Croatia is the World Cup team that refuses to lose

In contrast, Croatia has not only become a fixture at these events, but has emerged as a real force within them, a side capable – like the team from 1998 – of not just one impressive season to get off the ground, but also to return four years later with a significantly different group of players, and do it all over again. “We have 18 new players,” defender Sosa said of this year’s squad. “A lot of them are playing at a World Cup for the first time.” It didn’t make any difference at all.

That’s a testament not only to the steady stream of players coming out of the country’s academies — “I don’t know if it’s genetics, environment or geography,” Boban said, “but we just have so much talent” — but also for the culture that has also developed within the national team.

Almost every young player in Croatia spends time at one of Croatia’s two big club teams, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, early in their career, which means that newcomers to the senior squad are generally greeted by friendly faces. The country’s slogan for the tournament, “Family,” is more than just a bit of marketing gibberish.

There is no fixed hierarchy within the team; even relative newcomers are encouraged to make their voices heard. Dalic, the coach, takes a deliberate cautious approach to discipline and trusts the likes of Modric and his comrades to lead by example, to ensure their personal standards are met, to pass on their wisdom and make it clear to all that they are fair are what is expected.

Those expectations were so high, Sosa said, that the team implemented a policy of “not celebrating goals, only celebrating wins.” This, Boban said, is the final ingredient in Croatia’s success: Outside its borders, it may look and feel like an outsider, but it doesn’t quite see itself as one.

“I was talking about this with one of my friends, Prosinecki or Slaven Bilic, a few months ago,” Boban said. “Whenever we played, we were always our people’s favourites. When we play Germany people think we have to win. “Of course we should beat Germany!”

“We play against Italy? “Italy is not that talented.” We play Brazil? “Yes, but we are better than them.” It’s normal for them to be so proud. I don’t know how it became in our culture, but this is Croatia. You feel it, and that pressure makes you feel better. That makes you more ambitious.”

Now, for the second time in four years, Croatia is on the verge of doing the impossible. A win over Argentina would propel the country into a World Cup final for the second year in a row. Even at the World Cup, the team that can’t be beaten is ready to see it through to the end.

Tariq Panja and James Wagner contributed reporting. Croatia is the World Cup team that refuses to lose

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