for the knockout stages, where their first opponents would be a sturdy Danish team.
The teams would each find the back of the net early, before Croatia began to dominate but failed to convert. Rebic earned a penalty in extra-time, however Modric was denied by Schmeichel, whose father Peter was in attendance and famously rejoiced as Kasper heroically saw the game out to a penalty shootout. His heroics, however, were 'out-heroised' by Daniel Subasic, who equalled the record for second most penalties saved in a World Cup shootout, denying three Danishmen.
Ante Rebic match prepared shirt v Denmark
The Vatreni would go on to face Russia in the quarter-finals. Again, the match found itself into extra-time, except this time there were two additional goals split between the host nation and their slavic neighbours, and again, Croatia faced a penalty shootout. As surely as Arsenal releasing a retro collection three times a season, Subasic again saved two penalties and sent Croatia to the equal furthest they have ever progressed in a World Cup.
11 July, 2018. Most Croatians will be able to describe with utmost accuracy exactly where they were and what they were doing that glorious day. Against the re-emergence of the vexatious "it's coming home'" slogan, this match was England's to lose, coming up against an obscure country of the former eastern bloc.
The English went up early with a Kieran Trippier free kick, and dominated much of the mach. But the Croatians slowly grew into it, and it was they who were on top in the second half following the complete retreat of the English. Perisic soon equalised, getting on the end of a Vrsaljko cross, and yet again, the Croatians would face an additional period of extra time. Only there would be no penalties.
Mandzukic scoring the winning goal against England
Much like how England succumbed to the Italians in the recent Euro 2020 final, scoring early would prove to be their doom. Southgate's well known strategy was to take the lead and then consolidate their winning position by throwing the entire XI behind the ball. Again, much like what transpired against the Italians, Croatia truly began to topple the English. In the 109th minute, a high ball would see Perisic leap and direct the play to Mandzukic, whose experience allowed him to lose his man and volley the ball across Pickford and into the back of the net. 2-1. Croatia would hold out, and progress, to their first ever world cup final.
Match worn shirt of Marcelo Brozovic against England
Indeed, I am still unable to detail the final match of that tournament. It remains a shadowy blur. What I do know, however, is that the Croatian's feat in their lucky black away strip (which they did not lose a game wearing) will never leave my mind. The silver boys. Having gained statehood less than 25 years prior, Croatia has completed what many states are yet to do, or will ever accomplish - 2 medal finishes out of a possible 6 in World Cup tournaments.
Croatia would continue to sport the lucky black away strip in Euro 2020 qualifying and various other tournaments, before a grey take on the away was released in 2020.
Perisic match prepared against Wales in Euro 2020 qualifying, and match detail of Kramaric match prepared against Spain in the Nations League
Overall, the magic of 2018 will forever remain in history, as will the memory of the lucky black away shirt.
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