Croatia

Population: 4.5 Million

Area: 56,594 sq km

Capital: Zagreb

Currency: Kuna

Federation: Hrvatski Nogometni Savez founded in 1912, affiliated to FIFA in 1941, reafiliated in 1992.

Registered players: 110,000

Kit colours: Red and white checked shirt, white shorts and blue socks

Team nickname: The Blazers

World Cup appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014).

World Cup record: 3rd (1998), 1st round (2002, 2006)

European Championship appearances: 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)

European Championship record: Quarter-finals (1996, 2008) first round (2004, 2012)

How they qualified for FIFA World Cup 2014: Came 2nd in European zone Group C with 17pts behind Belgium on 26pts, ahead of Serbia on 14, Scotland 11, Wales 10 and Macedonia 7. Croatia mustered 5 wins, 2 draws, 3 defeats, 12 goals for and 9 against

Top clubs: Dyname Zagreb and Hajduk Split

Absent from the World Cup in South Africa, Luka Modric and Croatia are back in the big time for the Brazil extravaganza after a chaotic qualifying campaign that saw their coach Igor Stimac resign and be replaced by Niko Kovac just a month ahead of their play-off with Iceland.

The 42-year-old Kovac, a former international and until then in charge of the youth team, set about establishing a bit of order.

They had come second in their qualifying group, some nine points adrift of winners Belgium, and had lost twice consecutively to the Belgians and Scotland before Kovac’s arrival.

Kovac demanded rigour of his players and they drew 0-0 at Reykjavik before a 2-0 victory at home booked their tickets for the World Cup.

Croatia have great bravery, solidity, experience and team spirit, as they proved at Euro 2012 when holding out against Spain to eventually lose 1-0 and also holding Italy to a 1-1 draw.

But if this generation wants to emulate the 1998 team that ran to the semi-finals they’ll have to find their shooting boots and find some cohesion in front of goal.

At the heart of the team are a pair of men who have played over 100 times for the national outfit, with ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa (35) and captain and right back Darijo Srna (32) forming part of an ageing yet experienced defence.

In midfield Croatia are lucky to have the gifted Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric (28). His technical ability, speed of thought and vision would be of great value to any team. Modric never shys away and his teammates always look to get the ball to him when they win it.

He is known as the “Cruyff of the Balkans”, possibly because of his emaciated face, long hair and ability to control the ball with the most delicate of touches. He came to attention at Euro 2008 and since then has been the centrepiece of the team. He doesn’t, however, find the back of the net often enough.

The attack seems to be their weakest area despite the presence of Bayern Munich strikers Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic, who won the League, Cup and Champions League with the German giants in the 2012-13 season.

Mandzukic will miss Croatia’s opener against Cameroon after a straight red for a studs up foul against Iceland, a lenient decision according to some, but the striker will be back for their games with Brazil and Mexico.

AFP

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