Can Croatia Live Up to Captain Darijo Srna's Promise?

Aleksandar HoligaFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2014

ST GALLEN, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 05: Darijo Srna of Croatia in action during the international friendly match between Switzerland and Croatia at the AFG Arena on March 5, 2014 in St Gallen, Switzerland.  (Photo by Marc Eich/Getty Images)
Marc Eich/Getty Images

Darijo Srna has seen it all. He went from rags to riches, from suffering depression and doubt to being revered. He experienced a stellar ascent and a fall from grace, triumph as well as disappointment—and now he’s ready for one more adventure.

Croatia’s most capped player ever will lead the team as captain in Brazil and he says he can’t wait for the World Cup to start.

“I expect us to be at our best,” Srna told the Sportske novosti newspaper in a recent interview (article in Croatian). “I want us to make our every fan, everyone from every corner of the world who will be supporting us, proud of how we play and what we achieve. We aren’t going to Brazil for a holiday.”

That’s exactly the kind of rallying cry you’d want to hear from your captain, but Darijo Srna needed to learn how to cope with the added weight of expectation that comes with wearing the armband. It was never going to be easy, as large sections of the public had doubted he was the right man for the job, saying he was too emotional and lacked leadership qualities.

When Croatia failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and struggled in the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championship, the pressure reached a boiling point and criticism seemed fiercer than ever.

“There have been times when I felt as if I was on trial for murdering six people,” Srna once said in a TV interview for Croatian public broadcaster HRT, via the Guardian. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I see a psychiatrist. I do it to ease the pressure. I need it.”

He found strength in those nearest to him. You would be hard-pressed to find any professional footballer who is so emotionally attached to his family and never afraid to show it. The names of his wife Mirela and daughter Kasja are not only written on his boots, but also tattooed on his body—as is the name of his brother with Down syndrome, Igor, to whom he regularly dedicates his goals.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - MAY 20:  Darijo Srna of Shakhtar Donetsk holds the UEFA Cup Trophy following his team's victory after extra time at the end of the UEFA Cup Final between Shakhtar Donetsk and Werder Bremen at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium on May 20, 2009
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When Shakhtar Donetsk— the club he plays for and also captains—played (and won) the UEFA Cup final in 2009, he hired a charter plane to bring 125 of his relatives and friends to the final game in Istanbul.

In Ukraine, he buys tickets for orphaned children, paying for no less than 920 of them on one occasion. Srna’s father Uzeir, the man who supported him throughout his playing career and especially in the beginning, was orphaned as a baby during World War II.

There’s always the “what-if” element in the conversation whenever Darijo Srna is mentioned among the football fans in England or Spain. He has been one of the best right-backs in Europe for years, but has never tried his luck in one of Europes’s biggest leagues though he had his offers.

Maybe he could have become a household name in Western Europe, but instead he has stayed in Donetsk for 11 years now, watching the club grow from near-obscurity to becoming a major force to be reckoned with in continental competitions.

He has won 19 trophies with Shakhtar—his only professional club after Hajduk Split, where he started—including that UEFA Cup five years ago. In Ukraine they even made a movie about his life.

It’s a life story that details his rise from a boy who used to help his parents sell vegetables in the market and save money for his first pair of football boots, all the way to the status of a demigod in Donetsk.

There were trials and tribulations on that way and Srna’s worst moment came in 2008, when Croatia were defeated by Turkey on penalties in the European Championship quarter-finals.

They went from taking the lead two minutes from the final whistle in extra time to almost immediately conceding an equalizer and then, emotionally shaken, lost the shoot-out. When it was all over, Srna sobbed so uncontrollably that neither his manager, Slaven Bilic, nor the referee, Roberto Rosetti, could console him.

Jon Super/Associated Press

Only a year later, he cried the tears of joy after winning the UEFA Cup with Shakhtar.

If there’s one area in his career where Srna feels he could have done better, then that’s Croatia’s results in major international tournaments. The team always seems to fall short just one step before reaching their full competitive potential, and doing so in a rather dramatic manner.

It’s not just that “cold Turkey” from six years ago. At the 2006 World Cup, Croatia needed to win their final group game against Australia to qualify for the second round; they took the lead twice but the game ended 2-2 and the Socceroos progressed.

At the Euros two years ago, Croatia held Spain to a 0-0 draw until two minutes from time and had the best chance of the deciding group game, only to lose 1-0 and fail to qualify from the group that included both subsequent finalists, Spain and Italy.

The World Cup in Brazil is an opportunity for Srna and his generation to leave a more lasting impression. The captain is now 32 and still in good shape, so there’s a good chance he’ll be around for the 2016 Euros as well, but Croatia gathered some momentum this season: key players like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are playing their best football and the atmosphere around the team hasn’t been this good in years.

What exactly the team can achieve is not fully clear. No one from the Croatia camp has discussed their potential reach at the tournament, for now only focusing on getting the team to play well in Brazil. Like Srna said—whatever happens, the aim is to make the nation and the supporters proud of their team. That's the only promise they need to live up to.