MOSCOW (Reuters) - It was a dream run that came agonizingly close to being crowned with a World Cup title but for Croatia now comes a return to a harsh soccer reality of sketchy infrastructure and scandals.
With Luka Modric most likely having played his last major international tournament at the age of 32, and several of his teammates, including Ivan Rakitic (30) and the 32-year-old Mario Mandzukic, in the twilight of their careers, Croatia’s presence in the World Cup final is an event unlikely to be repeated soon.
Modric was the standout of the team and can still earn the title of world player of the year, breaking the stranglehold of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Croats took to the streets on Sunday to celebrate their national team despite their 4-2 defeat to France but the nation of 4.5 million knows its soccer future is all but secure.
Croatia almost failed to qualify for the tournament in Russia, needing a 2-0 victory at Ukraine in their last group match to earn second spot that sent them into a playoff against Greece.
It was the start of Zlatko Dalic’s term at the helm and the coach managed to guide them to Russia where they displayed some of the finest soccer on show.
Dalic’s future, however, is still unclear despite having a contract until 2020.
“I will take a time out, take a breather. I never take decisions overnight,” the soft-spoken coach said on Sunday when asked about seeing out his contract.
“At this moment I am not thinking of anything else but going back safely to Croatia and taking a rest.”
Dalic, however, knows any long-term decisions are difficult to take in Croatia, which is still engulfed in the biggest soccer scandal the country has seen.
Only last month a Croatian court sentenced former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic to six-and-a-half years in prison for fraud and corruption.
Croatia’s state attorney has also charged Modric with giving false testimony in the case, a major black spot on the player’s reputation.
Coupled with the country’s limited resources to improve their soccer infrastructure, it was no wonder Dalic called their World Cup run a miracle.
“Something has to be started, if not now then when? We have character and pride but in all other aspects we have to improve,” Dalic said before the final.
“This is the ideal moment to say ‘let’s do something’. Sport has brought so much joy to the people.
“We have definitely written ourselves into history, given the conditions and infrastructure back home, we are a miracle.”
It will take more than that to keep Croatia in the forefront of international soccer.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury