FIFA Men's World Cup
Croatia should return to World Cup contention, even without Luka Modrić
FIFA Men's World Cup

Croatia should return to World Cup contention, even without Luka Modrić

Updated Dec. 14, 2022 8:02 a.m. ET

LUSAIL, Qatar — What Croatia has done here is extraordinary.

A team from a tiny country with a population roughly the size of Oklahoma (3.9 million when you round up) battled its way into consecutive World Cup semifinals. Some of the biggest countries in the world — with stronger football cultures and resources — can’t say the same.

In 2018, Zlatko Dalić’s squad lost to France in the final with an experienced squad full of players who played in top European clubs. Four years later, Croatia made it to another semifinal — where it lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina 3-0 on Tuesday night at Lusail Stadium — with 18 new players, many playing in their first World Cup. 

Croatia’s journey in Qatar has come to an end – save for the third-place game on Saturday (10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) – but the team will be back in the tournament.


Luka Modrić, the 37-year-old captain, has likely played in his final World Cup. But he leaves behind a squad that’s got several more in them. There’s 20-year-old defender Joško Gvardiol, who has been one of the best players in this tournament. Goalkeeper Dominic Livaković, 27, was a hero in a penalty shootout against Brazil, though his yellow card in the first half earned Argentina a penalty, which Messi took and made. There’s 28-year-old Mateo Kovačić and 30-year-old Marcelo Brozović, who alongside Modrić have been a ruthlessly organized midfield trio. Usually they don’t give up the ball once they have it and shrug off defenders just like they did in the first 30 minutes against Argentina.

"We’ll have to wait and see what happens," Dalić said afterward in reference to a "golden generation" aging out after this tournament. "We have a great team and a lot of players with a lot of potential. 

"It would have been great if we had won [the World Cup] and this had been a crowning achievement of our generation."

Every goal by Croatia

Check out all the goals from Croatia in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, including scores from Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Livaja, Bruno Petkovic and Lovro Majer.

Last week before Croatia upset Brazil in the quarterfinal, Dalić was asked if he could compare this World Cup team to the one that made a run four years ago. While most coaches loathe comparisons, Dalić said that this squad was a "new national team" with so many new faces. 

"[In 2018] we had a national team that played [together] 10 years in a row, and they were playing in the best leagues, best clubs, and this is not the situation with our current team," Dalić said.

"We need time to develop and mature. This new national team has yet to prove itself. I believe the World Cup is a great opportunity for that. We have high quality players, but when it comes to club play, in 2018, we were a more prestigious team."

Throughout its time in Qatar, Croatia was disciplined and relentless. Though it's criticized for having what some deem to be a "boring" style of play, its "refuse to lose" mantra carried it from two straight knockout games decided by a penalty shootout. First against Japan in the round of 16 and then Brazil, the tournament favorite, in the quarterfinal. Dalić scoffed at the notion that his players were exhausted, saying this week that "strength is not an issue."

That was evident four years ago, too. In 2018, Croatia first beat Argentina in its second match 3-0 and won its group. Then it proceeded to win three knockout games that went into extra time, two of which were decided by penalties. Finding ways to win — even if it takes longer than 90 minutes — is part of Croatia’s DNA. If Croatia had been able to possess the ball, break Argentina down and disrupt Messi — what every opponent hopes to do against La Albiceleste — they could have a chance in extra time or PKs. 

The problem with that was Argentina was aggressive in its attack. "We didn’t have the quality we needed," Dalić said. Croatia struggled to control the game, made mistakes and "made no specific opportunities" on goal, Dalić said.

Argentina had a 2-0 lead by halftime thanks to one penalty kick converted by Messi and a beautiful volley by 22-year-old Julián Álvarez five minutes later. Álvarez got the ball in his own half, dribbled down the middle of Croatia’s defense and went straight through Livakovic to score. He was also the one who drew a foul that earned La Albiceleste its spot kick. 

"It was already done at that point," Dalić said.

And then Messi and Álvarez combined again for the third dagger goal in the 69th minute. 

"Nothing much needs to be said about Messi’s qualities," Dalić said. "The past 15 years he’s been the best player in the world. He makes a difference in quality for this Argentina team. 

"It’s the true Messi we expected to see."

Argentina-Croatia highlights

Lionel Messi powered Argentina into the World Cup final for the second time in his career.

Before 2018, Croatia had only made it out of the group stage at a World Cup once. In 1998, it finished third after losing to France in the semifinal. Its run to the final was completely unexpected. And despite that performance, Croatia wasn’t a trendy pick to make a run in 2022, either. Leading up to this massive semifinal at Lusail Stadium, Dalić spoke of his team’s "fighting spirit" and said that if his side were to beat Argentina, it would be the greatest win for Croatia of all time. They knocked out Brazil, so why not Argentina, too?

"It wasn’t easy today and the players are sad," Dalić said. "It’s hard for them. They feel like they could have done more."

Argentina was the more talented team and it showed. Croatia will be back. But still probably won’t be a favorite.

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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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