Vintage Croatia has long passed the test of consistency, but still defies belief

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There wasn’t a soul in Ban Jelacic Square who cared about the Friday night temperature, which had plummeted towards freezing. A reveler took off his shirt and jumped into a nearby fountain; he always wants one first and soon he had company. The center of Zagreb was packed, the festivities continued until the early hours of the morning under the splendor of the Christmas decorations. Now a country wonders if it, and the football team that continues to defy belief, can do it all again twice.

Coming out of a stadium 2,400 miles away in Doha, a smiling Josip Juranovic clutched a plastic bag. His contents were inevitably yellow and it didn’t take long to understand the nature of his loot. The Croatia right-back had managed to swap shirts with his idol Dani Alves, an off-field substitute who is squeezing every last drop of a stellar career at 39 years old.

Should Alves work up the courage to watch a rerun of Brazil’s last quarter-final outing, he will see familiar traits in Juranovic. The Celtic player let loose up front whenever possible and was rarely outmatched in defence, winning Vinícius Júnior’s challenge within 64 minutes. It was a distillation of what Croatia achieved in Education City: their opponents had arrived with songs in their hearts and a quick stride in their feet, yet they finished second in all rankings that mattered.

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

It’s all relative: in terms of football, the 27-year-old is middle-aged. But Luka Modric saw it all and forgot everything else; this was another big occasion where the veteran set the tone with a colossal performance that seemed to drag everyone else along.

“For me he is in the top five midfielders of all time,” said left-back Borna Sosa. “Nobody, absolutely nobody, has performed at his level at 37. When it matters most it gives us this experience and confidence. He is really calm on the ball and I hope he stays with us for as long as possible.

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

It’s a fair assessment. Croatia aren’t polished in every area, but they rarely tend to make a difference: the three in the center get their way. It’s a collection of gears that works through looks, an appreciation of the medium space, possession in motion in a constant wave rather than through a flash of transition. Against Brazil they barely created a chance until extra time. What they did, beyond the opportunities that were carved out in isolated attacks rather than through concerted spells of pressure, was treat the game as if it were to be played solely in the center third.

Keeping your opponent at arm’s length without pushing too hard with the other – that’s Croatia’s equaliser. They have the confidence to do it and the psychological edge from another shoot-out success is real. “When the scores were level it was a really good feeling because we knew that, if it’s penalties, we have the advantage on our side,” said Sosa.

Juranovic echoed him. “When we drew 1-1 I thought: ‘Yes, we have it’,” he said.

Borna Sosa competes with Neymar. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

When does a loser cease to be a loser? Legend and accepted wisdom develop through layers of experience and achievements: 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 doesn’t matter if they got there thanks to the inspiration of Suker, Prosinecki and Stanic or the resistance of their indomitable successors. Croatia has long passed the test of consistency and should not be considered a notch below Argentina. It is among the small handful of major footballing nations of this era and the past.

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

“We don’t have 25 players playing for Barcelona and Real, so everyone has to be ready,” said Sosa. “Luka is playing every match 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 come this far, yet again: The water in those fountains may be even colder on Tuesday, but they look ready to light the biggest fire ever.

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