How they qualified
Croatia put their fans through the emotional mill in their qualification campaign. The Balkan team looked to be cruising after winning five and drawing one of their first six games, but they then took just one point from the next 12 available, losing at home to Scotland (1-0) and Belgium (2-1). Their good start eventually laid the foundation for a second-place finish, two points ahead of Serbia but nine adrift of runaway leaders Belgium.
A day after the final group game, Igor Stimac resigned from his post as head coach, with former Bundesliga player and Croatian international Niko Kovac – up until then in charge of the U-21 team – replacing him. Assisted by his brother Robert, Niko successfully led Croatia through their play-off against Iceland, but they were pushed all the way. Despite having a man advantage for long spells, the first leg ended goalless, before Croatia prevailed 2-0 in the return fixture. Mario Mandzukic grabbed the opener with Darijo Srna’s decisive effort giving supporters the cue to celebrate, although a red card shown to Mandzukic – one that means he will likely miss Croatia’s tournament opener – may dampen the mood somewhat by the time the tournament rolls around.
FIFA World Cup history
The Croats arrived for their maiden shot at the FIFA World Cup™ in 1998 as virtual unknowns, but were to prove one of the surprises of the tournament. They finished second in their group behind Argentina after losing 1-0 to the South Americans, but beating Jamaica 3-1 and Japan 1-0. A 1-0 win over Romania saw them through to the last eight and a meeting with Germany, where they stunningly won 3-0 to send the three-time world champions packing. Hosts and eventual winners France proved too strong in a 2-1 semi-final defeat, but the new boys crowned a dream debut by beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the third place play-off. The next two tournaments proved thoroughly disappointing by comparison, as Croatia failed to survive the group stage at both Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.
The current crop
Despite their absence from the 2010 finals, Croatia are a match for anyone on their day. Their goal is to recapture the glory days of the late 90's golden generation, of which he himself was a member. With many of the squad playing regularly in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga, there is no reason why they cannot make an impact at Brazil 2014.
The key players
Experienced captain Darijo Srna is a born leader, and playmakers Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar can always be relied upon for moments of inspiration. Kovac presides over a wealth of international-class attacking talent including Eduardo, Ivica Olic, Nikita Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic.
Coach: Niko Kovac
Best performance in a FIFA competition: 1998 FIFA World Cup France (Third place)
Former stars: Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki