World Cup finalist Croatia bringing rebuilt team to Qatar

Oct 25, 2022, 2:35 PM | Updated: Oct 26, 2022, 2:47 am
FILE - Croatia's Luka Modric is in action during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Croat...

FILE - Croatia's Luka Modric is in action during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Croatia and Austria at the Gradski Vrt stadium in Osijek, Croatia, Friday, June 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

              FILE - Croatia's Mateo Kovacic, left, duels for the ball with Austria's Christoph Baumgartner during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Austria and Croatia at the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, File)
            
              FILE - Austria's Stefan Posch, left, duels for the ball with Croatia's Ivan Perisic during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Austria and Croatia at the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, File)
            
              Croatia's Marcelo Brozovic is in action during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Croatia and Denmark at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
            
              Croatia's Luka Modric is in action during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Croatia and Denmark at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, Croatia, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
            
              FILE - Croatia's Luka Modric is in action during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Croatia and Austria at the Gradski Vrt stadium in Osijek, Croatia, Friday, June 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Was Croatia’s run to the 2018 World Cup final a one-off? Don’t be so sure.

Only five of the 11 players who started the 2018 final are still in the squad — led by the 37-year-old Luka Modric — but Croatia’s rebuild fuses that experienced core with a talented new generation.

Wins over World Cup champion France, Denmark and Austria in the Nations League this year show Croatia is getting back on track following a period of underwhelming results after 2018.

With more than 150 games for Croatia, Modric will join the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the most experienced players at the World Cup in Qatar. The Real Madrid veteran is joined by old partners Ivan Perisic of Tottenham and Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan. Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic, an unused substitute in the 2018 final, is also key.

Notable absentees include midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who retired from international soccer in 2020. Winger Ante Rebic hasn’t played since he criticized coach Zlatko Dalic following the team’s last-16 loss to Spain at last year’s European Championship.

GROUP F

The draw has been relatively kind to Croatia, whose main threat in Group F is Belgium.

The Croatians start on Nov. 27 against Morocco and then play Canada four days later, before taking on Belgium on Dec. 1.

A pre-tournament friendly with Saudi Arabia has also been scheduled.

NEW BLOOD

The veterans on the team have combined well with younger players like 20-year-old Leipzig center back Josko Gvardiol, widely considered one of Europe’s best young defensive players and already a regular in the Bundesliga and Champions League.

He’s not the only new face with links to Germany.

Last year, the German team hoped to recruit left back Borna Sosa, who was playing for Stuttgart and qualified for a passport thanks to his mother, who was born in Germany. Just before the European Championship, however, it became clear he didn’t meet FIFA eligibility rules.

After a profuse apology on the Croatian federation website and some strong performances in a Croatia shirt, including a goal in September’s 2-1 win over Denmark, the 24-year-old Stuttgart defender is a valuable member of the team.

There’s also the Germany-born right back Josip Stanisic, increasingly a first-team player for Bayern Munich and Croatia.

AIMING HIGH

With 3.8 million people, fewer than Oklahoma, Croatia has the second-smallest population of any of the 13 European nations at the World Cup (only Wales has fewer people).

Despite its relatively small size, Croatia is a regular at major tournaments, having only missed one World Cup since placing third in its debut in 1998 following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Croatia’s recipe for success includes a passionate soccer fanbase and elite youth academies at clubs like Champions League regular Dinamo Zagreb.

Strong links to the Croatian diaspora abroad have helped Croatia count on players like Rakitic, who was born and raised in Switzerland, or Stanisic and young Austria-born midfielder Luka Sucic.

___

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