GROUP A
Croatia

THE 60-SECOND OVERVIEW

In their first World Cup appearance as an independent nation in 1998, Croatia made the rest of the world sit up and take notice, marching to third place. But they failed to get past the group stage in two subsequent tournaments, and didn’t qualify in 2010.

After hitting a very rough patch in these qualifiers, manager Igor Stimac was sacked and replaced by Niko Kovac. Once their talismanic captain, he’s now trying to rebuild a team which may be past its peak, but should make a reasonable fist of getting through to the knockout round.



THE DREAM

The success in 1998 was a wonderful accomplishment, but it also set the bar impossibly high – every Vatreni generation since has been forced to endure unfair comparisons with the iconic bronze-winning side and its creative axis of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic.

But with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in fabulous form and young Mateo Kovacic emerging pleasingly, Croatia now have a new ‘magic triangle’ in midfield. Optimists are hoping it can bring back the glory days of the original playmaking trio.

THE NIGHTMARE

Whoever buys into the logic that the tournament opener against Brazil will be the easiest match for the Croatians – as the hosts are huge favourites and expectations will be low – may well be delusional.

A complete thrashing isn’t exactly unlikely, and how would the team respond then? Could their manager Niko Kovac, who has extremely little coaching experience, lift their spirits? A heavy defeat in the first game could cause a chain reaction and send the team packing before they can learn to say ai! (that’s ‘ouch’ in Portuguese).

THE STATS
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SING THE OPPONENTS' ANTHEM: EDUARDO

Playing in the World Cup opener against the country of his birth is a dream come true for the former Arsenal forward. If it happens, he says: “It would make me twice as proud as anyone else – proud for both of my countries”.

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RECEIVE INSECT-RELATED NEWS FROM HOME: MARIO MANDZUKIC

Ladybugs bring good luck, according to Mario’s dad. When Papa Mandzu saw one just before Croatia played Italy at the 2012 Euros, he immediately phoned his son to inform him – and Mario scored.

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LOSE 10% OF HIS BODY MASS THROUGH SWEAT: IVICA OLIC

At almost 35, and after around 47 different injuries that marred his career, the striker is still going strong, relentlessly chugging up and down, poaching for rebounds to bundle into the net…

DID YOU KNOW?

Captain Darijo Srna has a tattoo of a female deer on his leg – because his family name means ‘doe’ in Croatian.

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Croatia's dangerous attack and new midfield 'magic triangle' can harness the spirit of 1998 and make the country proud. Brazil beware...