On the opening day of the 2014 World Cup, the Croatian national team goes into Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo as heavy underdogs. As the host country, Brazil is favored in the opening match at 11-1 odds and will be playing in front of an expected home crowd of 65,000.
But the pressure may very well be on Brazil. Although only drawing from a country of 4 million people, Croatia will field a talented, veteran-laden squad with nearly 1,000 caps among its players — and a lot to play for.
The Balkans have been hard hit by flooding from cyclone Tamara in recent weeks, and the Croatian players are expected to take the field on Thursday buoyed by a ground swell of emotion about all that their countrymen (and the region in general) are going through. On top of that, the Croatian side benefits from a rich legacy in football and a strong commitment to player development from its professional teams. For example, Croatia is one of several successor countries to Yugoslavia, which had a rich history of international success in football. In fact, it is because of their longstanding success in football that Yugoslavia’s national team (or the Plavi) ironically became known as the “Brazilians of Europe.” Now, the great soccer traditions of that country are being carried into this year’s World Cup by Croatia and Bosnia–Herzegovina.
Croatia, in particular, has a recognized history in player development. Its leading professional club, GNK Dinamo Zagreb, is widely regarded as one of the top youth development programs in Europe. A series of big name stars have come through Dinamo’s youth system, including Luka Modric who plays in La Liga for Real Madrid. Modric will be the triggerman for Croatia in the opening match. Paired with Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic in Croatia’s midfield, Modric will be key if Croatia is to be successful in denying the Brazilians possession of the ball.
Another product of Dinamo Zagreb’s youth system is Eduardo da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk). In an interesting backdrop to the game, Eduardo is Brazilian born and made the move to Croatia to join Dinamo’s youth program. Eduardo took up citizenship in Croatia in 2002 and is expected to see substantial action against Brazil due to the one-game suspension of Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic, who received a red card in Croatia’s last qualifying match against Iceland.
Beyond Dinamo’s representation on Croatia’s side, their current U17 team is heralded as the best in Europe. Other top professional clubs have taken notice. Most recently, FC Barcelona agreed to a deal to sign 17-year-old Croatia international Alen Halilovic from Dinamo Zagreb for an initial £1.8m.
Dinamo’s reputation in player development extends beyond Europe as well. It has been reported that 17-year-old, U.S.-based Román Martin has been linked to a move to Dinamo Zagreb this summer. Martin is a product of San Diego’s Nomads Soccer Club and will be enjoying his fourth stint overseas this summer having formerly toured Europe with two different Brazilian clubs. Other American players have garnered interest at Dinamo as well. The draw of playing overseas continues to be the opportunity to be exposed to player development programs where there is an established track record of producing results like GNK Dinamo Zagreb.
When the opening match of the 2014 World Cup kicks off on June 12, no one should be surprised by the quality of play on both sides of the ball. Croatia will field a team with not only depth and veteran experience, but also one of the best midfields in the World Cup. If Croatia can protect against the pace of Brazil on the wings, the opening game of the World Cup presents an intriguing early match up.
Flash News: Set to take the field for Croatia in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, Ivan Rakitic is reportedly set to sign with FC Barcelona. Rakitic, who was rumored to have fallen out of talks with his current club Sevilla, is now supposed to sign a long term deal with the Catalan club. Other clubs such as Athletico Madrid and Real Madrid have also expressed interest in the Croatian midfielder. But FC Barcelona seems to now be front runner for Rakitic’s services as a potential replacement of Cesc Fabregas.