Sport

Vintage Croatia have long passed the consistency test but still defy belief

In Ban Jelacic Square there was not a soul who cared about the Friday night temperature, which had plummeted towards freezing. A reveller removed his shirt and dived into a nearby fountain; it always takes one to go first and soon enough he had company. Zagreb’s city centre was packed, celebrations continuing into the early hours under the shine of Christmas decorations. Now a country wonders whether it, and the football team that continue to defy belief, can do it all again twice more.

Walking out of a stadium 2,400 miles away in Doha, a smiling Josip Juranovic clutched a plastic bag. Its contents were inescapably yellow and it did not take much to prise out the nature of his loot. Croatia’s right-back had managed to swap shirts with his idol, Dani Alves, a non-playing substitute, who is squeezing out every last drop of a stellar career at 39.

Should Alves ever pluck up the courage to watch a rerun of Brazil’s latest quarter-final exit, he would see familiar traits in Juranovic. The Celtic player rampaged forward whenever possible and was rarely outdone at the back, seeing off the challenge of Vinícius Júnior within 64 minutes. It was a distillation of what Croatia achieved at Education City: their opponents had arrived with songs in their hearts and a quickstep in their feet but came second in all the charts that mattered.

Juranovic may never share a dressing room with Alves but knows the benefit of a wise, evergreen teammate better than most. “We believe in our team, especially our oldest players,” he said. “This is my first tournament and they said some words to us younger ones.”

It is all relative: in footballing terms the 27-year-old is middle-aged. But Luka Modric has seen it all and forgotten anything else; this was another big occasion when the veteran set the tone with a colossal performance that seemed to pull everyone else along.

“For me he’s in the top five midfielders of all time,” said the left-back Borna Sosa. “Nobody, absolutely nobody, has performed to his level at 37. When it’s most important he gives us this experience and confidence. He’s really calm on the ball and hopefully he will stay with us as long as he can.”

In this nick it would be foolhardy to dismiss at least a European Championship swansong from Modric in 18 months’ time. The mechanism he runs with Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic has no parallel in this World Cup. “I can say we have the best midfielders,” Juranovic said. “If they’re on their game we control 90% of it and because of that I think we win.”

It is a fair assessment. Croatia are not polished in every area but it rarely tends to matter: the three in the centre take a grip their way. It is a collection of cogs that works through glances, appreciation of half-space, moving possession in a steady wave rather than through a lightning bolt of transition. Against Brazil they barely created a chance until extra time. What they did, beyond opportunities that were carved out in isolated attacks rather than through concerted spells of pressure, was treat the match as if it was to be played purely in the middle third.

Keeping the opponent at one arm’s length while not pushing unduly with the other: that is the balance Croatia strike. They have the confidence to do it and the psychological edge from another shootout success is real. “When the scores were level it was a really good feeling because we knew that, if it comes to penalties, we have the edge on our side,” Sosa said.

That was echoed by Juranovic. “When we equalised for 1-1 I was thinking: ‘Yeah, we have this,’” he said.

When does an underdog cease being an underdog? Legend and accepted wisdom are developed through layers of experience and achievement: a 31-year-old country of 3.9 million has reached at least the semi-final stage in three of its seven entries at this level. It does not matter whether they got there via the flair of Suker, Prosinecki and Stanic or the durability of their indomitable successors. Croatia have long passed the consistency test and should not be considered a notch below Argentina. It is among the small clutch of leading football nations from this era and the past one.

“We showed in the Nations League against France and Denmark that we are one of the top teams in the world,” Juranovic said of a campaign when they took 10 points from four games against those opponents, including two away wins. Their only defeat in 21 games since a rollercoaster Euro 2020 exit to Spain was an anomalous no-show against Austria, which Modric did not start. In form like this, what are an extra pair of high-octane assignments for that triumvirate in the engine room?

“We don’t have 25 players who are playing for Barcelona and Real so everybody has to be ready,” Sosa said. “Luka is playing every game because he has to. There is no place for him to rest, because we need him every second on the pitch.”

Modric and Croatia have made it this far, yet again: the water in those fountains may be even chillier on Tuesday but they look ready to light their biggest fire yet.