Facing the host nation in a World Cup opener is difficult. It can make a team look like a mere plot device, a foil, a sacrificial member of the supporting cast. Everyone remembers Siphiwe Tshabalala’s goal for South Africa at Soccer City four years ago, or the Philipp Lahm strike in Munich in 2006. Rafael Marquez’s bundled equaliser for Mexico and Paulo Wanchope’s double in Costa Rica’s 4-2 defeat to Germany are less famous.
Not much is expected of Croatia in Sao Paulo. Few people beyond their own population of 4.3 million would want them to spoil this long-planned party. Coach Niko Kovac is probably not too worried. Croatia’s threat – to Brazil, to the rest of Group A and to the tournament beyond – lies in their elusive quality.
It has been a difficult last few years for the side who finished third in their first World Cup at France ’98. Croatia did not even reach the last World Cup and went out at the group stage at Euro 2012.
They nearly did not reach this tournament either, finishing second in their group and losing twice to Scotland on the way. Igor Stimac, a hero of the 1998 team, resigned as coach at the end of the group phase and was replaced by his old team-mate Kovac, who oversaw the 2-0 play-off win over Iceland.
Kovac, who had been Under-21 coach before, was a hugely popular choice in Croatia. He won 83 caps as a midfielder for the national team and captained the side in Germany in 2006. That is where Kovac was from, born to Bosnian-Croat parents, and like his brother Robert he spent almost his whole career playing in the Bundesliga.
Croatia: Group A team profile
Croatia: Group A team profile
1/4 How they qualified
Croatia fell back after an impressive start to their World Cup qualifying campaign. A stuttering climax saw them sneak into second spot by two points. Five wins and a draw from their opening six matches appeared to have the Balkan team well-placed to claim an automatic berth as group winners. But one point from an available twelve in their next four matches – including defeats both home and away by Scotland - saw Igor Stimac’s men fall nine points short of Belgium in top spot. Stimac was later relieved of his duties before Croatia faced Iceland across two legs to determine which nation would qualify for the World Cup. Despite failing to break down 10-man Iceland in a stalemate away from home, the Croats mustered a 2-0 victory in the return leg to secure their passage to next summer’s tournament.
Niko Kovac is a former Croatia international and he represented his country at various major tournaments across the last decade before he retired in 2009 calling for priority to be placed on youth over experience. Despite only stepping in to see Croatia through the World Cup play-off double-header against Iceland in November, many supporters saw the 42-year-old as the true mastermind of the nation’s qualification to the World Cup in Brazil. Kovac was appointed to the position on October 16 after his predecessor Igor Stimac was sacked following a disappointing campaign. Indeed, Croatia laboured towards a decisive play-off rather than forcing a battle for the automatic berth with eventual group-winners Belgium.
3/4 Star player
Mario Mandzukic’s attitude has been called into question on more than one occasion across his playing career but his ability to convert chances cannot be questioned. Mandzukic complements his strength in aerial battles with an accomplished right foot. Despite Croatia’s failure to advance past the groups stages at Euro 2012, the 27-year-old was the tournament’s joint top scorer with three goals. After opening the scoring in Croatia’s World Cup play-off victory over Iceland, the Bayern Munich forward was dismissed for an outrageous lunge on opposing winger Johann Gudmundsson. The horror tackle leaves Mandzukic sidelined for the first group game in Brazil and could compromise the nation’s chance of progression to the last 16.
4/4 How they will line up (4-4-1-1):
Pletikosa; Srna, Ćorluka, Lovren, Pranjić; Perišić, Modric, Rakitić, Olić; Kovacic, Mandzukic
Those German roots give Kovac a slightly different perspective on the game. Midfielder Niko Kranjcar is missing this World Cup through injury, but before the tournament he told The Independent about the difference his old team-mate would make. “His mentality and character was always as a leader, on and off the pitch,” Kranjcar said. “He was born and brought up in Germany, so he will bring that side that is very different from our mentality in Croatia. We are much more open and more free, so the discipline might do us good. We were not playing as a team or a unit.”
Since taking over, Kovac has been quietly working on a more balanced team than the one he inherited from Stimac. The strength of the side, by a distance, is in midfield. Kovac will put out three of Europe’s most exciting and graceful ball-players in the heart of his 4-2-3-1 system: Luka Modric, in the form of his life with Champions League winners Real Madrid, the mobile Ivan Rakitic, who has just helped Sevilla to the Europa League title, and in the No 10 role, Internazionale’s exciting 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic.
Croatia have the ability to keep the ball away from Brazil, but their problems lie elsewhere. Mario Mandzukic, their best centre-forward, is suspended, meaning that veteran Ivica Olic, or even former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva, is likely to start instead. The defence is not especially quick either.
Brazil have concerns of their own, of course, and are rightly strong favourites. But if they are distracted by the occasion, Croatia could pounce.