The Croatian national team has been around for nearly 30 years. But who are the best of the best? And who deserves to be mentioned in the All-Time Starting XI?
The CroatianSports.com team – consisting of Ante Zorić, Matt Lebo, Peter Novaković, and myself – went back and forth dozens of times to name the ALL-CROATIA team from the past three decades. We used a 3-5-2 formation and were forced to leave many Croatian legends off the list.
The Croatian national side has never had a world-class goalkeeper. Ladić got the job done in the 90s and Pletikosa carried the mantle for 114 games after the turn of the century. Although none of these keepers were better than the other two on their best days – Subašić did the impossible. Although Suba was only capped by Croatia 44 times before retiring in 2018, he stood on his head for the Vatreni during the World Cup in Russia. Subašić tallied two clean sheet victories against Nigeria and Argentina in the group stage before becoming only the second goalkeeper in World Cup history to win two penalty kick shoot-outs in the same tournament. The only other goalie to do it was Argentina’s Sergio Goycochea in 1990.
Subašić is also tied for two other World Cup shoot-out records: most total penalties saved (4) with Goycochea and Germany’s Harald Schumacher; and most penalties saved in a single shoot-out (3) vs. Denmark, alongside Portugal’s Ricardo. Ladić did a fine good job to get Croatia to the semifinals in 1998, but at the end of the day, Subašić got the Vatreni to the Final and won two shootouts along the way.
Subašić 2018 World Cup Saves
Robert Jarni played 80 times for Croatia and was a pivotal piece getting the team to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup in France. Jarni was one of the best left-backs of the 90s. He had speed, skill, and a wonderful cross. Jarni only scored one goal for Croatia in his 12 years of service; but what a goal it was! Jarni blasted home a shot from 24 yards out to break the deadlock against Germany in the quarterfinals of the ’98 World Cup. The rest is history.
Jarni’s Only Goal For Croatia
Robert Kovač, alongside his brother and captain Niko, was a beast on the backline. He was fierce, vocal, and gave every drop of blood and sweat for his Vatreni teammates. Kovač was capped by Croatia 84 times from 1999-2009. Unfortunately, this was Croatia’s weakest decade following the Golden Generation leading up to the disastrous quarterfinal loss to Turkey at EURO 2008. The Vatreni underperformed in 2002 – unable to defeat Ecuador at the World Cup, had a tough draw with England and France at EURO 2004, and couldn’t get past a mediocre Australia side at the 2006 World Cup. Kovač had tons of experience playing in the Bundesliga and brought that leadership to the Croatian national side.
Darijo Srna was a Croatian journeyman for 14 years; from 2002-2016. He captained the team after the Kovač brothers left and is still the most capped player in Vatreni history; playing in 134 games. He scored 22 times in a Croatian shirt and was most dangerous coming up the right side and swinging in lethal crosses. Srna was also fantastic from set pieces and scored a free kick against Australia at the 2006 World Cup. Srna scored against Germany at EURO 2008 on a team that could have contested for the trophy that year. During EURO 2016, Srna’s father passed away during the group stage. Srna flew home to Metković for the funeral and rejoined the team immediately after. His commitment to the team was second to none.
Srna free kick vs. Australia at 2006 World Cup
If there is one player you don’t have to spend more than half a second to put on this list, it’s Luka Modrić. The man turned it up in 2018 to levels we did not think were possible and there’s not enough time in our lives to discuss what he did at the World Cup in Russia. Modrić runs the Croatian midfield like a fine tuned Ferrari. He controls pace of play, tempo, and puts the ball right on his teammates’ laces, whether it’s a 5-yard pass or 40-yard cross. Modrić makes everyone around him incredibly better. He won every imaginable individual award in 2018, which included the Golden Ball (Best Player at World Cup) and the almighty Ballon d’Or (Best Player in the World). Modrić has scored 16 goals for Croatia in 127 appearances and is on pace to pass Darijo Srna as Croatia’s most-capped player when football returns in 2021. I can write pages on Luka Modrić – and maybe I will one day – but he is undoubtedly a first ballot All-Croatia pick.
Modrić 2018 World Cup Highlights
Robert Prosinečki was a gangster. A gangster with skill and knowledge of how the game should be played. Žuti, as he was called, only scored 10 goals in 49 games for Croatia from 1994-2002, but he brought so much swagger and attitude to the game; even if he was on the bench. Prosinečki was a Jedi. He knew what had passed and what was coming. He was a master of the midfield as he crafted pinpoint passes which carved through the seams of play. Žuti could also finish which was a lethal 1-2 punch for such a talented midfielder. There’s also rumors that he would open up a pack of cigarettes on the bench at the 1998 World Cup as soon as he was subbed out. How can a Croatian with that much charisma not make this list?
Prosinečki Croatia Highlights
Before Luka Modrić and Niko Kovač wore the #10 shirt for Croatia, it was Zvonimir Boban’s. Boban was a Croatian legend both on and off the field as many say it was his “Kick Heard Around the Balkans” that unofficially started the war in 1990. Boban was a leader and an AC Milan legend. He played from 1992-1999 for Croatia; scoring 12 goals in only 49 games. Boban could play any midfield position with his vision and playmaking abilities his greatest strength. Boban’s biggest Croatia goal was against Denmark at EURO 1996 to make it 2-0 before Davor Šuker’s “chip” closed the door on any Danish comeback.
