Outsiders Croatia have made it to the FIFA World Cup Final for the first time in their history, bettering their semi-final effort from 1998. Led by Luka Modric in midfield, the team has displayed a gritty mix of determination and skill to reach the finals and stands one match away from being called World Champions.
Standing in their way are 1998 Champions France – winners of their semi-final face-off that year – who defeated Belgium in the other semi-final on 10 July to book their own berth.
Here’s a throwback to Croatia’s journey so far:
Group Stage Match 1: Against Nigeria (2-0)
The quality of the midfield was exemplified in the first game when Modric and Barcelona man Ivan Rakitic controlled possession away from the Super Eagles. Croatia’s pressure from a corner eventually led to an own goal by defender Etebo.
The Africans started strong in the second half, with Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi taking two threatening shots. However, Croatian keeper Danijel Subasic was equal to all of Nigeria’s attacks. When centre-forward Mario Mandzukic was brought down inside the Nigerian box, captain Modric’s penalty effectively put the game past the Super Eagles.
Group Stage Match 2: Against Argentina (3-0)
Perhaps the most impressive victory in the tournament, Croatia humbled Argentina 3-0 in their second game. With a wonderfully aggressive display, Croatia made the most of Argentina’s tactical weaknesses to run amok in the second half. Ante Rebic capitalised on Argentine keeper Caballero’s mistake to fire the team ahead.
There was no looking back. Both Modric and Rakitic scored exceptional goals, and the Croatian defence completely shut down 5-time Ballon D’Or winner Lionel Messi and team. This result announced Croatia as a force to be reckoned with.
Group Stage Match 3: Against Iceland (2-1)
Iceland were impressive at Euro 2016, and in their draw against Argentina, but coming off a loss against Nigeria. Having already secured qualification, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić chose to substitute nine of eleven first-team players for the final match.
Spirited Iceland shows impressive spells of dominace even as Croatia dominated the midfield early on. Milan Badelj opened the scorer with a volley, but Iceland quickly equalised through a Gylfi Siggurdness penalty. However, Icelandic hopes were shattered by Ivan Perisic’s last minute goal.
Round-of-16 : Against Denmark [1(3) - 1(2)]
Croatia and Denmark got off to a flying start, with each side scoring a goal within the first four minutes of the game. Mathias Jorgensen put the Danes in front at 58 seconds, but Croatia trailed for just two minutes as Mario Mandzukic equalised at the other end.
Modric missed a penalty in the second half of extra time, and the game went to the shootout. Both keepers did a great job, but Croatia ultimately pipped the Danish Dynamite 1-1 (3-2) on penalties. This was their first knockout game, and victory, since 1998.
Quarter-Final: Against Russia [2(4) - 2(3)]
The Russian team had been riding a wave of home support to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since their time as the Soviet Union. Croatia fell behind at first on a spectacular goal by Daniel Cheryshev, but equalised eight minutes later.
The teams also scored in either half of extra time, with defenders Demagoj Vida and Mario Fernandez heading the ball into the net. A perfect thriller again went to penalties where Fernandez dragged his shot wide to prove the difference in Croatia’s 2-2 (4-3) win.
Semi-Final: Against England (2-1)
After becoming only the second team to win two penalty shootouts in the same World Cup, the Three Lions awaited the team. With fan fervour building up to the game, England seemed favourites to reach their first final since 1966.
They got off to a jittery start after conceding a free kick in the first five minutes that Kieran Tripper converted brilliantly to give England a 1-0 lead. But Croatia opened the second half strong and equalised on a unique goal by Ivan Perisic in the 68th minute. And finally, Mario Mandzukic scored in the second half of extra time to put Croatia through to the FIFA World Cup 2018 Final.
Croatia face France in the World Cup Final on Sunday, 15 July. After three straight games that went to extra time or beyond, but several moments of tenacity, the Croatian team will count on its perseverance and determination to be crowned World Champions.