When Croatia made the 2018 FIFA World Cup final in Russia, Damir Kreilach couldn't attend.
It was the early stages of his Real Salt Lake career, and they played an away game at Minnesota United FC the day prior. Kreilach, then in his late 20s, was amid his first MLS season after arriving that winter from German club Union Berlin.
But Croatia’s Cinderella-esque run, now four years ago, wasn’t a one-off. They’re back in the World Cup semifinals, now at Qatar 2022, and hope to deny Argentina and Lionel Messi’s quest for the sport’s biggest prize on Tuesday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo).
If they pull off another upset, the 33-year-old hopes to attend the final on Dec. 18 at Lusail Stadium. Croatia would face the winner of the Morocco-France semifinal. In 2018, Vatreni lost 4-2 to France in the final.
“Qatar is a great possibility because it's the offseason now,” Kreilach told MLSsoccer.com. “I'm back home in Croatia, so I would fly five hours or so to Qatar, bring the family to see the game live and hopefully celebrate the national team as winners of the World Cup. It would an incredible moment for the players, but also for the country here. Hopefully it happens.”
Modric's last hoorah?
Kreilach is one of three active Croatian players in MLS, joined by Charlotte FC goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and Portland Timbers center back Dario Zuparic. This offseason, while prepping for the 2023 campaign, they’ve witnessed a breathtaking run by their home country that’s included penalty-kick victories over Japan (Round of 16) and then Brazil (quarterfinals). They were runners-up in Group F.
With a population of roughly four million people, Croatia is one of the smallest countries competing at the World Cup. But they boast an experienced group, and Kreilach said it should be no surprise they’ve made it this far – especially with Luka Modric leading the way.
Modric, the 2018 Ballon d'Or winner, forms their midfield heartbeat alongside Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic. The Real Madrid talisman, now 37, is their world-class talent.
“That he's still going like this, his motor is incredible,” Kreilach said. “His commitment to the team, his leadership means so much. He's the face of the Croatian national team. It's a whole squad, but Luka Modric is the one at the highest level. He's a key, key player for Real Madrid and it says a lot. When you have him in the midfield lineup, anything is possible.”
Kreilach has several connections to this Croatian squad, playing in the Under-21s with Kovacic, center back Dejan Lovren, forward Andrej Kramaric, winger Ivan Perisic and more. He described the group as “humble” but also one with “very high” expectations given past results.
The 33-year-old even likened Croatia, with their iconic red-and-white checkered jersey, to RSL. Neither team has the biggest names, but they band together to find a way.
“Everyone is on the same page,” Kreilach said. “It doesn't matter which job you are doing, but as long as everyone and the team are working together, as long as everyone is on the same page, results will come. Aside from the quality you have, the work rate and togetherness, these little things, they are so important. The results come from that foundation.”
Second choice: Atlas Lions
If Croatia can’t knock off Argentina, as they did during the 2018 World Cup group stage, Kreilach is rooting for another underdog tale. He’s taken a liking to Morocco, the first-ever African nation to reach a World Cup semifinal.
“The way they play, the work they've put into this tournament, to only concede one goal in five games, it says a lot about them,” Kreilach said of Morocco. “Their team isn't built with big names either. They're all great players, with [Hakim] Ziyech and [Achraf] Hakimi in the highest stage, and then the rest are great players but most people don't know them.”
Kreilach appreciates the team that wasn’t favored in pre-tournament predictions. That outlook has helped RSL make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, and it’s helped Croatia teach onlookers not to underestimate them.
Now, another World Cup final berth is there for the taking.
“The Croatian national team is built on team spirit, where everybody is working together, playing together,” Kreilach said. “The commitment and the mood in the team has been great, the last five to seven years. We really believe the result will come, and it's how the result came in 2018. Hopefully it's going to come this year too.”
Kreilach’s road back
An MLS All-Star in 2021, Kreilach featured in just five games last year due to injury.
He underwent back surgery on June 2 and didn’t play from mid-April onwards, including when RSL earned the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Asked about his recovery, Kreilach sounds hopeful that he can compete when the 2023 campaign gets underway in late February.
“It's still not 100 percent because I want to see myself training with the rest of the group to see truly where I'm at,” Kreilach said. “But it's getting better and hopefully by the preseason, that's the most important time, to go through then without injury and join the group fully, to come back stronger than ever.”
He’s captained RSL and projects as a key figurehead under head coach Pablo Mastroeni. Kreilach and winger Jefferson Savarino are RSL’s returning Designated Players.
“I'm training here in Croatia and I haven't had any issues, which gives me very positive signals that everything is going to be good,” Kreilach said.