I found myself at a beach bar in front of a giant TV screen and surrounded by hundreds of fans of every age group adorned in red-and-white checkered soccer jerseys. The music was blaring from the speakers as if the fans needed any motivation before kick-off to get into the mood. The conversations around me seemed to have taken one of two forms: “We haven’t played well so far in the tournament, and I don’t expect much better today” as well as “You know, we played Italy 8 times in our history and NEVER lost. We got this!” I called it ‘hopeful pessimism.’

Disappointment in Germany 2024

Croatia’s journey at Euro 2024 (likely) ended in heartbreak. While still theoretically not eliminated from the tournament as I write this, too many factors need to come together to see Croatia’s journey at Euro 2024 not coming to an end in the next 48 hours. Two injury-time goals in successive matches proved to be the difference between success and failure for the ‘Vatreni.’ Against Albania, Croatia conceded a devastating equalizer deep into stoppage time, effectively taking qualification out of their hands. Just days later, history repeated itself in a cruel fashion against Italy. After taking the lead through captain Luka Modrić’s goal, Croatia looked poised to secure the win they needed. But in the 98th minute, Mattia Zaccagni scored for Italy, snatching a 1-1 draw and leaving Croatia’s hopes hanging by a thread.

While the manner of elimination was brutal, it masked deeper issues with Croatia’s performances. The team struggled to impose themselves for long stretches and lacked their usual fluency. An aging squad showed signs of fatigue, unable to maintain their trademark intensity for over 90 minutes. Though they fought valiantly, this golden generation appeared to have finally run out of steam on the big stage.

Second golden generation of Croatia repeatedly falls short of glory

Croatia’s current crop of stars has long been compared to the nation’s first golden generation that took the 1998 World Cup by storm. Led by the creative genius of Zvonimir Boban, the lethal finishing of Davor Šuker, and the mercurial talents of Robert Prosinečki, that team captured the imagination of football fans worldwide.

Their run to third place in France was a shock to the traditional hierarchy of soccer. Davor Šuker won the Golden Boot with six goals, while Boban pulled the strings in midfield with his vision and technique. The team played with flair and passion. It established Croatia as a force on the global stage just years after gaining independence.

That 1998 side set the bar incredibly high and served as an inspiration for future generations of Croatian talent. The likes of Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, and Mario Mandžukić grew up idolizing Boban, Šuker and co. They would go on to form their own golden generation, taking Croatia to even greater heights.

Stepping up for an otherwise aging core

The current Croatian squad is built around a core of players now in their mid-30s. Luka Modrić, at 38, remains the heartbeat of the team but can no longer dominate matches for 90 minutes. Ivan Perišić (35) and Marcelo Brozović (31) are also past their peak years.

While their experience is invaluable, their declining physical attributes have become apparent. The challenge now is identifying the next generation of stars to take up the mantle. Joško Gvardiol has already established himself as one of Europe’s top young defenders at Manchester City. His composure and ball-playing ability make him an ideal modern center-back to build around. In midfield, Lovro Majer of Rennes has shown flashes of creativity that have drawn comparisons to Modrić. The 25-year-old possesses excellent vision and technique, though he is yet to consistently produce at the highest level. Nikola Vlašić is another attacking midfielder with potential, but he needs to find consistency.

Up front, young talents like Dion Drena Beljo and Roko Šimić are highly rated but unproven at the senior international level. Croatia, in reality, has never found a true clinical striker to emerge and fill the void left by Mario Mandžukić’s retirement. Luka Sučić of Red Bull Salzburg is perhaps the brightest prospect. At just 21, he has become a key player for the Austrian champions and impressed in the Champions League. His all-action style and eye for goal make him an exciting option for Croatia’s midfield future.

Punching above their weight

Croatia’s achievements on the world stage are remarkable for a nation of just 4 million people. Coming home with Bronze at the 1998 World Cup; Silver from the 2018 World Cup; and Bronze again in 2022 with such a small talent pool is a testament to the country’s footballing culture and mentality.

This over-achievement relative to population size is a source of immense pride for Croatians. It also creates lofty expectations that are difficult to consistently meet. The team has repeatedly defied the odds, but sustaining success with limited resources is an enormous challenge.

As this golden generation fades, there will likely be a period of transition and re-calibration of expectations. A new coach may be brought in to oversee this changing of the guard and implement fresh tactical ideas. The Croatian Football Federation must also continue developing youth talent to unearth the next wave of stars.

Writing off Croatia would be foolish given their track record of producing world-class players. The fighting spirit and technical quality ingrained in Croatian football culture will ensure they remain competitive on the international stage.

While Euro 2024 may mark the end of an era, it need not spell long-term decline for the ‘Vatreni’. With the right blend of emerging talent and a few experienced heads, Croatia can build another team capable of punching above its weight on the global stage.

The journey may be challenging. Still, Croatia has consistently shown an ability to regenerate and reinvent itself on the football pitch. This small nation’s impact on the beautiful game has already been immortalized. There’s no reason to think that its remarkable legacy cannot continue with the next golden generation for Croatia.


Euro 2024

Here are some resources to get you ready for Euros!
Euro Bracket: Download a free PDF bracket for the tournament
Euro 2024 Schedule: Full schedule of all games for the 2024 tournament
How to watch: Information on where to find the games on TV and streaming
How to Stream Learn how you can stream Euro games live in 2024
2024 Soccer Calendar: Get the lowdown on what will be a busy year in soccer