Croatia defy expectations as they close in on 'miracle' World Cup win

The footage is a little misty, but the moment is worth revisiting. It is October 17, 1990, and Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb is witnessing something extraordinary. Another eight months will pass before Croatia declares independence, but here, controlling a low cross at the near post and spinning sharply before firing left-footed into the net, Aljosa Asanovic is making history. They are now a goal up against the United States in the country's first international match -- albeit not one recognised by official bodies -- and upon watching those red-and-white-checked jerseys wheeling away in celebration, the first thought is how familiar that sight is now.

Among the Croatia players who trained on a practice pitch in the shadow of Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Friday, only half of whom were alive back then, the memories of that night will be even fuzzier than the television pictures. But the task ahead of them could hardly be clearer. Defeat France on Sunday and they will win the World Cup -- words that, three decades ago, would have sounded too astonishing to be true.

"In many respects, we are a miracle," their coach, Zlatko Dalic, told a rapt news conference less than 24 hours after their semifinal win over England. Dalic had noticeably been trying to suppress a spontaneous grin as he walked into the room and faced the world's media. Nine months ago, he had no idea that he would become the national team's manager; when he replaced Ante Cacic in October, on the eve of a decisive qualifier with Ukraine, he did not even sign a contract. "What would this piece of paper mean to me if we failed to make the World Cup?" he asked. He could probably name his price now. A manager hardly anyone knew has taken a country that did not even exist when he was born to the brink of football's biggest prize -- and it is not easy to say how.

Sometimes things do not easily fit into a box, a pigeonhole, a defining overall scheme. Croatia is a country of 4.2 million inhabitants and only Uruguay, in 1930, have won the World Cup with a smaller population. Ever since breaking from the former Yugoslavia, they have punched above their weight in sporting terms: There was the third-place finish at France 98; the quarterfinal appearances at Euro 96 and Euro 2008; the stunning Wimbledon title won by Goran Ivanisevic as a wildcard in 2001. The list could go on and on. In fact, that word "wildcard" sums up Croatia rather well, because the sense has usually been that, when their national team turns up for a football tournament, you do not quite know what you are going to get.

That was certainly the case this time around. The strife that had preceded their appearance at Russia 2018 has been well documented and, in the return home of Nikola Kalinic and the controversy over Domagoj Vida's "Glory to Ukraine!" video, off-pitch issues have never quite gone away. But Dalic has overseen order from apparent chaos and, in next to no time, has become the most successful manager in the country's short history.

"I have always been an optimist," Dalic said. "Throughout my time in the dugout, I tried to deflect negative things from the players. I wanted to look for positives in everything. We had many problems, and if I created more as a coach, we would not have had any chance. I realised I had to be the one to focus on the positives through my conduct and my statements. There were too many negative things -- the cult of the national team was almost in tatters."

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Those words neatly explain the job Dalic -- who had been working away from the spotlight in the Middle East but was familiar to some of the Croatia squad after a stint assisting the Under-21s a decade ago -- has done. "Everyone was surprised at his appointment, even him," a source with knowledge of the process told ESPN FC. Ivan Rakitic, one of the players who had worked with him before, said on Friday that Dalic is "unique" and has "this special way of being close to his players but being quite clear about what he wants at any time". He has brought the best form out of players like Luka Modric -- whose perjury charge was one of several dark clouds hanging over their arrival in Russia but whose performance against England verged on the remarkable -- and the semifinal matchwinner Mario Mandzukic.

Players have put their bodies on the line throughout extraordinary physical strain. "When you put on the Croatia shirt, you become another person," was Rakitic's best way of explaining it. There has been a togetherness and cohesion in a World Cup where both qualities have lacked among the traditional favourites.

It has come to the fore now, alongside a wealth of natural talent that few have ever been able to explain. Nobody can call this the fluke of a "golden generation," because in 1998, Croatia could call upon Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Igor Stimac, Mario Stanic, Slaven Bilic and a host of other names that, for depth, probably outshine this year's crop. It is something far more sustained, and you can pick your theory as to why: Perhaps it is in the genes; perhaps the methods of the Dinamo Zagreb academy that has produced so many Croatian talents are really that superior; perhaps there is something in the theory that the brutal war of independence in the early 1990s, from which Modric escaped as a refugee, forged personalities and a degree of footballing spontaneity, in the absence of satisfactory facilities, that eludes players in wealthier countries. Modric, after all, honed his skills in a hotel parking lot. But again, the picture is more complicated: Croatian players were, after all, crucial to so many of Yugoslavia's teams, and their production line did not simply kick off that night in 1990.

Perhaps it is best to leave it at Dalic's word, "miracle," than seek loftier explanations. It is why no rational analysis of this year's success can stretch too far beyond the lasso their manager has thrown around the team's different components, temperaments and torments. They have looked lucid and coherent throughout the World Cup and have, of course, had their share of luck too: There is necessarily an element of chance around penalty shoot-out victories, and they also would have found things tougher had they been in the top half of the draw. But they have outclassed Argentina and England on the way here: While traditional powers have declined, Dalic has propelled Croatia to their peak.

Whether they can go any further depends, in practical terms, on whether they can muster up more superhuman powers of physical recovery to trouble an athletic, sleek France side. But Zagreb will party on Sunday regardless of the outcome. Croatia are no minnow -- rather, they are a traditional "dark horse" and the first side fitting that description to reach a final since Czechoslovakia in 1962 -- but they could hardly have expected to become a fish this big. For those who watched Asanovic finish so emphatically almost 28 years ago, the dream was simply to have a legitimate national team that could show Croatia off to the world: Against most logic, everybody knows them now.