As the rain teemed down inside the Luznhiki stadium in Moscow, Croatian spirits were as damp as their iconic red and white checked shirts.
World Cup Golden Ball winner, Luka Modric, was a ghastly figure as he made his way past the respective officials and world leaders.
Each official offered their condolences before the Croatian President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, opened her arms and cradled Modric as she wept.
In the midst of all the glitz and glamour, it was a scene of true emotion. As it did twenty years ago, a loss to France unified the Balkan nation and erased the troubles of the world – if only for a month.
While Croatia’s success should serve as an inspiring tale, it should not be regarded as a blueprint for ‘smaller’ nations.
After all, this was a country devoid of a plan entering the tournament, and when the dust settles and the pyro smoke clears, the lack of structure off the pitch will remain the same.
Prior to kick off against Nigeria, all those moons ago, pundits questioned the togetherness of the Croatian locker room.
When the supporters are vehemently calling for the head – metaphorically, of course – of your star player before a ball is touched, then you know you have got problems.
It was expected that the voice of the relatively inexperienced coach, Zlatko Dalić, would be drowned out by white noise.
And with that, they began to gather momentum – Nigeria, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, Russia, England. With each win, the worries of the Croatian public drifted away into the summer night. The once doubted and vilified, now heroes amongst men in their homeland.
However, the wounds that were opened pre-tournament, will begin to fester as time goes on. The embrace between Modric and President Grabar-Kitarović seemed an unlikely scenario some months ago as the midfielder faces charges of perjury in relation to the Zdravko Mamic trial.
The aforementioned Mamic, is the former head of Dinamo Zagreb – the club in which Modric established himself at an early age.
It was while in charge of country’s most successful club, that Mamic and his sibling, Zoran, appropriated funds from the sale of players.
Modric is accused of lying to the court in relation to details within his contract when transferred from Dinamo to Tottenham in 2008. It’s within that testimony that the captain lost the support of the people.
In many ways, the chaos and corruption of this case, symbolises Croatian football over the past twenty years. Yet, in that time they have received both bronze and silver World Cup medals respectively.
In 1998, Croatia’s ‘golden generation’ appeared to be a collective of players in the right place at the right time, many of whom still plied their trade in the country that just exited a heinous war which took the lives of thousands and displaced a plethora of families.
While the war opened the wounds of Baltic society, the heroes of ’98 done their part in soothing the pain.
Fast forward twenty years and the names of Boban, Bilic and Sukur have been replaced with Modric, Rakitic and Perisic. The second coming of the ‘golden generation’.
While the veil once cast over the country has now been lifted to reveal its true beauty, problems remain.
The Croatian football federation done little to build upon the success of France ’98 with few academies being able to boast about their facilities – bar Dinamo Zagreb, who are light-years ahead of any other club in the region.
In fact, Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Sime Vrsaljko, Mario Mandzukic and Mateo Kovacic all proceeded through the ranks of the capital’s major club.
But, as mentioned, the dealings in producing and transferring the aforementioned players has been called into question.
With that prestigious academy aside, the country lacks in anything else of note. While the Croatian FA are determined for clubs to share a common ideology and strategy moving forward, it has been absent thus far.
With an average of little under 3000 spectators per game at a Croatian Premier League game, it proves rather difficult for clubs to create the revenue to either produce players, let alone nurture them.
Such is the current climate, that when talented prospects emerge, it’s not long before scouts from Europe’s major leagues come snooping around.
While this may prove to be detrimental to other nations, Croatia have benefitted from modern football in certain ways as players receive coaching and practice in facilities they wouldn’t otherwise at home.
In many aspects, Croatian football appears to follow the mantra of their native proverb:
It’s better to be a bull for a year, than a cow for 100 years.
Those in charge know the current method isn’t sustainable and a drought of talent may be imminent but regardless of such, the tiny Balkan state have remarkably left their mark on the world stage over the past two decades.
And as tempting as it is for fans of other ‘smaller’ nations to feel inspired by such heroics, Croatia have unfortunately failed to reveal little about their secrets for success.
But for now, the Croatian team will rightfully return to a heroes’ welcome as children from Zagreb to Zadar dream of becoming the next wave of talent to emerge.