DUBAI // Croatia’s World Cup debut in France 16 years ago surprised everyone as the team crushed all comers on their way to the semi-finals.
It took the host nation, the eventual world champions, to stop them.
This time, as the Croatians enter their fourth World Cup following two disappointing appearances, they will open against the host nation, and tournament favourites, Brazil.
“It’s the biggest thing ever,” says Eugen Simic, a 31-year-old Croatian. “Because when we played in the semi-finals, OK, that was amazing, it was unreal. But this is playing in a world championship opening game against Brazil in Brazil, it’s unreal.
“It will be a very hard game, but there’s always this tiny hope we can win because football is a very unpredictable game. It takes a bit of luck, and usually we don’t have luck. Now we hope we will have a bit of luck.”
The Croatians have been formidable foes against Brazil in the past. In 2005, the teams drew 1-1 and in the 2006 World Cup, Croatia beat Brazil 1-0.
“Brazil will be under big pressure, you know, because they have also this unstable political situation,” Mr Simic says. “People don’t trust them, and as much as this is for them I would say a push forward to prove that they deserve to have a world championship in Brazil, it’s also big pressure on their backs, because what will happen if they lose? How will the masses react for this? So, it’s a massive pressure.
“But for Croatia, it’s OK, we all know that this is a big thing, playing against Brazil. We have a good team and I think we can be relaxed.”
If the Croatians lose their first game, they still have a chance of advancing beyond the group stage by overtaking their other Group A adversaries, Mexico and Cameroon.
“I think Cameroon and Mexico have really great, great teams and I’m not quite sure how we are going to manage it because I’m pretty sure that we don’t know a lot about Cameroon and Mexico because we are more focused on European football and aware of these teams,” says Dino Barac, a Croatian living in Dubai who works as a telecommunications manager.
There are several hundred Croatians living in Dubai, so there is likely to be quite a noisy gathering on Thursday night to watch the game at the Belgian Beer Cafe at the Grand Millennium in Dubai.
Mr Barac says he expects Croatia to finish at least “in the top, I don’t know, top six, top five or really, we don’t know what to expect.
“If they were third in the World Cup in France, why not here?”
The team’s biggest strength is their sheer will to win, fans say.
“And there’s also this massive passion that Croatians have,” Mr Simic says. “I believe a combination of the technique that they have and if they lead hard on the pitch I think we can definitely go far.”
But if Croatia do not make it to the final, Mr Simic will not cheer for anyone else. “See, I’m Croatian, so when I think about Croatia, I think about the Croatian sea, I think about family and I think about football. That’s it,” Mr Simic says with a hearty laugh. “If Croatia don’t make it? I’m not going to be cheering for anyone else, only for Croatia.”