Croa­tia em­braces un­der­dog role vs. France

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By JAMES ELLING­WORTH As­so­ci­ated Press

MOSCOW — A bil­lion-dol­lar as­sem­bly of stars makes France the fa­vorite for the World Cup final, a sce­nario that De­jan Lovren is pitch­ing as per­fect for Croa­tia’s big­gest ever game.

“We love to be the un­der­dogs,” Lovren said in the wake of Croa­tia’s England 2-1 ex­tra-time win over England.

With a pop­u­la­tion of 4.3 million and a history of strug­gle, it’s easy to see why. Not since Uruguay’s win in 1950 has a coun­try of so few peo­ple reached a World Cup final.

Croa­tia’s play­ers were born around the time an in­de­pen­dent Croa­tia emerged from the wars which di­vided the for­mer Yu­goslavia in the early 1990s. Lovren and star mid­fielder Luka Mo­dric were refugees as chil­dren.

Croa­tia still strug­gles eco­nom­i­cally and its foot­ball scene has been riven with hooli­gan­ism, crime and politics.

It’s a coun­try that breeds tough­ness in its play­ers.

The key to Croa­tia’s suc­cess in Rus­sia, Lovren said, is “Our men­tal­ity.”

“War, all these things and even now the sit­u­a­tion is not the best,” he said. “It’s un­be­liev­able how many tal­ents we have in sports.”

Two years ago, Croa­tia’s cam­paign at the 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship was over­shad­owed by tur­moil in the stands as fans hurled dozens of flares onto the field in protest against the foot­ball fed­er­a­tion lead­er­ship. A year be­fore that, a swastika was drawn on the field be­fore a na­tional-team game.

Those episodes have led to sanc­tions from soc­cer’s in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body, but Lovren is hop­ing the squad’s suc­cess at this World Cup will mark a turn­ing point for the coun­try.

“It’s not just foot­ball, it’s a big­ger picture for us un­for­tu­nately,” he said. “Us play­ers, now we change some­thing and ev­ery­one is proud of us in Croa­tia.”

De­spite the Balkan na­tion’s small pop­u­la­tion, it is a ver­i­ta­ble tal­ent fac­tory in a wide range of sports. There’s the for­mer U.S. Open ten­nis cham­pion Marin Cilic, a raft of cur­rent and ex-NBA play­ers, Olympic champions in ski­ing, dis­cus and the coun­try’s beloved water polo.

Most of all, Croa­tia is an ex­port mar­ket for qual­ity foot­ballers, with a squad boast­ing stars for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Ju­ven­tus.

Un­til now, Croa­tia’s great­est mo­ment on the foot­ball pitch was reach­ing the World Cup semi­fi­nals in 1998, the coun­try’s first tour­na­ment af­ter be­com­ing in­de­pen­dent.

Stars of that team re­main house­hold names in Croa­tia, in­clud­ing the foot­ball fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent and ex-Real Madrid striker Da­vor Suker, who has been with this squad all the way through this World Cup cam­paign. Af­ter the quar­ter­fi­nal win over Rus­sia, Suker said he’d be de­lighted if Mo­dric re­placed him as Croa­tia’s great­est player of all time.

In­stead, he said, “I’ll be the great­est pres­i­dent!”

Now that the 2018 squad has gone a step fur­ther than the 1998 semi­fi­nal­ists, Lovren and Croa­tia are cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive be­yond any­thing they ex­pe­ri­enced as chil­dren when the stars of the na­tional team were etched into folk lore fol­low­ing a semi­fi­nal loss to France.

“I was only nine. I re­mem­ber my mum was scream­ing, she was cry­ing af­ter the French game,” Lovren said. “Af­ter 20 years peo­ple will re­mem­ber us not any more (than just) ‘98 — and this is what I wanted.”

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