Matt Jones looks at the Croatia teams from the 1998 and 2018 World Cups and picks his Croatia Combined XI
France and Croatia meet in the World Cup final on Sunday, and it’s been 20 years since the Vatreni’s golden generation glistened on their tournament bow – beaten by Les Bleus 2-1 on their way to lifting a maiden World Cup title.
There were some fabulous players on both sides of the ball in that 1998 last four showdown, and the 2018 vintages also boast some of modern football’s finest.
But who would you pick if you had to merge the two sides? Here, we pick our combined Croatia XI from the 1998 and current teams.
CROATIA COMBINED XI (4-3-1-2)
GK – DANIJEL SUBASIC
He’s not exactly unheard of as he’s played with French giants Monaco since 2012, but he wouldn’t have been on many peoples’ radar for goalkeepers to watch in Russia prior to the tournament.
Yet the 33-year-old has been superb, getting his gloves on just about everything. He’s saved four spot-kicks in two penalty shootouts as all three of Croatia’s knockout ties have gone beyond 90 minutes.
RB – SIME VRSALJKO
Not a big name but another who’s made a big impact for Croatia, getting up and down the right wing to aid in attacks as well as going about his defensive duties diligently.
The Atletico Madrid man’s width and delivery was essential as Croatia gradually climbed into the semi-final against England, and against inexperienced club-mate Lucas Hernandez, the marauding right-back could have a telling say.
CB IGOR STIMAC
Rough strength and a compact defence that only allowed two goals in five matches before the France defeat 20 years ago were hallmarks of Croatia’s triumph – typified by cult Derby County centre-back Stimac.
The muscular Croat was never the quickest, but alongside Slaven Bilic, he helped provide an iron curtain barrier for opposition attackers to try and chip away at.
CB – SLAVEN BILIC
Bilic was brilliant at the back as the Vatreni marched to third place, although his controversial role in the sending off of French counterpart Laurent Blanc blighted his tournament.
Bilic never looked much like a footballer but his brute force and sheer will was absolutely key to Croatia’s run, which came on the back of only gaining independence in 1991.
”Before, we had just come out of the war and we were like soldiers on the pitch, making our country recognised,” said Bilic at the tournament. They certainly managed to achieve that.
LB – ROBERT JARNI
If you’re only going to score one international goal, you’d best make it memorable. And Jarni, who loved to get forward and possessed a thunderous left-foot, certainly achieved that, netting the opening goal as Germany were torn apart 3-0 in the quarter-finals. It was the full-back’s only goal in 81 caps for the Vatreni.
He played in all seven games, having appeared in the 1990 World Cup for Yugoslavia. Retired from international football in 2002, but went on to win two international caps for Croatia at futsal.
CM – IVAN RAKITIC
Came into this tournament expecting to share the creative burden with Real Madrid’s Modric, but the Barcelona pivot has left it largely to his captain to drag Croatia into the final.
His seven key passes is joint second for Croatia but is dwarfed by Modric’s 14, while he is yet to register an assist. He has, however, shown his poise in clutch moments – scoring the winning penalties against both Denmark and Russia.
CM – ZVONIMIR BOBAN
Boban became the spiritual leader of the Croatia team years before their biggest achievement when, on May 13, 1990, during a Yugoslav League match between the Croat-supported Dynamo Zagreb and the Serb-supported Red Star Belgrade, he reportedly kicked a Yugoslav police officer who had raised a truncheon at a Croatian fan.
Boban, unsurprisingly, lost his chance to participate in the 1990 World Cup for a united Yugoslavia, but he became a national hero to the Croats. ‘Zorro’, as he was nicknamed, could also kick a ball around a bit too, a talented and creative yet tenacious player, known for his eye for the final ball especially during his AC Milan days.
CM – IVAN PERISIC
Was spoken of as being one of Croatia’s main weapons in their armory coming into the tournament, and he belatedly got going when it mattered as he stabbed in the equaliser against England.
Had been expected to chiefly carry Croatia’s wide threat but has been put in the shadow by Eintracht Frankfurt flyer Ante Rebic. Now he’s in the groove though he could be a dangerous prospect for France.
AM – LUKA MODRIC (C)
Only 5ft 7in yet he is a monster of a midfielder, his influence rising with each game that passes – no player (who has played six matches) has covered more ground than his 63km.
His goal in the 3-0 thrashing of supposed contenders Argentina was breathtaking, his nerves of steel to convert a penalty in the shootout against Denmark, having earlier missed one to win it in extra-time, brave beyond belief. A diminutive player who could have a big say in this final.
ST – DAVOR SUKER
A silky striker who took his chance to shine as Croatia announced themselves to the world 20 years ago. Scored in every game bar the 1-0 group stage defeat to Argentina – including winners against Japan and, crucially, in the last 16 against Romania and 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the third-place play-off.
Capped a sublime tournament both personally and for his nation as his six goals saw him take home the Golden Boot.
ST – MARIO MANDZUKIC
Mandzukic probably isn’t one of the most coveted strikers in world football, but he’s certainly one of the most underrated. He’s not stylish or subtle, but what he is, is tenacious and tireless.
He drags defenders around and creates the space for teammates blessed with speed and flair players to move into. Only Dejan Lovren has won more aerial duels on average per game than his 4.6. He’s the man for the big occasion too, as proved by his match-winning goal against England.