Boban Goal vs. Denmark at EURO 1996
Ivan Perišić has been an absolute stud for Croatia since first being capped in 2011. Perišić has scored 26 goals in 88 appearances for the Vatreni and arguably three of the most important goals in Croatian history. In only the past four years, Perišić scored the late winner against Spain at EURO 2016, the equalizer against England in the 2018 World Cup semifinals, and the equalizer against France in the World Cup Final. In recent years, you could say that the team goes as Perišić does on the left wing. His blazing speed, precision crosses, and left-footed rockets are something no defenses want to deal with. At age 31, Perišić needs only 12 games to reach 100. Only eight players have played 100+ games for Croatia. He’s also three goals behind Eduardo da Silva for third place in all-time goals for the Vatreni.
Perišić winner vs. Spain at EURO 2016
Perišić equalizer vs. England
Perišić goal vs. France in World Cup Final
Ivan Rakitić has been the glue in the Croatian midfield since first being capped in 2007. He has been the Scottie Pippen to Luka Modrić’s Michael Jordan for over a decade. The two have been inseparable and it shows through their chemistry on the field. Raketa has scored 15 goals in 106 appearances for the Vatreni. Surprisingly, Rakitić has only scored two goals for Croatia at a tournament: vs. Czech Republic at EURO 2016 and vs. Argentina at the 2018 World Cup. But it’s his crisp passing and rocket right foot that has to be feared. Rakitić could have easily been Croatia’s ‘Best Player’ at the 2018 World Cup, however, with Modrić, Subašić, Perišić, Mandžukić all playing out of their minds, Rakitić’s performance was a bit overshadowed. However, two things that cannot be overshadowed are Rakitić’s ice cold penalty kicks in the 2018 shoot-outs against Denmark and Russia. Ivan Rakitić is the only person in the world who has two World Cup shoot-out winning goals to his name. In the history of the World Cup, no one person has sealed two separate penalty kick shoot-outs. Call him Captain Clutch!
Ivan The Ice Cold
Davor Šuker singlehandedly put Croatia on the map in 1998. He scored six goals at the World Cup that summer on his way to the Golden Boot and a 3rd Place finish for Croatia. The man was possessed when he had the ball at his feet. He could rip it, he could chip it, and he could cooly roll the ball right around you for an easy tap-in. Šuker was a versatile striker and no defender knew what his next move was going to be. That’s what made him so hard to defend. Šuker played for Croatia from 1991-2002 and scored an Earth-shattering 45 goals in only 69 matches played. That’s an incredible .65 goals per game during his international career. To put these numbers in perspective, Mario Mandžukić is second on Croatia’s all-time scoring list with 33 goals in 89 appearances. That means Šuker scored 12 more goals than Mario in 20 less games. Incredible!
All 6 Šuker Goals at 1998 World Cup
Šuker chip vs. Denmark at EURO 1996
And to wrap up our ALL-CROATIA XI, it’s none other than ‘Super’ Mario Mandžukić, who scored the most important goal in Croatian history: extra time vs. England to send Croatia to the World Cup Final!
Since first coming aboard for the Vatreni in 2007, Mandžukić was always hot or cold. You never knew which Mario you were going to get. He is currently Croatia’s second all-time leading scoring with 33 goals in 89 appearances. Every Croatian fan in the world will remember him for his 109th minute left-footed shot past England’s Jordan Pickford to win it for Croatia and send them to their first ever Final. However, Mandžukić was an aerial beast his entire career. He won every ball in the air, made defenses exert extra energy simply to mark him correctly, and was lethal with his head inside the box. When he was on, he was on. You could simply chip a ball into the box and let Mario do his thing. During EURO 2012, Mandžukić was tied with five other players with the most goals at the tournament (3). The other five were Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Gomez, Mario Balotelli, Fernando Torres, and Alan Dzagoev. And he scored another three goals at the 2018 World Cup.
Mandžukić Winner vs. England
Mandžukić scores vs. Italy at EURO 2012
Slaven Bilić is our first defensive substitute for the ALL-COATIA XI. Bilić was a smart defender and poised at the back. You could trust him against the world’s finest in big games. Bilić played for Croatia from 1992-1999; scoring three qualifier goals in 44 total matches played. They just played fewer games back in the 90s. Honorable mentions go to Vedran Ćorluka, Josip Šimunic and Šime Vrsaljko.
Niko Kovač is our midfield substitute, and arguably, the best on-field captain Croatia has ever had. He was the most vocal and led by example. He was the ‘little engine that could’ at only 5’9″ but had a heart bigger than anyone else on the field. Kovač played for Croatia from 1996-2008; scoring 14 goals in 83 appearances. It was gut wrenching to see Kovač go out after the EURO 2008 penalty kick loss to Turkey after playing so well against Germany that tournament. Honorable mention to Aljoša Asanović.
And last but not least off the bench as our substitute striker, Mr. Ivica Olić. The man would not stop running for the entire match and would tire out opposing defenses before himself. He was dubbed “Mr. Right Place, Right Time” by CroatianSports for his relentless tap-in goals. But hey, if it gets the job done, don’t complain. Olić was silly and a fan favorite. He played from 2002-2015 and scored 20 goals for Croatia in 104 matches. He first came onto the scene at the 2002 World Cup when he scored the equalizer against Italy, took his jersey off, and then couldn’t put it back on correctly. Good ‘ol Olić! Honorable mentions go to Alen Bokšić and Eduardo. We never saw their full potential due to injuries.
Olić equalizer vs. Italy at 2002 World Cup
And who could forget this goal against Turkey?
Zlatko Dalić only has a 45% win percentage in 30 matches managed since taking over for Ante Čačić in October of 2017. But you know what? You get Croatia to the World Cup Final, you’re the best coach in history. End of story!
Honorable mention purely based on personality: Ćiro!