As a whole, how is Croatian football doing top to bottom the past few years? I’m not just talking about the Vatreni on the international side of things, but I’m including the entire HNL as well as HNL clubs playing in Europe. Across the board, is Croatian football meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, or not meeting expectations at all for you?
Let’s start with Luka Modrić and the Croatian national side. Grade: A
The only thing preventing me from giving them an A+ is a little gold star above the HNS crest. These guys made it to the World Cup Final after going to extra time in three straight knockout round matches. INSANE! But the national side does not simply receive an A-grade for the 2018 World Cup. The Vatreni have not missed an international tournament since 2010. They did not make it out of group at EURO 2012, being given the ‘Group of Death’ with tournament finalists Italy and Spain. In 2014 at the World Cup in Brazil, Croatia could not defeat Mexico in the last match of group play to book a spot in the final 16. Since then, Croatia has made it to the knockout rounds in three straight tournaments. 2016 saw them top group before losing 1-0 to eventual Euro champions Portugal in extra time. We all know what happened in 2018. And at EURO 2020, we all witnessed and incredible 2-goal comeback in the last 10 minutes to send Spain to extra time. Could you ask for anything more from a nation of 4 million?
HNL clubs (**cough** Dinamo Zagreb) in European play: Grade: A-
Dinamo Zagreb has carried the Croatian flag for the HNL in Europe for the past two decades. There’s no denying it and there’s really not more to say on the topic. And for being a top feeder club for all the feeder leagues across Europe, Dinamo has been doing one hell of a job! The question is: when will another Croatian club join the party?
Let’s look at Dinamo’s ridiculous run in Europe since 2015 (and remember, I’m a Hajdukovac but you have to give credit where credit is due):
-2015: Champions League group stage (hosted Arsenal and Bayern Munich at Maksimir)
-2016: Champions League group stage (hosted Juventus and Sevilla at Maksimir)
-2017: Off year for Dinamo. Finished 2nd behind Rijeka and did not qualify for Europe
-2018: Europa League Round of 16. Lost to Portuguese club Benfica
-2019: Champions League group stage. Defeated Atalanta 4-0 in opening match. Hosted Man City at Maksimir.
-2020: Europa League quarterfinalists. Lost to champions Villareal. Defeated Tottenham 3-0 in extra time in Round of 16 after losing 1st leg 2-0.
-2021: Europa League Round of 32. Lost to Sevilla.
This is an impressive résumé for any club in Europe, let alone a team from Croatia. Dinamo is always in the mix. Whether its Champions League group stage, making a run in Europa League OR breaking North London hearts…they always play mighty minnow against the best of them. This season, Dinamo are already guaranteed group stage in CL or Europa depending on how they finish in the Playoff Round. It would be nice if Hajduk could join them in group play in the Conference League (Europe’s 3rd-tier tournament) but they received the worst draw in being paired with Villareal. Hopefully Hajduk can have a good showing to boost their confidence level for the HNL season.
The HNL: Grade: D+
For the past 17 years, the Croatian Prva Liga has been unwatchable. There’s no parity. Dinamo wins. And Dinamo usually wins by a landslide. Dinamo Zagreb has won every single HNL title since 2005 minus the odd outlier, when Rijeka took the crown in 2017 by two points over Dinamo. It’s not fun. No one cares. No one goes to the games. No one watches the games on TV. It’s unbearable.
Sure it would be nice if Osijek and Rijeka could keep some pressure on Dinamo after the New Year, but only one thing can fix the HNL and get people watching again: a Hajduk championship. Only a Hajduk title will start the shift around Croatia when it comes to their domestic league. When Rijeka won it in 2017, it was a shock for a week, the summer hit, and no one cared once the new season began and Dinamo restarted their annual rampage. What will change is when Hajduk is top dog in Croatia and Dinamo fear their rivals as they walk into Maksimir. Splićani are the best fans in Croatia. They just are. Especially when it comes to Hajduk at Poljud. For the HNL to be interesting again, Hajduk have to be good. But not just good…champions. And that can very well happen this year.
Overall grade of Croatian football at the moment: B-