12-June Mexico (9pm GMT Sao Paulo)
18-June Croatia (11pm GMT Manaus)
23-June Brazil (9pm GMT Recife)
Having finished third in their first World Cup 16 years ago, Sam Lewis reminds us that Croatia are a side who need to be respected in Brazil this summer
Coach: Niko Kovac
The older of the two Kovac brothers, the former Croatia midfielder was made Coach of the national team after nine months in control of the country’s Under-21 squad. Despite taking over a side that had earned just one point from its final four qualifying games to scrape into the World Cup play-offs,Kovac oversaw a 2-0 win over Iceland to seal qualification. With just seven games combined coaching experience for Croatia’s U-21 and full team, the 42-year-old will need to learn quickly.
Why they could be dangerous
Despite not being considered as a serious contender, Croatia can boast a strong squad littered with players who ply their trade in some of Europe’s top Leagues. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is the stand-out name but Croatia also boasts Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitic, Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and Inter’s talented youngster Mateo Kovacic. It’s a collection that could cause a number of teams problems. Shakhtar Donetsk full-back Darijo Srna captains a side of experience, discipline and underrated talent.
The world on his shoulders: Luka Modric
The biggest name and talent on the Croatian roster, Modric has enjoyed a stellar season under Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid and will need to continue that form if Croatia are to rival home nation Brazil for the top spot in Group A. The central figure in midfield and lynchpin for Niko Kovac’s side, Modric is absolutely vital to the success of this team in his first World Cup as a starter.
Did you know?
Despite not being recognised as an official footballing nation until after the 1994 World Cup had started, Croatia have qualified for all but one World Cup tournament since, only missing out on South Africa in 2010. They have only made it past the group stage once however, coming third in France 1998.
Country legend: Davor Suker
Croatia’s all-time top scorer with 44, Suker is the greatest player in Croatia’s young history. Best remembered for his time in Spain with Sevilla and Real Madrid from 1991 to 1999, Suker came third in the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1998 and was the only Croatian included on Pele’s FIFA 100 list of the greatest living footballers. Tall and powerful, Suker was blessed with a graceful touch, famously displayed in his sumptuous lob over Peter Schmeichel at the European Championships in 1996.
The in-vogue formation of the 2010s, Croatia are another side that use the shape as their tactical template. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pair up in the centre while Wolfsburg pair Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic man the wings. Attacking starlet Mateo Kovacic plays in the classic No 10 slot behind Mario Mandzukic up front.
…Brazil P2 W0 D1 L1 F1 A2
…Cameroon P0 W0 D0 L0 F0 A0
…Mexico P3 W2 D0 L1 F5 A2
Population: 4.2 million
World Cup appearances: 3
Best finish: Third place in 1998 – beat the Netherlands 2-1 after losing 2-1 to France in the semi-final stage.
Famous for: Ripping apart Peter Schmeichel and Michael Laudrup’s team 3-0 in Euro 1996 thanks to a ‘Golden Generation’ of Croatians led by Davor Suker, that also came third in 1998 World Cup two years later
Top Division: Prva Liga
How they got to the World Cup: Niko Kovac’s side beat Iceland 2-0 in a play-off after coming second behind Belgium in Group A of the UEFA qualifying stage
FIFA World Ranking: 20
Last World Cup Appearance: 2006 – third in Group F behind Brazil and Australia
Continental Honours: Third place medal at France 1998
Most Capped Player: Darijo Srna (111 caps)
Leading International Scorer: Davor Suker (44 goals)
Nickname: Vatreni – The Blazers