Not only did they crush Argentina by 3-0 in this 2018 world cup, they also humiliated another traditional 'football power' England and made it to the finals despite their population being less than ten percent that of England's and despite not having the high profile soccer leagues that the other countries have. What is their secret? I am sure it isn't just luck.
The following article about Why are Croatia so good at football with only a population of 4 million? sums up some of the key reasons why Croatia achieved so much with a smaller player pool:
- Hardship of the War of Independence (1991-1995):
The war affected many of this generation of Croatian players directly. Mario Mandzukic grew up partly in Germany, where he began playing before returning to Croatia at the age of 10, while Ivan Rakitic was born and grew up in Switzerland, where he started his career with Basel. Vedran Corluka was born in Bosnia but fled for Croatia in 1992 amid the war.
Younger players were less directly affected, but the memory and mythos of the war still looms large among the team.
After the war, Croatia immediately achieved serious and surprising football results which set the bar pretty high for the Croatian football:
It’s hard to stress enough how quickly Croatia got good. After a series of friendlies, the country’s first competitive fixture came in 1994 in the qualifying for Euro 96.
They topped their qualification group above Italy and then went on to play in the tournament itself, making it through to the knockout stages before being sent home in the quarter final by eventual winner Germany – five years after the creation of their country.
That group of players, including Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker, became known as the “golden generation” and would go on to even greater things two years later in France 98.
- Politics and Nationalism:
It’s been useful politically for the Croatian government to have the team to represent it. [...]
It’s a way of bolstering a nationalism that might be a little unsavoury to those in long-established western liberal democracy. The governing HDZ party has been accused of trying to exploit the team’s success as it ramps up nationalist rhetoric at home.
- Youth Development:
With all the geo-political reasons given, the football development aspect was still the most crucial reason for the Croatian success story.
Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split were two of the “big four” clubs in Yugoslavia along with Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, and Croats were some of the best players for former Yugoslav teams.
Croatia also inherited a legacy of investment in sporting excellence from the old communist regime, from stadiums to sports academies (Modric attended one).
It's not hard to see how successful are the youth academies of Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split and how important is the overall influence of these clubs on their national team. Out of 23 players of Croatian football team squad at World Cup 2018:
- 10 were grown in Dinamo Zagreb's youth academy:
- another 4 played for Dinamo Zagreb:
- 5 were grown in Hajduk Split's youth academy:
- another 1 played for Hajduk Split:
All of these players play in the top European leagues in the club level.