In 1994, Croatia's national team won FIFA's Best Mover of the Year award, given to the team that had made best progress, by their formula, up the rankings. It was just two years after Croatia had joined the world body as an independent nation, but it was only the start; two years later they reached the quarter-finals of Euro 96 and another two years later finished third in the World Cup, where Davor Suker was the top goal-scorer.
That blazing start has slowed down -- their record since has been patchy, with a quarter-final spot in Euro 2008 the one highlight of the past 20 years -- but Croatia's footballing pedigree has never been in doubt. The current team's presence at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday evening is a surprise, but not a shock -- not with Modric, Perisic and Rakitic in their line-up and Kovacic only managing a place on the bench. They are all products of a long, rich footballing culture.
Football has always been the top sport in Croatia -- as it was in the former Yugoslavia and as it is in the nations that arose after that country's dissolution. But it's a complicated relationship, in keeping with the complicated, complex and bloody history of the region. A relationship that could help explain why there is some antipathy towards Luka Modric even among Croatians.
First, a decade of bloody history in a couple of lines, for context. Croatia was formed when the ethnic and religious contradictions and tensions of Yugoslavia became untenable; more than 20 million people, of three religions and three distinct ethnic groups -- Serb, Croat and Bosnian -- with long histories of mutual hostility in a country roughly the size of Uttar Pradesh. Something had to give and in 1991 Croatia declared its independence, with relatively little bloodshed.
Key to that entire process was the sense of Croatian identity and nationalism, emphasized repeatedly by the new country's first president, and founder in a sense, Franjo Tudjman. He was aware of the power of sport to project this new identity: "After war, sport is the first thing by which you can distinguish nations," Tudjman once said.
So Croatia's sporting heroes played their role. Goran Ivanisevic, then in the first flush of his career, spoke during the 1991 US Open of the need for him to make his country's case public. "This is my racket, my gun," he said. He beat his compatriot Goran Prpic in the second round, after which Prpic made a similar statement: "Anyone can go and fight," he said, when asked why he hadn't joined the new country's militia. "But someone has to tell the world what's happening in Croatia."
There was no bigger sport, no more powerful pulpit, than football, however; in truth, it had already played key roles at several stages of the country's history. Back in World War II, Yugoslavia was invaded and carved up by the Axis powers; much of Croatia came under Italian occupation and they sought to rename the football clubs and place them in the Italian leagues. Most acquiesced but Hajduk Split dissolved itself rather than play under another name. Even today the city of Split prides itself on being rebellious, different.
The Balkans war of the 1990s also has football-related milestones; one popular yardstick for "the day the war started" is May 13, 1990, when the game between the two bitter rivals, Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia and Red Star Belgrade (Serbia) was suspended due to violence between the two sets of fans. In September of that year, fans of Hajduk, during a match against Partizan Belgrade, invaded the pitch, burnt the Yugoslav flag and raised the now-familiar Croatian flag. This is believed to be the day Yugoslavia's sporting identity changed forever.
Independence came at an opportune moment for Croatian football; in 1987, Yugoslavia won the FIFA World Youth Championship (which is now the U-20 World Cup). The squad included Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Jarni, who all played the final against West Germany, and also Robert Prosinecki -- adjudged the tournament's best player -- and Igor Stimac. All of them were part of the core of the Croatia team in the 1998 World Cup.
Meanwhile Hajduk Split were still going strong, producing the likes of Alen Boksic (one of the greatest, who missed the 1998 World Cup because of injury) and Slaven Bilic, later a national team manager, and in 1995 reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Off the field, though, Croatian football was going through severe disruptions, and the domestic league has now deteriorated to the point where only two of the current World Cup squad play for Croatian clubs. As with any small country (total population, approximately 4 million) rich in assets, it's only a few people who control those assets. One of them was Zdravko Mamic, head of Dinamo Belgrade, the man who controlled Croatian football. There was a steady supply line of footballing talent from Dinamo to the rest of the world, and Mamic would ensure that he got a kickback -- bypassing his own club -- from the transfer and other payments. He was convicted and sentenced last month to six and a half years in jail -- but managed to escape to Bosnia before the sentencing.
Mamic's prize asset was Luka Modric, who was transferred to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008; the allegation was that Mamic got a large cut of the transfer money that should have gone to Dinamo. When Modric testified in court last year, he stuttered and was visibly uncomfortable before saying he couldn't remember the details. He has now been charged with perjury and will have to face those charges after the World Cup. That's what has riled some fans, who see in his court statements evidence of the corruption and collusion that is ruining Croatian football at the grassroots.
The concern for the Croatian team ahead of Sunday's final is that they have played 90 minutes more than France in the past fortnight; but when their life experiences -- corruption, criminals, court cases, ethnic strife -- have already hardened them, will a few minutes more really make a difference?