Look, it’s been depressing to watch the men’s World Cup become the European Cup, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick a side and loudly cheer for them during Sunday’s final match between France and Croatia.
In fact, you have to. Football — soccer to the Americanos — is not a sport you can passively enjoy while you do the crossword. Like love, (forget romance) it requires your whole, blood-soaked heart. It’s a game of staggering beauty and technical skill. It’s fast, unforgiving, and utterly exhilarating.
If you have any intention of enjoying the match, you must pick a team to root for. And if you have a soft spot for the underdog, that team should definitely be Croatia. Because at its root — forget the glitz and glamour of the World Cup — football is the sport of the people all around the world. It’s not elitist. It doesn’t require a pony. It’s not tied to big-money scholarships. And nothing represents that more than Croatia’s presence in the final right now. Here’s why you should be pulling for them:
It is a ridiculously young country — Croatia only declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. At just over 4 million, Croatia is the second-smallest country to ever reach this stage of the World Cup (Uruguay is the smallest to do so). Compare the talent pool of Croatia to France’s 66+ million and you can see how remarkable it is for Croatia to have such a fierce squad. Female power! Yes. Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, managed to catch some games before heading off to the NATO summit. She could be seen wearing the team jersey, on the sidelines, graciously dealing with all the bros in suits. President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and Dmitry Medvedev (who has served as Russia’s prime minister and president) at the Quarter Final match between Russia and Croatia on July 7, 2018. (CREDIT: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Also, the Croatian men’s squad is among the few teams to have a female manager. Iva Olivari is the first woman to manage her national team and got into the profession after an injury sidelined her career as a tennis player. Olivari told the AFP that she’s heard people say “She should not be there, it would be better if it was a man,” and “He would probably do it better, she doesn’t know much about football.” And yet. There she will be, on Sunday, watching her team in the World Cup final.Take that, haters.
This is the fourth time Croatian men’s team has qualified for the World Cup (which means they are far less jaded about the whole thing, n’est ce pas, Les Bleus?). Consider that France was one of four European nations to play in the first World Cup in 1930. Where’s the thrill? Now, here’s how Croatia’s absurdly young team has performed in previous World Cup tournaments: 1998 — Just seven years after the country was formed, Croatia qualifies for the World Cup and is knocked out by France 2-1 in the semi-finals, finishing third in their debut. Not. Bad. Even better: The squad had the distinct pleasure of mopping the floor with Germany in a transcendent 3-0 match in the earlier stage. And glory like that, it just never gets old. 2002 — This time, the squad got beaten by Mexico (which went on to play the U.S. in the round of 16 (the one before the quarter finals) and Ecuador, but managed to beat Italy 2-1. 2006: Not their best performance. They lost 1-0 to Brazil, tied 0-0 with Japan and 2-2- with Australia. Then they went home.
5. They have no chill. Have you seen these guys play overtime? Watching them play Russia (and then the far more powerful England) into 30 minutes of extra time was cardiac overload for fans. But the Croatian squad never really slowed down or dragged. Here are the highlights of them defeating Russia (and ending President Donald Trump’s dream of having his team win the World Cup):
Likewise, its defeat of England — favored to win the tournament by many — happened, said team captain Luka Modric, because no one saw it coming. Here’s what he told ITV:
“We showed again we were not tired. We dominated the game physically, mentally, in all aspects…English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia and that was a huge mistake. They should be more humble and respect more opponents.”
Here are the highlights of that game:
6. They aren’t France. The French have a ridiculously strong brand — you can spot one of their fans at a far distance from the baguettes they wield (and manage not to eat with their smug trademark restraint). They’ve have their style, their Eiffel Tower and Louvre, fashion, ridiculously buttery pastries and yes, fantastic athletes.
Croatia, meanwhile, hasn’t had the same PR power. (If you can go there, do — it’s lovely). Still, Croatian fans wear their cheery red and white checkered jerseys without a trace of affect and don’t need to wave any of their foods up in the air to make their point. Or, as my father (who introduced me to the sport when I was a toddler) put it: “You root for Croats for their unpretentious modesty with no claim of any sort.”
7. The squad. They play beautifully and unselfishly, with nary a trace of a ego on display. At 32, Mario Mandzukic is proof that you don’t need a 19-year-old superstar (not throwing shade at the phenomenal talent of Kylian Mbappé — just stating facts) to get to the semi-finals. The forward has won a roomful of club trophies, plays for Juventus, and and has scored some spectacular goals against Real Madrid (a team for which Golden Boy Cristiano Ronaldo used to play before joining Juventus).
Mandzukic tends to come out of nowhere and make the magic happen. Watch this one, considered to be one of the most beautiful goals ever (bonus: Ronaldo, shaking his head, trying to figure out what just happened):
— FOX Deportes (@FOXDeportes) June 3, 2017
The team has many stars, though: Modric is fireball in a compact frame (who is performing like a champ despite having to contend with a brutal scandal not of his doing back home) and Domagoj Vida is fearless in facing down any player at high-speed (watch him plow England’s Harry Kane). Their coach, Zlatko Dalic, pulled amazing tactical changes against England to get the best of his team. Far from arrogant, Dalic noted: “We’ve definitely written ourselves into history, given the conditions and infrastructure back home, we are a miracle.”
So you have a choice of reasons why you should root for Croatia. If nothing else, consider this: Given the size of France’s monster fanbase, your cheers will be heard loudest by the far tinier Croatia, a country punching far (far) above its weight.