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Croatia are the World Cup team that refuses to lose

Croatia, on the other hand, have not only become a staple of these events, but have become a real force within them, a team capable – as the 1998 team was – not only of putting together a single impressive campaign , but to return four years later, with a markedly different set of players, and start all over again. “We have 18 new players,” defender Sosa said of this year’s squad. “A lot of them are playing the World Cup for the first time.” It made no difference.

It’s not only a testament to the steady stream of players coming out of academies around the country – “I don’t know if it’s genetics or environment or geography,” Boban said, “but we’ve got so much talent” – but also of culture that has also been created within the national team.

Almost all young Croatian players spend time at the start of their career in one of the two big Croatian club teams, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, which means that newcomers to the senior team are usually met with faces friendly. The country’s slogan for the tournament, “family”, is more than just marketing spiel.

There is no firm hierarchy within the team; even relative neophytes are encouraged to make their voices heard. Dalic, the coach, takes a deliberately low-key approach to discipline, trusting Modric and his fellow veterans to lead by example, ensure their personal standards are met, pass on their wisdom, make everyone understand just what is expected.

Those expectations are so high, Sosa said, that the team has adopted a policy of “not celebrating goals, just celebrating wins”. It is this, said Boban, that is the final ingredient of Croatia’s success: outside its borders it may look and feel like an outsider, but that is not quite how it is. sees.

“I was talking about it with a friend of mine, Prosinecki or Slaven Bilic, a few months ago,” Boban said. “When we played, we were always the favorites of our people. When we play against Germany, people think we have to win. Of course, we should beat Germany!”

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

Now, for the second time in four years, Croatia are about to do the impossible. A victory over Argentina would take the country to a second consecutive World Cup final. Once again, at the World Cup, the team that refuses to be beaten is ready to go all the way.

Tariq Panja and James Wagner contributed reporting.

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