The Croatian national football team finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France. But at this year's tourney in South Korea and Japan, even with a mix of youth and experience, Croatia's expectations are not as high.
Croatia has tumbled in the International Football Federation rankings since its bronze medal performance four years ago. The Croatians missed qualifying for the UEFA European football championships in Belgium and the Netherlands two years ago, and had just three wins in 15 matches following their third place finish in the World Cup.
Croatia is ranked 21st in the world, and international soccer commentator Derek Rae says age is a concern. "The one worry about Croatia this time is that perhaps they are past their best," he says. "A lot of the players who were so successful for them back in 1998 when they finished third have now passed the 30 [year-old] mark and beyond. But they did qualify, and they won the group, which also contained Belgium and Scotland, but they managed to get through it."
Croatia's hopes suffered a blow earlier this month when 23-year-old Juventus defender Igor Tudor re-injured his ankle and was knocked out of the World Cup. Derek Rae says, while third place might be out of the question, he expects Croatia to at least make the second round.
"I would not be surprised if they draw their match against each other, Italy and Croatia, and then it comes down to goals scored against the other teams [in the group]," Rae says. "And I think that Croatia might have a better chance of running up a cricket score against the other sides than Italy. But beyond that, I think it will be a bit of a push for Croatia. I see them as a round of 16 team."
Croatia opens its World Cup campaign against Mexico June 3 in Niigata, Japan. The Balkan Republic faces three-time World Cup champion Italy June 8 in Ibaraki, and ends first round play against Ecuador June 13 in Yokohama.