Croatia will always be touted as a dark horse for every major tournament. Without fail.
Ever since their debut in the European Championships in 1996, they’ve always been blessed with supreme talent which has convinced some – mainly hipsters – that they could go all the way.
And after years of false dawns since the Davor Šuker and Zvonimir Boban-inspired 1998 World Cup campaign, Vatreni ended up just one victory away from the pinnacle of football in 2018, as their golden generation came to a close – potentially – with defeat in the World Cup final to France.
So, in what’s been the greatest era of Croatian football, let’s take a look at their finest starting XI of the 21st century as part of 90min’s mini-World Cup to decide the best national team of the century thus far.
Danijel Subasic (GK)
The Monaco shot-stopper was Croatia’s number one between 2014 and 2018, racking up 44 caps for Vatreni.
Subasic has been a symbol of consistency during his time in Ligue 1 – winning the title and the league’s ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ award in 2017.
The 35-year-old played a significant role in Croatia’s impressive World Cup run; helping the Croat’s progress to the semi-finals following knockout victories over Denmark and Russia on penalties. He save a whopping four penalties in these shootouts, becoming just the third man in World Cup finals history to do so.
Darijo Srna (RB)
Darijo Srna’s impressive international career spanned 14 years, in which he racked up a record 134 appearances and captained the Vatreni between 2008 and 2016.
Although his exploits in the Ukrainian top-flight for the majority of his career meant he wasn’t quite appreciated by a wider European audience, Srna was nonetheless a consistent star down Croatia’s right flank and racked up 26 major honours at Shakhtar Donetsk.
Robert Kovac (CB)
Robert Kovac just missed out on his country’s third-place finish at France ’98 as he started his international career a year later in 1999.
Kovac would go on to represent Vatreni for a decade – including as captain for the final year – as he enjoyed spells at Bayern, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund at club level before returning to his homeland in 2009 with Dinamo Zagreb.
Dejan Lovren (CB)
Sure, he might be the most victimised player of all-time but give credit where it’s due, Dejan Lovren was pretty spectacular during Croatia’s surge to the World Cup final.
It’s such a shame, however, he had to ruin it by calling himself the ‘best defender in the world’ just before his side were convincingly beaten 4-2 in the final by France.
The Croat also played a hand in Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final in 2018, but had a limited role in his side’s European triumph a year later and their current imperious Premier League campaign.
Danijel Pranjic (LB)
A dynamic customer at left-back, Danijel Pranjic is mainly recognised for his exploits in the Eredivisie with Heerenveen but also ran out in Bayern colours for three years between 2009 and 2012 – securing one Bundesliga crown.
Pranjic’s international career spanned over 11 years in which he racked up 55 caps and was a key part of the Croatia side that should’ve fared much better than a mere quarter-final exit at Euro 2008.
Marcelo Brozovic (DM)
Often blighted with attitude issues earlier on in his career, Marcelo Brozovic has gone on to establish himself as one of Europe’s finest defensive midfielders under Antonio Conte at Inter.
He’s not the flashiest and hasn’t ever been the most marketable star, but his work in all phases of play is incredible and so crucial for every side he’s apart of.
Brozovic will undoubtedly be a key cog for the national team in a post-Luka Modric world following a stellar World Cup campaign where he was a fixture in Zlatko Dalic’s side.
Ivan Rakitic (CM)
Another graceful sucker in the heart of the Croatian midfield, Ivan Rakitic was a mainstay in the national team alongside Luka Modric in the 2010s.
They’re like a pair of poets when they combine in possession, while their steel and desire off of it transformed Croatia into a sterner and more formidable force.
Rakitic’s clutch gene was put to the test in the 2018 World Cup when he was granted the opportunity to score the winning spot-kick in two separate shootouts. Both, of course, he took without breaking a sweat.
Luka Modric (CM)
On This Day – 2006
Luka Modric made his full international debut in Croatia’s 3-2 friendly win over Argentina!
He’s not had a bad run in the side since ? pic.twitter.com/q8sJnVdv30
— Goal (@goal) March 1, 2019
The only man to break Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s duopoly over the Ballon d’Or award for the past decade: Luka Modric.
The diminutive Croat is one of the finest midfielders of his generation, with his Golden Ball victory at the 2018 World Cup cementing his legacy on the international stage. He was simply imperious during that month or so in Russia.
Modric also possesses four Champions League crowns, single La Liga and Copa del Rey titles as well as the dreamiest outside of the foot pass in world football.
Ivan Perisic (FW)
The fourth-highest scorer for the national team with 26 strikes in 88 caps, Ivan Perisic was Croatia’s top scorer in their two most recent major tournaments; including fantastic individual efforts against Spain in Euro 2016 and in the World Cup final.
His ability to finish off both feet is what makes him such a threat in the final third, while his workhorse nature makes him a manager’s dream.
Following four years strutting his stuff in Nerazzurri colours, Perisic is currently plying his trade out on loan at Bayern where he’s enjoyed a fairly decent start amid injury woes.
Mario Mandzukic (FW)
The scorer of the goal which sent Croatia through to their first ever World Cup final after he ghosted in behind John Stones before firing past Jordan Pickford; there’s little doubting Mario Mandzukic is Croatia’s finest ever number nine.
His semi-final strike was just one of his 33 goals for the national team, and at club level he’s also enjoyed stellar spells at some of Europe’s finest outfits; namely Bayern and Juventus.
He’s one of only five players in history to have scored in both World Cup and Champions League finals.
Ante Rebic (FW)
Ante Rebic announced himself to the world with a fine 2018 World Cup campaign; scoring a remarkable volley in Croatia’s 3-0 victory over Argentina.
The physically impressive Rebic is currently on loan at Milan from Eintracht Frankfurt and was enjoying a stellar run of form before the universal suspension; netting against both Juventus and Torino as well as Inter in the Derby della Madonnina.