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.”
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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.
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Source:: The Denver Post – Sports