Croatia World Cup 2014: Team Guide for FIFA Tournament
Niko Kovac took his team away from the euphoria that had engulfed the Croats at home. Croatia moved from Zagreb to the Austrian village of Bad Tatzmannsdorf, where they'll sharpen their skills for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
This will be their fourth appearance in the competition, which they reached thanks to the inspirational Kovac. The iconic former captain replaced Igor Stimac just days before the play-off match against Iceland, which not only improved the atmosphere around the team, but also in the public eye as well.
Kovac is still an inexperienced coach, and this World Cup will be the first major test in his managerial career. He relies on the proven class of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, but the problem could be a slow defence.
Bleacher Report brings you a complete Croatia World Cup guide that includes a closer look at the qualifiers, the squad, the manager and the key player.
Road to the Finals
The road through the qualifiers was strewn with thorns. After the draw, the Croats were branded favourites for one of the top two places, but the fact that they had to play their neighbours and arch-enemies, Serbia, was a concerning factor.
However, it proved that the quality of the opposition was not their biggest issue. After Euro 2012, the Croatian FA decided to replace departing Slaven Bilic with another former West Ham player in Igor Stimac. At the time he was anything but a popular figure in Croatia and was heavily criticised for his arrogance and team selection. Stimac simply could not find a stable system and changed his formation in every match.
The performances through the qualifiers were poor, but Croatia somehow managed to make ends meet. A win over Serbia in Zagreb in March 2013 glossed over the problems the team had, and when Stimac won a point in Belgrade, it looked like he would secure qualification. Things went downhill from there as Scotland defeated Croatia twice, while sandwiched between those games was a loss to Belgium. Following the second defeat to Scotland, Stimac stepped down.
Croatia managed to limp into the play-offs, but they needed someone to change the atmosphere. Davor Suker, the FA president, opted for Niko Kovac. A former captain and a leader of his generation, Kovac is undoubtedly inexperienced in coaching terms, managing only Salzburg's B team and Croatia's U21s, but he brought stability to the squad and guided the team to victory over Iceland in the play-offs.
Croatia qualified through the play-offs after beating Iceland.
Croatia top goalscorers:
Mario Mandzukic 4
Eduardo da Silva 2
Eight players scored 1 goal
September 7, 2012
Croatia 1-0 Macedonia
(Goals: Jelavic 69)
September 11, 2012
Belgium 1-1 Croatia
October 12, 2012
Macedonia 1-2 Croatia
(Corluka 33, Rakitic 60)
October 16, 2012
Croatia 2-0 Wales
(Mandzukic 27, Eduardo 57)
March 22, 2013
Croatia 2-0 Serbia
(Mandzukic 23, Olic 37)
March 26, 2013
Wales 1-2 Croatia
(Lovren 77, Eduardo 87)
June 7, 2013
Croatia 0-1 Scotland
September 6, 2013
Serbia 1-1 Croatia
October 11, 2013
Croatia 1-2 Belgium
October 15, 2013
Scotland 2-0 Croatia
November 15, 2013
Iceland 0-0 Croatia
November 19, 2013
Croatia 2-0 Iceland
(Mandzukic 27, Srna 47)
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiva Zagreb).
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa), Igor Bubnjic (Udinese).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Niko Kranjcar (QPR), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Mateo Kovacic (Internazionale), Milan Badelj (HSV), Ivo Ilicevic (HSV), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Mario Pasalic (Hajduk Split), Sammir (Getafe).
The final list of 23 players will be confirmed after Croatia's friendly with Mali on May 31.
For more details, please see the player-by-player guide here.
Manager Profile: Niko Kovac
When the Croatian public—and the FA—gave the thumbs down to Igor Stimac, only one name was logical to be his successor: Niko Kovac.
Stimac's reign was not completely unsuccessful in sporting terms as Croatia finished second in the group, but he was hated by the fans, and the atmosphere around the team was toxic. Croatia needed a quick fix—someone with the charisma and the ability to provide a spark—and Kovac was the perfect option.
Kovac—who spent most of his playing career in the Bundesliga, including two seasons at Bayern Munich—was considered to be a true leader of his generation. Adored by the fans for his fighting spirit and tactical intelligence on the pitch, Kovac became one of the most respected football men in Croatia.
Born and raised in Berlin, Kovac embodies the typical German virtues of thoroughness, orderliness, discipline and organisation in his management style, as he stated in an interview with fifa.com. Combined with Croatian creativity, imagination and improvisation, this could be a truly great mix.
However, Kovac, who prefers the 4-2-3-1 system, is one of the least experienced managers in this tournament. When it comes to professional football, Kovac—capped 83 times as a player—has been a manager in only seven professional matches so far. At the time of Stimac's departure, he was in charge of the under-21 team, but after only four matches he took over the "Vatreni," facing the pressure of the play-offs on his debut.
Everything is on his side for now, but he is aware that the final verdict will depend on the performances in Brazil.
Star Man: Luka Modric
Is there any need to emphasise the importance of Luka Modric for Croatia?
The maestro is the key man for Kovac and his plans. For years now, Croatia have depended on his performances and his form, so the club season that has just ended could be a great sign for the Croats.
Modric began his career in the youth teams of Croatian minnows Zadar but moved to Dinamo Zagreb and spent some time out on loan to gain experience. His career sparked into life in the mid-2000s, when he established himself as the key player for Croatian powerhouse Dinamo.
In 2008, he moved to the Premier League, but there were doubts as some felt he did not have the physical stature to compete. Modric swiftly dispelled those fears with brilliant displays for Tottenham Hotspur.
In August 2012, he moved to Real Madrid and was one of their key players in their march to La Decima.
Modric has played 73 matches for his country, scoring eight goals. His debut came in March 2006, on the night when Croatia defeated Argentina 3-2 in a friendly played in Switzerland.
Modric will head to Brazil on a high after clinching Champions League glory in Lisbon. It will also be a new-look Modric on the plane, as he trimmed his distinctive long locks by way of a celebration.
World Cup Record
Croatia gained independence in 1991 but had to wait until 1998 for their first World Cup appearance. It was by far their best performance so far as the Croats charmed the whole football world, with their brilliant, attractive style taking them to third place.
The win over Germany in the quarter-finals of France 98 is one of the best matches in the history of the country. The Croats simply destroyed Germany to reach the semi-finals on their World Cup debut.
In the semi-finals, against hosts France, Croatia were on the verge of a sensation, but Lilian Thuram's only two career goals turned the match around.
Croatia have played in two other World Cups. In 2002 and 2006, they were stopped in the group stages. In South Korea and Japan, they beat Italy but lost to Mexico and Ecuador.
In Germany, in their most recent World Cup appearance, Brazil beat them 1-0, while they drew with Japan and Australia.
June 12, 2014: Brazil vs. Croatia - 17:00 local time
June 18, 2014: Cameroon vs. Croatia - 18:00 LT
June 23, 2014: Croatia vs. Mexico - 17:00 LT