With Croatia reaching the World Cup final completely undefeated, everyone is wondering how such a young country with a population of just a little over four million people managed to make it this far. Many give credit to international players like Modrić and Rakitić who have in fact been crucial for the team, but at the end of the day let's not forget that football is a team sport that cannot solely depend on single stars (or a single star). If anything, this year's World Cup has highlighted this fact more than ever with Messi's Argentina and Ronaldo’s Portugal exiting in the 16th round.
If you think the national team was being supported by the Croatian Football Federation, you'd be surprised to know that the team actually made it this far in spite of the Federation, which has a long history of corruption with recent news of jail sentences and trials involving transfers of players. So what is Croatia’s secret?
History and culture seem to be the answer. Croatia got its Independence in 1991, but only had time to focus on rebuilding itself after winning a four-year war that resulted in an array of refugee problems and more than 100,000 deaths. Even Croatia´s team captain Luka Modrić was a refugee at the age of six, when his home was burned down by Serbian militants who were fighting Croatia's breakaway from Yugoslavia.
Since then it has come a long way, becoming a member of the EU, UN, and NATO, in addition to being named a developed country and ranking 22nd globally in the education system in 2010.
All this was still not enough for the country, as years of oppression and war left Croatian people with the need to prove themselves internationally. They decided to do so through sports; football being their favorite and most popular one. It was a clever idea which was supported by the first Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, who described athletes as “the country's best ambassadors.” Other factors that helped them achieve this goal is the Croatian people’s family-oriented culture and their strong nationalism and sense of belongingness. Croatian culture actually promotes the opposite of nuclear families whereas a strong net of relatives is the norm.
If you take a closer look, you'll find that all these qualities were very much present in every match Croatia played, whether you choose to focus on their president who has been supporting the team every step of the way, the fans, or the players; they all seemed to be one big family with one hell of a dream. It has become obvious that Croatia entered the World Cup as a humble but strong team that was 100 percent committed to gaining worldwide recognition and respect despite their problems at home; something they surely won despite losing the final to France.
Now it’s time to tell this team, Croatia’s second golden generation, what Tuđman told their predecessors after they scored third in the 1998 World Cup: “You did an amazing thing that will make people see us differently and speak about Croatia in a brighter tone.”