Is Croatia The Smallest Nation to Play in a World Cup Final?

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Getty Mario Mandzukic and Croatia are making history in Russia.

Three comebacks, two shootouts, one more match.

It’s an historic run for this Croatia squad, who take on France in the World Cup final on Sunday. For France, it’s a chance at a second title and their third trip to the mountaintop in six tournaments. But for Croatia, this is only their fifth tournament in their nation’s history.

Since becoming an independent nation, Croatia has played in five World Cups, only missing one in their nation’s history. The nation with a population of just over four million has reached two semifinals and is now the lowest-ranked team (20th before the tournament) to ever play in a World Cup final.

Alas, Croatia is not the smallest nation to ever appear in a final. That title will always and forever go to Uruguay, the country with less than 3.5 million people that impossibly has not one but two World Cup titles. Granted, those were 13-team tournaments in 1930 and 1950, but the honor remains the same.

A nation with a just a few hundred thousand more people than Los Angeles has reached a World Cup final. Paris itself has nearly half the population, and the population of France is nearly 16 times bigger than that of their final opponent. But outside the size difference, it’s the circumstances around this Croatia team that make this run even more dramatic.

First, there is Nikola Kalinic. The AC Milan player refused to go on in the team’s opening match against Nigeria, and was sent home afterwards. Kalinic has been ridiculed over the incident in light of Croatia’s run, and it’s been reported that the players will decide if Kalinic is to receive a medal for his involvement.

Then there are the issues of corruption in Croatian soccer. Scandal rocked the domestic league when Zdravko Mamic, the head of Dinamo Belgrade, was accused and convicted of corruption. Some of it involved kickbacks and money involved in the sale of Luka Modric, who defended Mamic in shaky testimony. Modric has now been brought up on perjury charges, and his alleged complicity has caused some Croatian supporters to turn their back on the nation’s biggest star.

So how does this happen? Croatia don’t have stability as a program, they don’t have a large population or an elite domestic league, and yet they continue to play on the biggest stage. It’s a question many have tried to answer in the days leading up to the final.

“In Croatia we still don’t have a national team stadium or even proper training camp for the national team,” said former player and manager Igor Stimac in an interview with The Independent. “The Croatian coaching model is based on developing individual skills, perfect ball control and a sense for the game.”

That explains how Croatia is built on world-class midfielders, but it doesn’t exactly explain how they got here. But the past and present climate does a bit to explain this team’s mentality: They’ve been through a ton of stuff and survived, so what’s one more struggle?

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