Croatia may have reached the “end of a cycle”, but their third place at the 2022 World Cup proves also they have a bright future, according to manager Zlatko Dalic.
The 2018 runners-up followed the country’s finest display at a global finals by taking the bronze in Qatar, when they defeated Morocco 2-1 in the third-place play-off on Saturday. Croatia triumphed through goals from by Josko Gvardiol and Mislav Orsic.
Along the way to the medal, Dalic’s side defeated tournament favourites Brazil in the quarter-final, but could not get past Argentina in the last four on Tuesday.
"In any case, the last match we played - if you remember, I had said if we had lost, it would have been a disaster," Dalic told reporters after the Morocco victory.
"It was a difficult, a great match. I want to extend my congratulations to Morocco - they put up a great fight until the last minute, despite being exhausted.
"They can be proud; they remind me of us four years ago. We're among the best teams in the world."
Saturday’s match is expected to signal the end of a few World Cup careers among the current side, including the likes of 33-year-old centre-back Dejan Lovren.
Captain Luka Modric is 37, even if he and Dalic have said they both would continue through until Euro 2024. Croatia also have the final four of the Nations League to contest in June, with Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
"It's the end of a cycle for us, the end of a journey. Tonight's match and the win is the moment of the tournament for us," Dalic said. "Yes, this is the last World Cup for some of my players today due to their age.
"But we have young players in the team and it is great for Croatia. We have many of the players on the bench, too."
Dalic pointed to defender Gvardiol, aged 20 and potentially the young player of the tournament, 22-year-old defender Josip Stanisic, left-back Borna Sosa, 24, and midfielder Lovro Majer, also 24, as reason to believe Croatia are well set.
But the former Al Ain manager paid tribute to the older guard, saying: "We would not have been that far without our older players. We have a great future; Croatia has nothing to fear.
“Is it the end of an era for a generation? Well, we still have the Nations League and the Euro qualifiers. All I know is that Croatia have a bright future."
Croatia v Morocco player ratings
Meanwhile, Modric was asked on Saturday night if he intends to continue in international football. The Real Madrid midfielder, who won his 162nd cap for Croatia, said: "That's the plan.
"It would be a nonsense not to play in the Nations League, and then we'll see how to proceed. I definitely want to stay for the Nations League."
On finishing third, Modric said: "We achieved something major for the Croatian football. We wanted the gold; we were close. In the end, we return to Croatia as winners.
“Croatia is not a miracle that appears every 20 years. We proved that we are constant, that we cannot be seen as dark horses but as a football power."