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With World Cup run, Croatia adds to sports glory that would make far bigger nations boast

Since declaring itself independent Oct. 8, 1991, Croatia and its mere 4 million-plus people have posted a World Cup third-place finish when the country was not yet seven years old and now made a World Cup final when the country is not yet 27 years old, with a captain whose childhood involved training with a grim soundtrack of shelling from a lingering war.

Only in late 1991 did the country that has forged this towering small-nation achievement start making its own plans for currency, passports and border crossings. War did not end at that very moment, either. And even in these improved 2010s, Croatian news reports in recent years have told of the troubling puzzle of declining population.

Yet here’s Croatia, its collective stomach rugged enough to surpass three deficits in the World Cup knockout stages — 1-0 to Denmark, Russia and England — and having played an entire extra match worth of extra time, on its way to play France on Sunday for the world’s most-prized prize. It has made Croatian tennis players get their fingers stuck on certain keyboard keys.

“Incredibleeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!” tweeted Marin Cilic, the fifth-ranked men’s tennis player, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, the 2017 Wimbledon runner-up and the 2018 Australian Open runner-up.

“Hoooooooowwwwwwww?????? country of 4 million in the finals of @FIFAWorldCup,” tweeted Borna Coric, the 21-year-old men’s tennis player ranked 20th in the world.

When Vice President Vladi­mir Seks announced Croatia’s independence in 1991 with a statement that read, “The laws of Yugoslavia will no longer be in effect,” he did not add, “And we will kick more tail than you can believe at various international sports.” That would have been trivial and gauche. The country, after all, has produced noted former Croatian parliamentarian and mixed martial arts giant Mirko Filipovic, known in the cage as Mirko Cro Cop.

Also: Iva Majoli, French Open women’s champion; Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon men’s champion and four-time finalist; Janica Kostelic, four-time Olympic skiing gold medalist, and her brother Ivica, four-time Olympic skiing silver medalist; Toni Kukoc, key contributor to three NBA championships in Chicago; two teams of Olympic men’s handball gold medalists; one team of Olympic men’s water polo gold medalists; and individual Olympic gold medals in weightlifting, shooting, sailing, rowing, discus and javelin.

Croatians have even mastered one of the great cliches of sports to overcome that most dreaded of all opponents, the British punditry.

After Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over England in the World Cup semifinals, Luka Modric, the team captain and Real Madrid standout, told British broadcaster ITV: “We proved everything differently than people were talking, especially English journalists, pundits on television. They underestimated Croatia tonight, and that was huge mistake, and all these words from them we take, we were reading, and, ‘Okay, we will see today who will be tired.’ And like I say, they should be more humble and respect more opponents.

“And, yeah, that’s it. We showed that we were not tired. We dominated the game physically, mentally in all aspects. We should kill the game even before extra time, and now, this is an amazing achievement for us. It’s dream come true. After such a long time, we are in the final, biggest success in Croatian history in sport, and we have to be proud.”

He said all this and has done all this — forged a strong candidacy for the Golden Ball Award that goes to the World Cup’s best player — even while facing quite some stresses at home. In a matter that has placed a severe dent in his homeland popularity, prosecutors have charged him with perjury in his testimony in the tax-fraud trial of a soccer executive who has fled to Bosnia, meaning that little Croatia achieves largesse even in the grand, global tradition of high-stakes corruption cases.

Can prosecutors hold on to a charge after a World Cup win?

Croatia might prove also the testing ground for that.

Those would be some sturdy prosecutors.

Somehow, even before it beat Nigeria, destroyed Argentina and dislodged Iceland in group play, Croatia arrived here with a considerable World Cup history for a pup of a nation. Its third-place showing in 1998 in France became the best for a debutant since Portugal did likewise in 1966.

By that time, Modric neared age 13. This came well after his traumatic age 6, when his grandfather had been murdered while guiding his cattle up the mountain and the family had gone as refugees to a local hotel, where the locals would report the chronic sight of a lad and a ball.

Not so far removed from war by 1998, Croatia plucked Germany from that bracket with a 3-0 stunner in the quarterfinals and went on to lose, 2-1, to eventual champion and host France in the semifinals, one of those matches that lasted beyond the match. During the third-place thing between Croatia and the Netherlands, French fans rained boos, derision and bad vibes upon Croatia’s Slaven Bilic, for what Steven Goff of The Washington Post called Bilic’s “animated flop” that led to the suspension of French defender Laurent Blanc for the final against Brazil.

“Tonight, Bilic was booed during the pregame introductions, the postgame medal ceremony, even during Croatia’s victory lap,” Goff wrote. “The unofficial count was 38 rude receptions, 26 before halftime.”

As a further byproduct of that match, Croatia’s Davor Suker scored his sixth goal of the World Cup, landing him the Golden Boot for highest scorer. Now young Croatia might have enough World Cup history to derive a Golden Boot and a Golden Ball from its 4 million-plus, evidence of team matters much larger — such as that, somehow, it has arranged an even loftier meeting with France. Tack 2018 to 1998 and to all else, and the Croatian heart does seem a mighty organ.

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