DOHA, Qatar (AP) — In terms of population, there’s no contest between Brazil and Croatia.
“Brazil has 200 million people, we only have 4 million,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said Tuesday. “So we are pretty much like a suburb of a major city in Brazil.”
Indeed, Croatia is one of the least populous countries who qualified for this World Cup.
On the soccer field, however, Croatia has been punching above its weight for years, ever since it finished third in 1998 in its first World Cup as an independent nation, right up to reaching the 2018 final in Russia.
So Croatia has belief entering a quarterfinal against five-time champion Brazil on Friday.
“Never underestimate Croatia. Croatia is a small nation. But we are brave, defiant and loyal,” Dalić said. “We will always give everything we’ve got, especially this generation of players.”
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic saved three spot kicks in Croatia’s penalty shootout win over Japan on Monday.
Livaković comes from the same town, Zadar, as Croatia’s 37-year-old captain Luka Modrić. He was the backup goalkeeper to Danijel Subasic in 2018.
Mario Pašalić, who converted the decisive penalty for Croatia, had already done the same thing for AC Milan in a shootout win over Juventus in the 2016 Italian Super Cup — which was also played in Qatar.
“We practiced penalties the day before the game and I saw Livaković saving four or five excellent penalties,” Dalić said. “I don’t think it’s luck. It’s mental strength. It’s character. It’s courage.”
The shootout victory came following a 1-1 draw after extra time, in which Japan opened the scoring during the first half.
Croatia also fell behind in every game of the knockout stage in 2018.
“That shows the will and the commitment and the faith of the whole team,” Dalić said. “It’s one thing playing for the clubs — it’s a matter of contracts, it’s a matter of prestige. But it’s a totally different thing to represent your country, because this is patriotism — it’s pride, it’s emotion, so it’s different.
“I am very happy and proud that I have the players who react in that way,” the coach added, “that can show this strength of character.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf