Euro 2024: Croatia’s exit signals end of golden generation

On June 26, as Slovenian players celebrated inside the Cologne Stadium after qualifying for the Euro 2024 knockout stages for the first time, in another part of the country, Luka Modric and Croatia realised that their fate had been sealed.

By holding Euro 2020 runner-up England to a 0-0 draw, Slovenia secured the last spot in the four best third-placed teams moving into the round of 16, knocking the Croats off the hot seat and out of contention.

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With a 3-0 defeat against Spain and draws against Albania and Italy in its ‘group of death’ games, the stalwarts of Croatia’s ‘golden generation’ failed to turn up as they did in previous competitions, failing to make it past the group stage of a major tournament for the first time since the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Where did it go wrong for Croatia in Euro 2024?

Despite coming into the tournament as UEFA Nations League runner-up, Croatia was not among the favourites to lift the trophy. But then again, it wasn’t expected to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup final either.

One of the major reasons for Croatia’s success in the recent past is the quality of its midfield, which coach Zlatko Dalic has relied on time and time again. Ironically, Dalic’s attempt at one last hurrah with the ageing core of the team is one of the major reasons for the team’s failure at Euro 2024.

In all three matches of the group stage, Dalic fielded the same midfield trio of Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, and Mateo Kovacic, while he played around with changes in the attack and defence.

Dalic’s decision to rely on his trusted players backfired, as Modric, Brzovic and Kovacic, with a combined age of 99 years, seemed to lack in zest and creativity, which is understandable, considering that all of them have essentially played past their peak.

Last season, Modric and Kovacic were more often seen coming off the bench at their respective clubs, while Brozovic shifted his base from Europe to Saudi Arabia.

The Croatian coach’s stubbornness in team selection meant that youngsters like Martin Baturina, Marco Pasalic, and Luka Sucic, who had respectable seasons with their clubs, missed out on the opportunity to make their mark on the international stage.

Last season, 21-year-old Baturina, considered the ‘next Modric’, secured his fourth Croatian league title (SuperSport HNL) with GNK Dinamo Zagreb while Pasalic recorded 10 G/A (six goals and four assists) in 30 games for league runner-up HNK Rijeka.

At the age of 21, Sucic already has 128 appearances for RB Salzburg, scoring three goals and assisting eight in 22 appearances in the Austrian Bundesliga last season.

Another big factor in Croatia’s flop in Euro 2024 was the lack of defensive organisation.

The defence line, backed up by the 2022 FIFA World Cup standout performer Dominik Livakovic in goal, let in six goals in three games, including stoppage-time equalisers from Albania and Italy.

For context, Croatia conceded only five goals in the group stages of the previous three major tournaments (Euro 2020, 2018 FIFA World Cup, 2022 FIFA World Cup).

Up front, the team was left to rely on 33-year-old Andrej Kramaric to fill up the gap left by prolific striker Mario Mandzukic (who retired in September 2021), which hampered the side’s ability to close out the games in which they were leading.

From one golden generation to another and another?

Croatia’s first ‘golden generation’ came to light during the Euro 1996, five years after the nation’s independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Led by manager Miroslav Balzevic, Croatia reached the quarterfinals before succumbing to Germany.

Two years later, the team, comprising record goalscorer Davor Suker, midfielder Zvonimir Boban, and Igor Stimac, took Croatia to the World Cup semifinals, lifting the young nation from a period of carnage to becoming a dominant force in world football.

Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic reacts at the end of the Euro 2024 Group B match against Italy at the Leipzig Stadium.

Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic reacts at the end of the Euro 2024 Group B match against Italy at the Leipzig Stadium.
| Photo Credit:


Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic reacts at the end of the Euro 2024 Group B match against Italy at the Leipzig Stadium.
| Photo Credit:

The end of that generation of players after the 2002 World Cup paved the way for Modric and Co. to take up the reins of the national team.

With the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Modric in midfield, Dejan Lovren in defence and Mandzukic up front, Croatia nurtured another ‘golden generation’ of players.

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It reached the 2018 World Cup final and the 2022 World Cup semifinal, bettering its record set 20 years ago, led by Ballon d’Or winner Modric (in 2018).

Despite their success, the Vatreni is yet to win any silverware, and Euro 2024 might have been Zlatko Dalic’s last hail-mary attempt before commencing a period of transition.

With Modric turning 39 this year, it would not come as a surprise if he initiates the departure of the second ‘golden generation’ of players, making way for Dalic to bring in youth talent that can carry forward the belligerence that football fans have come to expect from the nation.

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