Haven't got beyond group stage since 1998
23 June ~ Unlike some other European nations, Croatia have so far seen the World Cup unfold more or less according to expectations. Of course, there was a strong feeling of resentment towards the referee Yuichi Nishimura, who gave a very soft penalty in the tournament opener against Brazil; also the empathic win over a lacklustre Cameroon side came far easier than most fans had hoped for. But even months before the team set off for Brazil, ever since the draw was made, everyone thought the final group match against Mexico would decide whether Croatia qualifies for the knockout rounds or not.
And so it came to be. Niko Kovac's side must win it if they want to get past the group stage for the first time since 1998, when Croatia stunned everyone by finishing third in their first ever World Cup appearance. If they don't, they'll be branded a failure, despite all the good impressions they may have left in their first two matches. That is simply the way of things back home.
The team seem to have the general public by their side – for now. Reports and opinion, both in the media and among the fans, have stayed largely positive and focused on the good things rather than problems. It's fairly obvious that Kovac and his staff have prepared the players very well; they all appear in optimal physical shape and full of confidence, while improvements in the speed of their transition game and their passing patterns are noticeable to everyone who has seen them struggle with those same elements in the past year or two. Finally Croatia began to look like a potent team determined to play modern, fast-paced football – something they always had the right personnel for, but somehow failed to realise.
The supporters' reaction has so far been a little restrained, at least when compared to some of the previous campaigns. There is no euphoria. But all that could change in one match – if the team defeat Mexico and qualify for the next round, they will turn into national heroes over night. Aleksandar Holiga