The entire world will be watching as Brazil would like to kick-start tournament in style but Croatia have pulled stunners before, reports Gary Meenaghan.
World Cup 2014: Opening game will not be walk in the park for hosts
SAO PAULO // There is an old schoolyard joke often recited in Croatia that goes: give us one single ball and we can play all sports. In Brazil, the joke is almost the exact opposite: give us any type of ball you like and we will use it as a football.
The two nations come face to face with each other Thursday at the Arena Corinthians in the opening match of the Fifa World Cup. Brazil, the five-time champions and standout favourites, are widely expected to swat aside the eastern Europeans like a mosquito in Manaus. Yet Nikica Jelavic, the Croatian forward, is adamant his side are not here simply to play happy tourists.
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“It’s the kind of game you dream about,” he said. “Brazil are my favourites for the tournament, but we have quality players, too. We can qualify. We have nothing to lose. In Croatia, we play with our heart: we go out feeling on top of the world, no matter how small we are as a country. On the pitch, it is 11 against 11 and we believe the Croatian first team can play against any team.”
Croatia stunned the watching world when they made their tournament debut in 1998 by reaching the semi-finals where they lost to eventual winners France.
Davor Suker was the prolific striker 16 years ago, netting six times in seven games. Now the president of the Croatian Football Federation, he is in Brazil to watch this evening’s match.
“This is a dream come true,” he told Fifa.com. “You have to imagine: World Cup – in Brazil – there will not only be a full stadium in Sao Paulo, but also TV and radio from everywhere. The entire world will watch this match. We are a small part of the game. We are a small but very proud country.
“Everyone will give us respect and we will give all we have. Whichever side is better will be the one that takes these three points.”
With the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield, Croatia cannot be underestimated. They required a European play-off against Iceland, but they have enough quality to cause Brazil problems – especially as the longer the host country goes without scoring, the more the impatient local fans are likely to become.
If Croatia can stifle Brazil’s attack and cause consternation in the stands, they may find that host-country advantage could work against Brazil.
Resultantly, coach Niko Kovac is likely to pack his midfield and try to smother his opponents’ attacks. Modric, the Real Madrid conductor, will lie deep, alongside Dynamo Kiev’s Ognjen Vukojevic, while Rakitic, who is set to join Barcelona from Sevilla, will operate further forward.
“We have plenty of good players and lots of young talents,” Jelavic said.
“Modric is one of the best in the world. I wouldn’t like to say if he’d get in the Brazil team [because] he is Croatian so it doesn’t matter; he will play for us. He is definitely at the top level.
“As a striker, it’s very easy to play with him. He can see everything, so all you need to do is find the space to run into. Do the movement and he will get you the ball.”
Kovac has had to reshuffle his pack a little courtesy of an injury to Ivan Mocinic, who has been replaced in the 23-man squad by Hamburg’s Milan Badelj.
The new recruit was initially left out because of doubts regarding his fitness following a groin injury, but Badelj, 25, received a late call earlier this week and is expected to meet up with his country on Friday. He will not feature against Brazil.
Mario Mandzukic, the Bayern Munich forward, also will miss today’s game as he is serving a suspension picked up after being sent off in the play-off against Iceland.
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