Could Croatia Spoil Brazil's Opening-Night World Cup Party?

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2014

Niko Kovac's arrival as coach has brought much-needed equilibrium to Croatia.
Niko Kovac's arrival as coach has brought much-needed equilibrium to Croatia.Associated Press

As the temperature rises in Rio de Janeiro, there appears to be no doubt we’re in the midst of something historic.

Bunting comprised of myriad replicas of that familiar green and yellow flag, shot through with the motto, "Ordem e Progresso," decks every restaurant and shop. The sand sculptors on Copacabana have turned their hand from castles and famous faces to likenesses of the trophy the Selecao know so well.

Yet for all the sense of anticipation, a certain anxiety quickly becomes apparent when you discuss World Cup prospects with ordinary Brazilians. Brows frequently furrow, and few want to puff their chests out and predict that Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side will go all the way.

In a few short days, we will discover if the joyous Confederations Cup success of last summer was the prologue to triumph this summer or whether the ghosts of 1950 exist in the team as they do in large swathes of the general public.

Scolari’s plan is not in any doubt. If you asked 10 keen followers of the team what they think Felipao’s XI will be for Thursday’s opener against Croatia at the Maracana, they would probably all give you the same answer: "We are expecting no surprises in selection."

If there is to be a surprise on the night, perhaps it will come from Croatia.

Group A is a pool that we assume will be straightforward for Brazil, with Cameroon’s well-publicised haggling over bonuses distracting them and Mexico perpetually underestimated; though the large numbers of Mexican fans filling Copacabana and Ipanema’s bars on Friday night to watch the friendly with Portugal on television will disagree.

Some may believe that Croatia are makeweights too, but there is a glimmer of hope for the underdogs as they gradually grow in strength. One would have given little credence to this suggestion six months ago, as Croatia thanked their lucky stars for a clement play-off draw against a talented but relatively green Iceland side.

They were guided through the play-off by Niko Kovac, who replaced the embattled Igor Stimac as coach after the latter’s abrupt departure in October. That immediately followed defeat in the final qualifying match with Scotland when the group could not have been at a lower ebb.

Put simply, Croatia were in shambles in Glasgow. Rarely has a loss in a dead rubber been so demoralising; they lacked direction, created little and the piece de resistance was an ugly dispute between Dejan Lovren and Ivan Strinic after Scotland’s second goal (see story here via Croatia Week).

Kovac had a job on his hands and then some, but he has done impressive work in his first senior role. Croatia are unbeaten in five matches under their new coach. The new man hasn’t reinvented the wheel since taking over but has begun to instill a sense of harmony so patently absent before.

The calming influence of Kovac is clear every time he speaks. Perhaps it is not so surprising given his playing history; his 12-year service with the national team links the peerless 1998 World Cup side (though he was unfit for the final tournament) with the Euro 2008 team he captained who promised so much before the quarter-final exit to Turkey on penalties.

It was needed because the talent is there. Ivan Rakitic’s stellar form for Sevilla has left him on the brink of a move to Barcelona, per Catalan radio station RAC1 via Inside Spanish Football, and he will form a formidable midfield partnership with Luka Modric.

There is the vast experience of captain Darijo Srna and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, and while Mario Mandzukic will be suspended for the World Cup opener, Ivica Olic showed with his recent brace against Switzerland (not to mention his fine season for Wolfsburg) that he is tireless as ever.

Croatia clearly aren’t favourites, but they have nothing to lose and no pressure on them. Given the high stakes for Brazil, that is a very dangerous combination.