Separating the beautiful game from politics can be challenging. Between 2012-2013, I stopped watching the sport and closely following the national team. Former manager Igor Stimac changed the formation for every qualifying match. Inserting Sammir into the squad was an insult. The inclusion of Davor Suker as president only increased poor morale surrounding a once-exciting Croatia team.
After nearly defeating Italy and Spain at Euro 2012, they looked disorganized and uninspired one year later. There were plenty of other things that agitated me about the sport from clubs spending absurd amounts of money on recruitment to players diving for advantages. After my family introduced me to this amazing sport in 2006, I viewed everything from a negative and pessimistic mindset.
Eventually, it was time to put everything aside and focus my attention on world-class players competing at the highest level. When it comes to sporting events, nothing comes close to World and Euro Cup. Countries come together supporting the best players representing their nationality. When I went to San Pedro for the 2014 World Cup’s opening match between Croatia and Brazil, my passion was revitalized.
I always promised to visit my good friends and CroatianSports.com co-founders Denis Svircic and Ante Kvartuc in their hometown. To watch Croatia on such a massive stage with 200 Croatians at St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church was surreal. Nobody will forget the outrageous officiating that essentially cost Croatia’s chance at earning a valuable point. At the same time, they played their hearts out. Combine that with the loud atmosphere on a Thursday afternoon in California and everything felt positive again. This experience helped me truly realize the joy of being with fellow Croatians and appreciating what this sport offers on the grandest stage.
It’s impossible to ignore the political corruption and trouble surrounding Croatia’s football federation. The list is endless with Zdravko Mamic’s record, favoritism towards Dinamo Zagreb, and major crowd incidents being caused at matches. Monday’s game against Turkey is a prime example, as it will be played behind closed doors. Despite all the controversy, Croatia managed to overcome the drama and put together several outstanding performances at Euro 2016.
After a mostly underwhelming qualifying campaign, there were major concerns about them attaining small expectations such as making it out of the group. A difficult group on paper increased those odds. Croatia smashed those concerns and played better than any country during the group stage. With the usual powerhouses failing to make any major impressions, the Vatreni were producing eye-opening performances. It opened my eyes about being a loyal supporter.
You always want to show pride and support the national team. Euro 2016 reminded me of why I love watching Croatia more than any other of my favorite American teams. The players are incredibly talented and showed tremendous unity during a difficult time. When Luka Modric is fit, he is arguably the best central midfielder in the world. Vedran Corluka bled like a stuffed pig and refused to be subbed out. Alongside oft-criticized captain Darijo Srna, who performed valiantly following his father’s death, Corluka’s experience proved to be massive in difficult circumstances against Czech Republic and Spain.
Ivan Perisic’s relentless motor and technical brilliance is unbelievable. The speedy winger brings an element that Croatia hasn’t had in over a decade. A fearless winger, who can take on defenders and deliver a perfect final ball. Solid contributions from Milan Badelj and Ivan Strinic were crucial, as they covered up previous flaws in the starting eleven. Everything culminated into Croatia emphatically winning a tough group, despite enduring crowd trouble and possible exclusion from the tournament. Beating Turkey and Spain were proud moments based on being eliminated in devastating fashion by both sides in the past two European Championships.
The journey did end in bitter fashion. A well-organized Portugal team mustered one successful counter attack. The most talented Croatia side since 1998 suffered another cruel exit from a major tournament. While some pundits and fans remain critical of their conservativeness from that match, this tournament brought some much-needed stability back to Croatia. Ante Cacic went from a widely criticized figure to quietly developing into a player’s coach. His laid back approach suited the current crop of players. His starting lineups were excellent for the most part. Although his failure to make in-game adjustments played a role in Croatia’s demise, he did far better than previous manager Niko Kovac, who essentially lost the locker room during qualifiers. Cacic recalled Strinic to fill a gaping void at left back, along with utilizing Badelj as a holding midfielder to protect the back four and allow Modric more freedom.
There is no denying that problems are still lingering. Anything is possible with Mamic and Suker remaining as the most powerful men in Croatian football. Cacic’s inability to make timely substitutions is concerning. Between Mario Mandzukic struggling to score goals and Nikola Kalinic’s inconsistency, the lone striker options aren’t inspiring much confidence. Hopefully, a solution can be found within the next two years regarding each issue.
Euro 2016 will hopefully be the launching pad towards playing more consistently. The national team hasn’t managed a successful qualifying campaign without any major hiccups since Euro 2008. With talented young players such as Marko Pjaca and Marko Rog, Croatia’s squad looks as good as ever. It’s hard not to salivate about the current and future generation playing together. As much as this sport can be marred by off-field misfortunes, a successful entertaining on-field product is a great solution. Between Modric’s volley against Turkey and Perisic’s winner against Spain, these are unforgettable moments that should be admired. The memorable performances were rewarded with over 2,000 fans showing up in Zagreb to welcome the national team home. Heartwarming moments like that makes me more invested than ever going into what should be a fascinating World Cup qualifying campaign.