They were trying to keep their feet on the ground. But as Croatia’s players exited the changing rooms after routing Cameroon it was clear that their heads were in the clouds.
Even their svelte manager Niko Kovac, a former national team captain known for his composure under pressure, was allowing the occasion to get to him.
In one sentence he urged his team to remain calm, pointing out that his lads still had a tough test to pass — they need to beat Mexico on Monday to qualify for the round of 16.
But in the next breath, Kovac let the world know what he really thought about the red-and-white chequered team he has assembled.
“We played very well,” he enthused. “If we play like that, we can beat anyone.” Those weren’t just the words of a football coach caught up in the over-exuberance of a much-needed victory.
Croatia opened its World Cup campaign with a hard-fought battle against host nation Brazil and may have done much better than losing 3—1 were it not for a dubious penalty award that allowed the hallowed host team to draw level and eventually go on to win.
The game against Cameroon thus became a moment of do-or-die for both teams, Cameroon having also been beaten by Mexico in the first round.
But whereas Cameroon’s players ripped themselves apart spectacularly with ill discipline and ugly infighting, Croatia’s men supplemented their considerable individual talents with strong organization and a steely determination to win.
Much of the pre-game speculation had focused on how the players would be affected by a media scandal in which two of them had been photographed swimming nude at the team’s hotel. The fear was that it would distract them from the task at hand, but it seemed to have the opposite effect, uniting the players in an “us-against-the-world” mentality that made them stronger than ever.
Their 4—0 victory, achieved after Cameroon were reduced to 10 men due to a moment of thuggery from Alex Song, sent fans in the stadium into raptures.
Hours after the game Croatia supporters, swathed in the red and white flags of their team, still milled around the bars of Manaus.
“We can win this World Cup,” they sang. “With Mario (Mandzukic) and Luka (Modric) the cup can be ours.” The hope is that this team, which boasts world class players like Modric, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, can emulate the fabled success of the golden generation of 1998.
That’s when a team led by current national federation chairman Davor Suker came third in the World Cup after narrowly losing to host nation and eventual winner France in the semi-finals.
That may well be wishful thinking however, though the Croatia team does have a number of excellent players.
Captain Darijo Srna is acknowledged as one of the best right backs in the world. Ivan Perisic, who plays for Wolfsburg, is outstanding on the right side of the midfield, while in the center of the pitch Ivan Rakitic, who has just been snapped up by Barcelona after an outstanding season with Sevilla, combines with Modric to form one of the tournament’s most skillful central midfields.
Southampton’s composed centre back Dejan Lovren is a target for many top teams, while up front, Bayern Munich’s Mandzukic will trouble the best of defences.
Yet if Croatia is to succeed, these men will have to play out of their skins to compensate for some of the lesser players on the team.
Vedran Corluka, for instance, can sometimes be slow to react in central defence while veteran striker Ivica Olic is not exactly prolific. His goal Wednesday for the national team was his first at the World Cup since 2002.
In Manaus, though, these shortcomings did not concern Croatia’s die-hard fans.
“Tonight is a special night,” said Milan Jozic, who sat with his friends in a Manaus bar behind a table filled to the brim with empty red cans of Brahma beer.