Croatia rose to the occasion back in 1998 when they competed at their first World Cup, finishing third in France just six years after being recognised by FIFA and only three years after the Croatian War of Independence officially ended.
In the two decades since, Croatia have tended to blow hot and cold on the international stage and usually perform better at the European Championship than at the World Cup.
They have never actually made it past the group stage on the global stage since the Golden Generation of Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Robert Jarni shone so brightly 20 years ago and will be hoping to change that in Russia.
How They Qualified
Given their higher ranking and extra quality, Croatia would have fancied themselves to win a tough European qualifying group ahead of Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey to get to Russia.
In reality, losses in Iceland and Turkey on matchday six and eight respectively, as well as a last gasp equaliser from Finland in Rijeka on matchday nine, saw Croatia finish second behind Iceland, proving Euro 2016 was no fluke, and settle for a second chance in the UEFA playoffs.
Croatia only scored 15 times in their ten group games, a goal tally lower than every other country who qualified from Europe, as well as many who didn’t. However, their defensive record of conceding just four was bettered only by England and Spain.
In the playoffs, a seeded Croatia were paired with Greece. They suddenly had little problem finding the net and the tie was effectively over after a 4-1 first leg win thanks to goals from Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric. The second leg finished 0-0.
Group D was a tough draw, with Croatia to face Iceland again so soon, as well as 2014 finalists Argentina and a talented and unpredictable Nigeria.
Argentina would be expected to top the standings, but each of the three other countries would back themselves to take second place and progress to the knockout rounds.
First up for Croatia is Nigeria in Kaliningrad on 16 June. A strong start in that game is a must because next up it will be Argentina five days later. Depending on how the first two fixtures have gone, the final meeting with Iceland in Rostov-on-Don could be decisive.
Possible Route to the Final
Assuming it is Argentina who top Group D, Croatia would probably be looking at a last 16 encounter with France if they can take second place ahead of the others. Croatia have never beaten France, but a quarter final against Portugal or Uruguay awaits if they can this time.
If they can make it through both of those rounds, Brazil are the most likely semi final opponents.
All of Europe’s top five leagues are represented in Croatia’s talented and experienced squad. At the time of writing, coach Zlatko Dalic has named a 24-man preliminary squad and will need to cut one player from the group ahead of the final World Cup squad deadline.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb)
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Sampdoria), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kyiv), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Matej Mitrovic (Club Brugge), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg)
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Internazionale), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka)
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Internazionale), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Schalke), Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
(4-3-3): Subasic, Vrsaljko, Corluka, Vida, Strinic, Rakitic, Brozovic, Modric, Kramaric, Mandzukic, Perisic.
Croatia should have enough about them to make it out of Group D, but that is certainly no easy feat and anything other than an opening win against Nigeria will leave them with an uphill struggle.
The knockout rounds will be even tougher, yet Croatia have top class players who could really beat anyone on their day, as proven at Euro 2016 when they outclassed and beat Spain to finish top of their group. Whether the squad is balanced enough remains a concern, though.
If they do get through the group and are able to beat France in the last 16, growing momentum could feasibly take Croatia as far as the semi finals in the best case scenario. A last 16 exit at the hands of the French seems the most likely outcome, though.