Croatia’s golden generation keen to live up to expectations

Players warm up during Nigeria's official training on the eve of the group D match between Croatia and Nigeria at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokowski)

KALININGRAD, Russia (AP) For Croatia’s golden generation, the great expectations held by key players outshine even those of the team’s fanatical fans at the World Cup.

There is speculation that the tournament in Russia could be the last chance of collective success for a talented crop of Croats that includes captain Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic, all of whom are in their 30s.

”The greatest expectations on us come from us,” Modric said Friday, a day before Croatia opens its Group D campaign against Nigeria in Kaliningrad. ”Whether this is the last chance or not is irrelevant.”

Since finishing third in its first World Cup as an independent nation, at France in 1998, Croatia hasn’t advanced from the group stage in the three World Cups for which it qualified.

But its potent midfield featuring Real Madrid teammates Modric and Mateo Kovacic, alongside Rakitic, has fans hoping for more this time around.

Modric understands why.

”We have players playing at big clubs. They don’t just play. They are the driving forces of those clubs,” he said.

Croatia faces a Nigeria squad that is the youngest at the World Cup, but has its fair share of quality, especially a group of talented forwards. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic singled out Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi of Arsenal, Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses and Odion Ighalo, who now plays for Changchun Yatai in China.

”Top, top players, but we have top players in our ranks,” Dalic said. ”It’s going to be a good, high quality game.”

Nigeria was the first African nation to qualify for Russia, but the nation has often underachieved at World Cups. It has won only one of its last 12 matches on football’s greatest stage.

Modric appeared riled Friday when asked by a reporter about a corruption case in Croatia that left him facing perjury charges.

Asked if six-and-a-half-year sentence handed this month to former Dinamo Zagreb director Zdravko Mamic for embezzlement and tax evasion was a cloud over the Croatia team, Modric responded: ”Nothing smarter to ask?”

Modric faces perjury charges for testimony he gave during the trial about his financial deals with Mamic. Prosecutors claimed Modric gave a false court statement in June last year about his 2008 transfer from Dinamo to Tottenham. Modric has denied any wrongdoing.

And he insisted the case wouldn’t affect him in Russia.

”It’s World Cup,” he said in English. ”It’s not about other things.”