The Qatar World Cup has entered its final stretch as only four out of the 32 teams remain in the hunt to win the biggest prize in international football. Two out of the four names – Argentina and France - are hardly surprising, while Croatia’s qualification has raised eyebrows and Morocco’s inclusion has created history. Before these four teams clash for the right to play the final, Prothom Alo English takes a look at their journey so far in the competition.
Before leaving for the World Cup we talked about it a lot inside the (Real) Madrid dressing room. I told my teammates ‘watch out with Croatia!’, you can ask them (laughs). No one counted on us.
Croatia’s talisman Luka Modric said this in a recent interview to a Spanish media after his team qualified for the semifinal of the Qatar World Cup.
At first glance, his Real Madrid teammates can be accused of being ‘bad friends’ for not believing that their Ballon D’Or winning teammate can take his team deep into the World Cup, even though they were the runners-up of the previous edition.
But in reality, they can’t really be blamed. The truth is, no one really fancied the chances of Croatia, not the players, the fans or the experts.
However, this lack of belief meant very little for the indomitable Croats who have already stopped Brazil’s ‘Mission Hexa’ in the quarter-final and are now eyeing to play back-to-back World Cup finals.
Croatia were slotted in Group F alongside Morocco, Belgium and Canada.
They began their World Cup campaign with a 0-0 draw against Morocco, where Modric and co. looked off colour and far from being a serious title contender. Up next for Croatia were Canada.
The Croats were expected to overpower the Canadian side easily. But their hearts were on their mouths after Canada’s Alphonso Davies scored in just the second minute of the match to make it 1-0 against Croatia.
But the experienced Croatia team bounced back, as Andrej Kramaric and Marko Livaja scored in the 36th and 44th minute respectively to give them the lead before the first half ended.
Croatia dominated the second half, scoring twice more to win the match 4-1.
Next up were Belgium, who had their backs against the wall after a defeat to Morocco and needed a victory to progress. While for Croatia, a draw was sufficient.
Croatia then did what they have been doing better than almost anyone in World Cups since 2018, forming a near impenetrable defence and keeping even the most threatening attacks at bay.
However, Croatia have Belgium’s forward Romelu Lukaku to thank, who missed three simple chances to score in the second half.
The game ended in a goalless draw resulting in the first round elimination of the world No 2 Belgium. Morocco finished group champions while the Croats qualified for the second round as runners-up.
Stopping the Blue Samurai
In the round of 16, Croatia were up against Japan, who had defeated Spain and Germany at the group-stage to emerge as Group E champions.
Japan, who have never gone beyond the second round of the World Cup, took the lead in the 43rd minute with a goal from Daizen Maeda.
Croatia regrouped at half-time and came back on level terms thanks to a goal from Ivan Perisic, one of their many old guards of the previous World Cup.
Croatia then did exactly what they had done in all of three of their knock-out games before the final. They dragged the match into a tie-breaker and then won it on penalties.
Crushing Brazilian hearts
Croatia were then up against Brazil, the team that was declared the odds on favourites to lift the World Cup before the tournament began.
Croatia, however, were not awed by the stature of their opponents. They went about their business as they usually do in knockout games- not allowing the opponents to score, making inquisitive but cautious runs at the opponent’s goal when the opportunity comes and having a lively presence in the midfield.
Brazil’s much fancied attack, led by Neymar Junior, kept trying but the Croat defence proved too resolute in the first 90 minutes of the game.
In the first half of extra time, Neymar finally found a crack in the Croat defence and put the ball in the back of the net to give Brazil the lead.
Croatia were just three minutes away from going out of the World Cup when Bruno Petkovic shattered the hearts of Brazil fans around the world by scoring from what was Croatia’s first shot on target in the entire game.
In the penalty shootout, Croatia were once again too good for their opponents. Brazil’s keeper Allison couldn’t keep out any of Croatia’s penalties while Croatia’s Livakovic saved Rodrygo’s shot.
Marquinhos stepped up to take Brazil’s fourth penalty but his strike hit the goal post. Croatia won the game 4-2 on penalties, their fourth win in penalty shootouts in the World Cups.
Now, Croatia will be up against Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the semifinal on Tuesday night in Doha. On paper, Argentina are one of the worst opponents a team can have in a World Cup semifinal, as the Albiceleste have never lost a semifinal in World Cups.
However, Croatia’s journey till now in Qatar shows that this is a team that pays little heed to history and the reputation of their opponents. Croatia will most likely try to drag the game into a penalty shootout, then try to win the battle of nerves and have a second bite at winning the World Cup.