This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
The post-World Cup rebuilding has been done on the hoof and not without significant damage, as Croatia looked hapless in the Nations League against Portugal and France. Still, qualifying for the Euros was achieved without too much trouble, although the team rarely looked entirely convincing.
Four players from the World Cup final starting XI have now retired – Danijel Subasic, Ivan Strinic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic. All of their replacements – Dominik Livakovic, Borna Barisic, Nikola Vlasic and Bruno Petkovic – have done well so far. Cracks have appeared elsewhere, particularly in an ageing defence that has proved very vulnerable, particularly at set pieces. There is an urge for more fresh blood in the form of Duje Caleta-Car, Domagoj Bradaric or Josko Gvardiol, while Sime Vrsaljko, finally back from injuries, appears a shadow of his former self.
Information from the dressing room is tightly controlled, but rumours about certain disagreements have been around for a long time. Dejan Lovren seemed to confirm as much when he stated the younger players “lack respect”. “New kids take some things for granted, they need to change their attitude towards the team and us elders,” he said. The coach, Zlatko Dalic, later dismissed speculation about a rift but he also spoke about a “lack of chemistry” and said: “Young players need to realise it takes time for them to become a part of this squad.”
Rather than looking to replace Rakitic’s role in midfield, Dalic opted to switch back to 4-2-3-1, with Vlasic impressing in the No 10 role. Alternatives for the position include Mario Pasalic and Andrej Kramaric. Marcelo Brozovic, vital for the team’s defensive balance, has continued to grow in importance, especially because there is no real alternative to the iron-lunged holding midfielder. Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic has 66 caps to his name but still is not considered a starter, and never has been.
Choices are limited up front as well. Petkovic has been excellent at times during the qualifiers but has had his share of problems with form and fitness. In his absence, Dalic tried to play without a proper striker, using a 4-4-2 midfield diamond with wingers leading the charge. That did not work so well, so Ante Budimir, a more classical No 9, has been selected as backup.
Of course, the experience in Russia has been a big plus for the team’s mentality. Croatia may look rather unstable at the moment but, if the jigsaw pieces come together, they could be set for big things again.
Zlatko Dalic claims he doesn’t eat on match days and doesn’t talk to anyone outside the team or use his phone at all. “People who are close to me know I just don’t function as a normal person on those days, so they don’t even try calling me,” he says. What he does do is pray before every game and always keeps a rosary in his pocket for good luck. Dalic also regretfully admits to “not really reading books” apart from coaching manuals.
Look no further than Luka Modric: this is still pretty much his team and that’s not always a good thing. Yes, he still reigns supreme in midfield, the kids are by far most likely to don his shirt and his face will appear in most ads, but the captain is not universally loved in his homeland. The reason is very specific: his role in the notorious Zdravko Mamic trial, the biggest corruption case in Croatian football. Modric changed his earlier testimony and said he “didn’t remember” the key details that would go in the favour of the prosecution, prompting charges of perjury that were later dropped.
Happy for a year’s delay
The starting right-back, Sime Vrsaljko, missed more than two years of international football because of knee surgery and a recurring injury before finally making an appearance against Slovenia in March this year. “I missed the lads,” he said. “However, we’re not here to socialise but to achieve results.”
What the fans sing
Lijepa li si (You’re So Beautiful). A highly controversial choice, given that it is performed by a singer, Marko Perkovic Thompson, who has been linked with far-right nationalist revisionism and banned in some countries because of that. The song lists historic regions of Croatia but climaxes with mentioning a part of the neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina: incidentally, it’s where Dalic and a few of his players hail from. Thompson made an on-stage appearance alongside the team at the 2018 World Cup celebration rally in Zagreb but wasn’t allowed to perform the song.
What the fans say
“Ostaviti srce na terenu” — leave one’s heart on the pitch.
“Neka pati koga smeta” — whoever is bothered by it, let them suffer: enjoy success even (or especially) if it brings pain to others.
“Poslao ga po cevape” — sent him out to get kebabs: a move that sends an opposing player the wrong way.
“It’s over, Bill. People are not blind,” Dejan Lovren wrote on Instagram last year, commenting on a Covid-related post by Bill Gates. At the height of the pandemic, he also shared posts by conspiracy theorists such as David Icke and Rashid Buttar, but later stated he was not an anti-vaxxer: “I just think people should have the benefit of choice.”
Alex Holiga writes for Telesport.
Follow him on Twitter @AlexHoliga.
For a player profile of Nikola Vlasic click here.