Belief is Croatia’s biggest weapon vs Brazil at World Cup

Dec 5, 2022, 6:16 PM | Updated: Dec 6, 2022, 8:21 am
Croatian players celebrate after deafeating Japan during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match bet...

Croatian players celebrate after deafeating Japan during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

              Japan's Wataru Endo, left, fights for the ball with Croatia's Ante Budimir during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
            
              Croatia's Mario Pasalic celebrates with Croatia's goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic after scoring the final penalty at the penalty shootout of the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
            
              Croatia's goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic makes a save during the penalties shootout during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Croatia won a penalty shootout 3-1 to qualify for the next round. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
            
              Croatian players celebrate after deafeating Japan during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — In terms of population, there’s no contest between Brazil and Croatia.

“Brazil has 200 million people, we only have 4 million,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said Tuesday. “So we are pretty much like a suburb of a major city in Brazil.”

Indeed, Croatia is one of the least populous countries who qualified for this World Cup.

On the soccer field, however, Croatia has been punching above its weight for years, ever since it finished third in 1998 in its first World Cup as an independent nation, right up to reaching the 2018 final in Russia.

So Croatia has belief entering a quarterfinal against five-time champion Brazil on Friday.

“Never underestimate Croatia. Croatia is a small nation. But we are brave, defiant and loyal,” Dalic said. “We will always give everything we’ve got, especially this generation of players.”

Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic saved three spot kicks in Croatia’s penalty shootout win over Japan on Monday.

Livakovic comes from the same town, Zadar, as Croatia’s 37-year-old captain Luka Modric. He was the backup goalkeeper to Danijel Subasic in 2018.

Mario Pasalic, who converted the decisive penalty for Croatia, had already done the same thing for AC Milan in a shootout win over Juventus in the 2016 Italian Super Cup — which was also played in Qatar.

“We practiced penalties the day before the game and I saw Livakovic saving four or five excellent penalties,” Dalic said. “I don’t think it’s luck. It’s mental strength. It’s character. It’s courage.”

The shootout victory came following a 1-1 draw after extra time, in which Japan opened the scoring during the first half.

Croatia also fell behind in every game of the knockout stage in 2018.

“That shows the will and the commitment and the faith of the whole team,” Dalic said. “It’s one thing playing for the clubs — it’s a matter of contracts, it’s a matter of prestige. But it’s a totally different thing to represent your country, because this is patriotism — it’s pride, it’s emotion, so it’s different.

“I am very happy and proud that I have the players who react in that way,” the coach added, “that can show this strength of character.”

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Belief is Croatia’s biggest weapon vs Brazil at World Cup