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World Cup 2014: Croatia national soccer team guide

CROATIA HOPING FOR GOLDEN GENERATION 2.0

After a third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup behind Davor Suker & Co., we're still waiting for Croatia to get back to elite status on the global stage. After a rocky qualifying campaign, they'll hope they can rekindle that flame from their "Golden Generation" in Brazil.

WORLD CUP PROSPECTS

Croatia come into the 2014 World Cup with some major star power. Luka Modric (Champions League) and Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla) were major pieces in their team’s European Championships this season. Mario Mandzukic is coming off two seasons with Bayern Munich in which he has been the main forward for a team that has won two Bundesliga titles and the 2012-13 Champions League title.

But with so little experience or success at major tournaments, can this team really deliver? It seems as though they will be battling Cameroon and Mexico for second place but maybe they can get a result against Brazil in the opening match of the tournament and make a surprise run deep into the knockout rounds.

GROUP A SCHEDULE

June 12: vs. Brazil, Sao Paulo
June 18: vs. Cameroon, Manaus
June 23: vs. Mexico, Recife

STARS TO WATCH

Darijo Srna (D, Shakhtar Donetsk): The captain of the national team, Srna is the team's leader -- their heart and soul. His presence will be critical to help Croatia get through the uphill road that awaits them in Brazil.

 

WATCH: The best of Luka Modric

Luka Modric (M, Real Madrid): Srna may be the team's emotional leader, but the diminutive Modric is the man who makes the team tick as the anchor of the midfield. Croatia will need their two-way center-mid to be especially inspired to have any success.

Ivan Rakitic (M, Sevilla): The other midfield playmaker for Croatia. Rakitic will likely play next to Modric on the field and will combine to help set up the bevy of talents up front for Croatia.

THE COACH

After a lackluster run in qualifying, Croatia turned to former midfielder and captain Niko Kovac on Oct. 16, 2013, and the former member of the Golden Generation led the side in a two-leg playoff victory over Iceland to clinch a ticket to Brazil.

Kovac has high-level experience on both club and national team levels as a player, but his stint as coach of Croatia is his first true foray into the coaching world.

HOW THEY QUALIFIED
WCQ record: 5-2-3, 17 pts. / 12 GF, 9 GA (second place in UEFA Group A*)

*Won 2-leg playoff vs. Iceland 2-0 on aggregate

You wouldn’t exactly call Croatia’s run to the World Cup memorable. After finishing a distant second to Belgium in the group phase of qualifying, Croatia – with a plus-three goal differential in 10 matches – had a winner-take-all match against Iceland in the second leg of a two-leg series to advance. They were able to eke out a 2-0 win there to advance.

WORLD CUP HISTORY
Fourth appearance ('98, '02, '06, '14)

WATCH: Croatia shock world in '98

The Croatians have a short existence since breaking away from Yugoslavia, but they're already on their fourth trip. They turned heads in their first appearance in 1998, finishing third in France. However, they weren’t able to build off that effort in subsequent tournaments in 2002 and 2006, failing to make it out of group play. And in 2010, the Croatians didn’t even make the trip to South Africa, failing to qualify. Expectations won't be high after they eked into Brazil 2014.

MLS/USA CONNECTIONS

Former D.C. United defender and Canadian national teamer Dejan Jakovic was the lone player in the league with Croatian ties but recently left for Japan. Former Croatian U-21 national teamer Marko Maric had a brief stint in the league with the Chicago Fire in 2011. An injury set him back and he only played one game stateside. That same year, Josip Mikulic played for the Fire in 14 matches, starting 12. The former U-19 Croatian national left the Fire after 2011 and has found a home with Croatian second-division club HNK Gorica.

The US and Croatian national teams don’t have much of a history in head-to-head matches. The only contest in the nations’ histories came in 1990 when a group of Croatian all-stars took on the US, prevailing 2-1. A pairing in group play in Brazil could change all that, of course.