CAMEROON. Bolivia. Scotland. Senegal. Costa Rica. Mexico.
What joins these six countries together may not be initially obvious to the untrained eye, but to the World Cup aficionados out there, and there are many, they can be defined as “the other nation”. They are the “other nation” to play the opening game, to follow a truncated and laborious Opening Ceremony” and set the mood for the rest of the tournament.
Before 1990 little attention was paid to the opening game, other than as an opportunity for the holders to prove their credentials again. Italia ’90 fundamentally changed that, for the better. Cameroon’s 1-0 win over Argentina at the San Siro was the biggest shock in international football since the USA’s victory over England 40 years earlier.
Twelve years later Senegal bettered it, defeating World and European champions France in Seoul. The manner of it was more impressive than Cameroon’s, the pace of a young El-Hadji Diouf (whatever happened to him?) unsettling a creaking French back line. A Zinedine Zidane-less France were all at sea in attack. It was the first of many shocks that summer, which saw Turkey and South Korea make up one of the more unlikely semi-final draws.
Little thought was given to these teams once, with the spotlight naturally falling on their opponents – formerly the holders, but that was changed in 2006 as they were then required to qualify rather than receiving an automatic bye. Instead the hosts play the opener, and it has added another dynamic, launching the frenzy of home support straight into the action.
Germany thrilled in 2006, overcoming the wily Costa Rica 4-2. Goals from former Premier League stalwart Paolo Wanchope were obliterated by a German onslaught, with stunning long range efforts from Torsten Frings and Philippe Lahm launching “the most spherical ball in World Cup history” (until the Jabulani four years later) to the attentions of the players, the fans and the poor goalkeepers.
South Africa’s clash with Mexico four years ago was a largely forgettable affair. An historic moment for sure, but a game played between two dour sides which set the tone for one of the most defensive World Cups in recent memory. It produced a memorable goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala, but precious little else.
Four years on and there is a totally different atmosphere surrounding this year’s opener, one of expectation rather than hope. The pressure lies squarely on Brazil, where pride at hosting the tournament does not feature on their radar, where to simply make up the numbers would be an embarrassment. To vanquish the ghosts of Maracanazo and blaze the competition alight is their goal, nothing other than victory will suffice.
In their way stand the glorious red-and-white chequered shirts of Croatia at the first hurdle. A more glamorous opponent than Mexico, but one whose reputation may end up flattering them. Seven years since Slaven Bilic masterminded their destruction of England in qualification for Euro 2008, and six years since their quarter-final finish in Austria and Switzerland, Croatia’s story is one of unfulfilment.
They should have gone one better that summer. The semi-finals were in their grasp, with minutes of extra-time remaining, before they crumbled in a penalty shoot-out to Turkey, the mavericks of that summer. They appeared a nation ready to push on for better things. A young squad, a young, innovative coach in Slaven Bilic, but their progress stalled inexplicably.
They failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa, destroyed by Fabio Capello’s well drilled England 9-2 home and away. In Euro 2012 they performed valiantly, but as expected they fell at the first hurdle, in a group containing the future finalists Italy and Spain.
It is a familiar tale for this young country, who confounded expectations at their first World Cup in 1998 to reach the semi-finals, only for that generation to disappear as the country waited for the next one. Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, Mario Stanic, Goran Vlaovic, Robert Jarni, all legends of Croatian football who peaked together in the summer of ’98, memorably thrashing then-European champions Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals on the way to a third-place finish.
This Croatian team would do well to replicate the class of ‘98, though few expect them to make major inroads on a tournament where the traditional powers are expected to be strong contenders. But few them gave them more than an afterthought 16 years ago.
They possess a technically gifted midfield; Luka Modric has enjoyed perhaps the finest season of his career and fulfilled the vast potential at Real Madrid that was evident when he passed England off the wet Wembley turf in November 2007. Ivan Rakitic won the Europa League with Sevilla this year and at 26 is reaching his peak, with this summer’s tournament placing him firmly in the projected “shop window” as a big-move surely awaits him. Mateo Kovacic, at 20, was described by Javier Zanetti no less as the most promising youngster he’d seen in his time at Inter Milan, with the exception of the Brazilian Ronaldo.
Leading the line they have Mario Mandzukic, whose star may have waned under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich this season, but remains no less a fearsome prospect standing at 6”2’. In reserve there is plenty of experience, if not firepower; Nikica Jelavic and Eduardo da Silva never did kick on after their initial success in England, though for varying reasons. In 34-year old Ivica Olic, though, they possess a shrewd big-game player, not too dissimilar in his role to a latter-day Dirk Kuyt.
Coach Robert Kovac has selected a healthily balanced squad, with the right blend of experience and young, raw talent. Only six of the 23 are aged 30 or above, among them vital cogs of the squad in Stepe Pletikosa, Darijo Srna, Ivica Olic and Eduardo da Silva, while there are four uncapped players included too.
There was, however, no room for the highly-rated 17-year old Alen Halilovic, who has recently completed a move to Barcelona. But with the injection of youth linking together those at their peak – Modric, Mandzukic and Rakitic – and the old heads in Olic and Srna, Croatia have perhaps, for the first time, found some stabilisation. The future remains bright for a nation that had always seemed in perpetual transition.