Next Thursday, Croatia has the privilege of playing the World Cup’s opening match against Brazil, the host nation. The Eastern European country gets to take on a team that has won the World Cup a record five times—and is this year’s favorite—before nearly 70,000 people in São Paulo’s brand new Itaquerao stadium. The game is the first World Cup match to take place in Brazil since 1950, when the country last hosted the event. Brazil was the favorite that year, too, but it lost in the final in a shocking upset to Uruguay—and the country has never forgotten it.
Croatia, on the other hand, didn’t even become a nation until 1991. Its population of four and a half million is forty-five times smaller than Brazil’s. This World Cup is only its fourth appearance in five tries, and the team has had only two generations of players. It might seem that Croatia is absurdly overmatched. But you can also see the game as simply the next step in the development of their national soccer identity.
Croatia was born out of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, whose soccer team had made it to the semifinals and the quarterfinals of the World Cup twice; the team enjoyed a reputation as the Brazilians of European soccer. More than any of the other former Yugoslav republics, Croatia has continued that tradition, most notably at the 1998 World Cup, its first, where it shocked the world by finishing third.
That year, Croatia got a taste of what it’s like to face a host nation at a major tournament when it played its semifinal match against France in St.-Denis. Croatia’s star striker Davor Šuker, currently the president of its national soccer federation, scored the game’s first goal, just after halftime. “At that [moment] there were 80,000 people in St.-Denis and only a few thousand Croatians,” said Slaven Bilić, who played as a defender on that team and later coached the Croatian national team. “It was like when music is playing and someone comes in and presses the mute button.”
“Most people in Croatia remember that minute when we had the lead,” said Aleksandar Holiga, a soccer columnist for the news web site Tportal in Zagreb and the sports site Bleacher Report. “And then they remember when [midfielder] Zvonimir Boban, who was our captain and the most important player on the team, made a really bad defensive mistake that enabled France to equalize.”
Croatia had the lead for only a minute before France tied the game; the French team went on to win the match 2-1. Four days later, it won the World Cup. “Some people think it’s heavy madness that you think about that World Cup on a daily basis, and of course you don’t,” Bilić said on the phone from Istanbul, where he currently coaches the Turkish league team Beşiktaş. “But when I do think about it, I still feel that we could’ve won it.”
“Every generation since has been compared to that one,” Holiga said. “And it’s really unfair, because those players were extremely talented.”
Croatia made it to the World Cup in 2002 and 2006, but it didn’t make it out of the group stage either time, and it didn’t qualify in 2010. This year’s team struggled again in qualifying under its new coach, Igor Štimac, who played alongside Bilić on the 1998 team. Croatia won five of its first six matches, but then finished by losing three of its last four.
“It was okay when Štimac stuck to the tactics which were set before him by Bilić,” Holiga said. “But then he started to experiment, and he lost the faith of the locker room, of the media, of everybody.” Before the team’s final qualifying match, against Scotland, an online poll in the Croatian newspaper 24sata reported that ninety-eight percent of the public thought he should be fired. The team lost that match, too, 2-0. “The silver lining was that we won against Serbia,” Holiga says of an early qualifying match against the country’s bitter enemy from the Yugoslavian civil war.
“As much as you want it to be only a football game, it’s much more than that for the people back home,” said the midfielder Niko Kranjčar, whose father, Zlatko, not only captained the very first Croatian national team in 1991 but also preceded Bilić as national team coach. “Although both countries have moved on, the war is still quite fresh, and generations are still wounded.”
Croatia is currently under the leadership of manager Niko Kovač, forty-one, the former Croatian captain who was hired in October to coach the team through its two-legged playoff match against Iceland a month later. Born and raised in Germany, Kovač has his own vision for Croatian soccer. He regularly talks about translating his dual identity as a German and a Croatian to a team that has often been singled out for its passion and emotion. “I completely and totally embody the typical German virtues of thoroughness, orderliness, discipline, and organization,” he told FIFA.com in January. “We [Croats] are the kind of people who like a bit of spontaneity. Organization isn’t the be-all and end-all for us. I’m trying to instill the idea that some rules have to be kept.”
“He doesn’t shy away from stereotypes,” Holiga said.
The heart of Croatia’s team lies in its creativity, primarily in the midfield talents of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, both of whom play in Spain during the year, for Real Madrid and Sevilla, respectively. Its star striker, Mario Mandžukić, is suspended for the game against Brazil, but his absence opens up a spot on the team for two of the country’s most popular players, the forwards Eduardo, who was born in Brazil but came to Croatia at the age of sixteen, and thirty-four-year-old Ivica Olić, who will be playing in his third World Cup. “He’s one of those guys who the age doesn’t count,” Bilić said. “He’s like the red wine.”
Though lacking in the creativity of some of his teammates, Olić embodies the passion and the emotion of the stereotypical Croatian. “He’s this diehard character who is not really talented but who is trying his best every time,” Holiga said. “He runs up and down the pitch looking for every opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to just shove the ball in the goal. He has scored with his forehead, with his knee, with his heart—against Serbia, he scored with his badge. The ball hit him on the badge, so some people said that he scored with his heart.”
To face Brazil in São Paulo next week, Croatia will need that heart.
David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.