The official heir to Yugoslavia’s achievements at the World Cup is Serbia. The current standard-bearer of those teams seems to be Croatia.
The Croats, who have reached the World Cup final for the first time and will face France on Sunday for the title, have had the most success at the world’s biggest soccer tournament since Yugoslavia descended into war in 1991 and spawned seven different FIFA nations.
Croatia reached the semi-final at the 1998 World Cup with a team led by striker Davor Suker that beat Germany in the quarter-final before losing to host France. Croatia then won the third-place match against Netherlands, the best World Cup finish for any team from the former Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia had its own success back in the day. The team reached the semifinals at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 before losing to host Uruguay. There was no third-place match at that tournament, so Yugoslavia — made up of players from Serbian-based clubs – officially finished fourth behind the United States on goal difference.
Yugoslavia also produced a fourth-place finish at the 1962 World Cup after losing to host Chile in the consolation match, and reached the 1990 quarter-final.
Those old Yugoslav teams were known as the “European Brazilians” for their neat technical moves that sometimes produced great play.
After late communist leader Josip Broz Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia started falling apart amid political bickering between its republics. Ethnically-inspired differences exploded into wars.
Slovenia, then Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo split from the federation one after another. More than 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless in the most brutal conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
Since the breakup started, the country now known as Serbia has qualified for four World Cups, including this year’s tournament. The team was still known as Yugoslavia when it played at the 1998 edition, then became Serbia and Montenegro when it qualified for the 2006 World Cup.
The only time that team made it out of the group stage was when it reached the round of 16 in 1998.
Croatia is playing in its fifth World Cup. After finishing third in its debut in 1998, the Croats were eliminated from the group stage at the 2002, 2006 and 2014 tournaments. The only time they failed to qualify was for the 2010 World Cup.
Croatia gained membership to FIFA as an independent country in 1991, therefore forgoing any claims to Yugoslavia’s historic results. Serbia, through its name changes, has remained a FIFA member and therefore has rights to those records.
Of the other current teams that came out of the breakup, Slovenia has twice qualified for the World Cup, while Bosnia did so once. Neither managed to get past the group stage. Montenegro only became a FIFA member in 2006 and Kosovo in 2016.
Already breaking new ground as a World Cup finalist, Croatia will be more focused on trying to beat France on Sunday in Moscow to make up for that semi-final loss two decades ago instead of worrying about Yugoslav history.
“We have a good opportunity to give them something back for 20 years ago when they reached the final,” defender Dejan Lovren said after Croatia’s 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals. “Maybe it’s our time to revenge something.”
Final evokes memories of famous dive
One of the most notorious dives in soccer history took pace the last time France played Croatia in the World Cup.
Les Bleus led Croatia by a goal in their 1998 semi-final at Stade de France when French defender Laurent Blanc gave Slaven Bilic a slight shove on the chest in jostling during a free kick. Bilic shouted and slammed the palm of his hand into his face, as if he had been struck on the head. Spanish referee Jose Manuel Garcia bought the act in the pre-video review age, and Blanc was ejected for the first time in his career.
Despite seeing the replay afterward, FIFA refused to retract the penalty. Blanc missed the final, when France beat Brazil 3-0 for its only World Cup title.
Croatia advanced to its first World Cup final with a 2-1 extra-time win over England on Wednesday, a day after Les Bleus beat Belgium 1-0. The match two decades ago remains on the mind of current Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
“Maybe the dear Lord is giving us an opportunity to settle a score,” he said.
A victory in the final for the country known for its red-and-white checkered jerseys would be the greatest sporting moment since breaking from Yugoslavia to become an independent state in 1991 – a year after its national soccer team started playing.
France is a European soccer power, its team able draw from a population of about 65 million.
“They have upped their game over the past several games,” Ivan Perisic said.
Croatia has just more than four million people, the fourth-smallest of the 32 World Cup teams ahead of Panama, Uruguay and Iceland. It has a chance to be the least-populous country to win since Uruguay took the title in 1950, when it was a country of just more than two million.
“We’re a small country with so many successful sports people,” defender Dejan Lovren said through a translator. “Over the last couple of days people have recognized that.”
Les Blues won the European Championship at home in 1984 and in the Netherlands in 2000. But there have been no trophies since current coach Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup as captain on July 12, 1998 – five months and eight days before star striker Kylian Mbappé was born. They lost the 2016 Euro final 1-0 to Portugal at Stade de France with a roster that included nine holdovers on this year’s team.
“Two years ago, it was tough,” said one of the returnees, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. “We don’t want it to happen again. We want it to end in the best way.”
Croatia was under French control from 1809-14, part of the Illyrian Provinces, an autonomous area of Napoleon’s First French Empire.
It has played France five times, losing three games and drawing two. The only other meeting at a tournament was in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship, when a controversial referee’s call went against the Croatians.
Goalkeeper Tomislav Butina’s clearance was blocked at the top of the penalty area by the hand of David Trezeguet, who kicked the ball into the net for an equalizer in the 64th minute of a 2-2 draw. Danish referee Kim Milton Nielson allowed the goal to stand. Milton had called a questionable foul for a free kick that led to Zinedine Zidane scoring the opening goal in the 48th minute.
Croatia went ahead in the 1998 semi-final only 26 seconds into the second half when Aljosa Asanovic split the defence with a pass, and Davor Suker scored his fifth goal of the tournament. Lilian Thuram tied the score a minute later after stealing the ball from Zvonimir Boban near the Croatian penalty area and exchanging passes with Youri Djorkaeff. Thuram scored the go-ahead goal with a curling shot in the 70th minute, and France won 2-1.
Now, Suker is the much-criticized president of the Croatian Football Federation. The national team was forced to play a European Championship qualifier against Italy in an empty stadium in Split in June, 2015, because Croatian fans had thrown flares on the field during a match against the Azzurri at Milan. A swastika became visible on the field of the closed-doors match, caused by a chemical agent put in the grass at Poljud Stadium. That led European soccer’s governing body to deduct a point from Croatia, ordered to play two additional games without fans and fined €100,000 (then US$117,000).