“Mala zemlja, veliki snovi” it reads on the side of the Croatia team bus. Or in English, “Little country, big dreams”.
That slogan won the public vote of Croatian fans before the tournament, beating off ‘Želja u srcu je moć na terenu!’ (‘Desire in the heart is power on the pitch’) and “Srcem do vrha!” (‘With heart, to the top!’)
When Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic was sat in his press conference after seeing his team beaten by France in the World Cup final, he was asked by a journalist from Georgia what message he has for other smaller countries who might hope to follow in Croatia’s footsteps all the way to the final of another World Cup somewhere else down the line.
“On our bus is the slogan, ‘Little country, big dreams’, it’s a good message to all,” Dalic said. “Work hard. Have good players. Get the results. And believe that it is possible. Many things have to fall into place. But it’s a great message. Particularly for smaller countries like Croatia and Georgia. You have to have a dream, an ambition. Then follow those dreams and ambitions. One day, maybe it will come true. In football, or in life in general. Never give up.”
The advice that Dalic gave spoke to the fact that this Croatian team will now go down as the greatest underdog performance by any country in World Cup history. With a population of four million people, they were the smallest finalist since Uruguay in 1950. But their achievement means more in the modern era of industrialised youth production, and the increasing dominance of the tournament by a small group of rich western European countries: Germany, France and Spain.
For Croatia to reach the final was achievement enough, outdoing their 1998 team, beating Argentina, Denmark, Russia and England along the way, setting up a final that stood out for its rare unevenness. But Croatia then went on to play the better football in the first half, were unlucky to go 2-1 down, before their players eventually tired in the second half. Theirs is a stirring story about team-work, unity, spirit and what a football team can achieve when all the players are pulling hard in the same direction. Yes, they could not do it without Luka Modric, but there is more to their story than that.
The Croatian players have shown a remarkable mentality at this World Cup, twice winning on penalties, overcoming England in extra-time and then fighting back today before their legs eventually gave way. Dalic explained afterwards that he “never stopped believing”, even when the team was 4-1 down. “At 4-1 down, I was not down and out, not defeated,” he said. “This is life. You accept it as it is. Overall, we played a great tournament of strength and quality.”
That was the message conveyed by the Croatian fans, who were singing louder than ever in the final few minutes, helping to lift the drained players at the end of the game. After the whistle, Dalic gathered his team together, and gave them an important message about how well they had done.
“Of course, we were all sad and downcast,” Dalic said. “But I told them to hold their heads up high. There was no reason to feel dissatisfied. They had given their all. They must be proud of their displays at the tournament. Chin up lads. If someone had offered us runners up before the tournament started, that would be fantastic. The development in how we played the final means a modicum of sadness. But I said to them: there is nothing to be sad about. Sometimes you lose, that is inevitable in sport. When we won we were dignified in victory. Now we must be dignified in defeat, and respect the scoreline.”
The positive message that Croatia have left at this World Cup will resonate far beyond their own shores. Because their story is about more than just this talented generation of players and a few very hard-fought games in Russia this summer. Croatia have shown that you do not need to be a giant of the European or South American game to succeed at a World Cup. And they have shown that, like Holland in 1974 or Hungary in 1954, there may be as much immortality for the runner-ups as for the champions.
Every football country from Latin America, Africa and Asia can take heart from the Croatian example. Which shows that talented players, hard work, unity and some good fortune can take almost any country a long way.
It feels sometimes as if the World Cup will in future be won on rotation by those rich western European countries with the best youth systems. France, Germany and Spain the last three winners, with England and Belgium as beaten semi-finalists this year. As a sign that international football is as determined by economics as club football, it is a depressing thought.
But if Croatia can reach the final, play like this, and threaten to win it, then surely so can many, many more countries. These tournaments are more random than we realise, where little events can determine games, with no time for variance to even itself out. Other countries should watch Croatia, see their achievements and hope one day to match it. Other countries can have big dreams.
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