Who would have thunk it? Apart from the fans of Croatia, no one else thought this small country of 4.1million people would be playing in the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Sunday. Except a Canadian journalist named John Molinaro who, it seems in a tiny moment when he peered into the future, predicted that the Croats would win the World Cup and Real Madrid would win the Champions League a third time in a December 2017 article.
But even Molinaro’s faith in his earlier prediction wavered when his Sportsnet team made their final predictions on the eve of the tournament last month as he did not place Croatia in his potential semi-finalists and gave Spain the title over Brazil
But here we are, Croatia will play France for the right to be world champions at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, following their 2-1 extra time defeat of England in Moscow on Wednesday night.
, as the Croats are called, have won all their six matches at this tournament so far. It was ahead of their first game against Nigeria that I first encountered the team and their numerous passionate fans.
As the game neared on June 16, thousands of Croatia fans massed at the Kaliningrad City centre to celebrate before going to the stadium. Their chequered red and white national colours flooded the entire landscape with just a handful of green and white of Nigeria to be seen. It was like the game was taking place in Zagreb as they dominated that day.
Some Croatia fans that I spoke with ahead of the game were enormously confident that they would defeat Nigeria. I had met a few from the flight into Kaliningrad and you could feel the swagger and self-confidence ooze out of them.
Truly, the Croatian team was unsparing when the game kicked off as they proceeded to thump the Super Eagles 2-0 through an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal and Luka Modric’s penalty.
Talisman Modric is a player I have come to admire for his skillset and resourcefulness. The 33-year-old Real Madrid midfielder gave an imperious performance and was at the heart of many of the attacking moves created by the team despite sitting in a withdrawn midfield position.
It was difficult to be angry at a team that outplayed you and I had a strong feeling that Croatia would go far in that tournament.
I recall a brief episode during the FIFA Final Draws in Moscow on December 1, 2017, when I noticed that there was just one TV crew from Croatia at the mixed zone as we worked to interview the coaches in Group D. The anchor told me that Croatia is a small country and only the national TV was able to be sent to cover the draws. And it seemed if that guy had a choice, he would have preferred to be on a ski slope somewhere enjoying the winter.
Croatia went on to defeat pre-tournament favourites Argentina 3-0 in their next game before sealing a 2-1 final group win against Iceland to garner the maximum nine points. There has been no looking back since.
They met stiff opposition in Denmark in the Round of 16 where they needed a penalty shootout victory to scale through. Ivan Rakitic kept his nerve to score the final penalty against Kasper Schmeichel who looked imperious in goal.
Rakitic would once again be the match winner during the quarter-final shootout against hosts Russia in Sochi. At that game which was my final at the World Cup, I once again witnessed another fearless performance from the Croatians who went down to a Denis Cheryshev goal in the first half but fought back and took the game to extra time.
After taking the lead and being pegged back by a Fernandes header late in second half of extra time, Croatia maintained their nerves in front of the home fans to win the shootout.
By the time they played against England, they were supposed to be spent and worn out. They fell to an early Kevin Trippier free-kick and looked to be tired during the entire first half. But Ivan Perisic got them back on level terms in the second half as they picked up the pace against the Three Lions who clung on for survival.
They kept prodding against the English and eventually found the breakthrough as Mario Mandzukic received a header from Perisic that he would bury beyond Jordan Pickford in the 109th minute.
After their first showing at the World Cup in 1998 where they reached the semi-final and lost to two late goals from Frenchman Lilian Thuram, Croatia are finally going into the final game where they will face their old opponents.
This time around the stakes are
higher. The World Cup trophy is at stake and I will not put it beyond the Croatians to win it. They are a resilient and very experienced team that will challenge till the end. It will be fitting to see a team like that go on to lift the title.
But this is football where nothing is certain until the final whistle and France will have a lot to say about it.