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.” Read More