DOHA, Qatar -- With a population of around 4 million people, the magnitude of Croatia's win against Brazil wasn't lost on the team's coach, Zlatko Dalić.
To reach back-to-back World Cup semifinals was “unimaginable,” he said.
The runner-up from 2018 is going deep again in Qatar — defeating Neymar and Co. 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw through extra time at Education City Stadium on Friday.
“To eliminate a massive tournament favorite and probably the best team as well ... Only Croatia could’ve done this,” added Dalić.
OK, this wasn’t Saudi Arabia shocking Argentina. But on the face of it, Croatia’s victory against the five-time world champions could rank among a host of upsets already produced by a tournament that is refusing to stick to the script.
And by looking at the faces of Brazil’s distraught fans and inconsolable players afterwards, they certainly didn’t seem prepared to be heading home at this early stage.
Perhaps they should have taken a closer look at Croatia’s pedigree at the World Cup — and the spirit of a team that doesn’t seem to know how to give up.
Croatia may have been the underdog against Brazil, but the team did reach the final in Russia four years ago and was a semifinalist in its very first World Cup as an independent nation in 1998 — losing to France on both occasions.
Compare that to Brazil, which has only made it past the quarterfinals once since last winning the tournament in 2002.
So how does Croatia — a country with a population ranked at 128th in the world according to size — continue to overperform on the biggest stage of all?
One factor that can't be discounted is the wider story of Croatia’s fight for independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s when thousands of its people died during the conflict.
The fighting spirit of the nation is a theme frequently referenced by the team's players and Dalić.
“This all comes from how we were raised,” said goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who was born in January 1995, seven months before Croatia took control of the city of Knin, which is commemorated annually as a key moment in the battle for independence.
“We always go all the way to the end, we leave everything we got on the pitch and we keep fighting," he said. "That is the reason for our success.”
Croatia's imperious midfielder and captain, Luka Modrić, had set the scene even before kickoff against Brazil.
“We believe in ourselves. We are capable of anything,” the 37-year-old Real Madrid star said before the match, adding that Croatia is “simply, a talented nation.”
That is a crucial point.
For all the talk of spirit and resolve, the sheer quality of Croatia’s players shouldn't be overlooked.
Modrić is a five-time Champions League winner with Madrid and a recipient of the highest individual honor in soccer, the Ballon d’Or award for the best player in the world.
He won that trophy in 2018, ahead of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and, notably, Kylian Mbappé, who had starred in France’s World Cup triumph that year.
Modrić was a beaten finalist, but was also named the best player of the tournament.
His full repertoire of skills was on show again against Brazil, while midfield partner Mateo Kovačić provides the tireless running alongside him.
“In my opinion, Croatia have the best midfield in the world,” Dalić said. “We have a lovely passing game, can control games.
“They managed to keep the ball, maintain possession, and we sort of paralyzed our opponent with our passing game. That was exactly our aim.”
And then there is Croatia’s expertise in penalty shootouts, which are generally considered soccer’s ultimate test of nerve.
Twice in Russia and now twice in Qatar, Croatia has had to rely on penalties to progress. After four straight wins from the spot, Dalić claims his team has a psychological advantage over its opponents, with Brazil the latest to fall victim to his specialists.
“Once we get to penalties, that’s when we become favorites. I sense that the opponent feels like they have lost the game already,” he said.
With three 0-0 score lines in regulation time and four draws from five games at this World Cup, Croatia hasn't been the most entertaining team to watch at the tournament.
But when it comes to nerve, steel and sheer fight, it takes some beating.
Argentina, Croatia's opponents in the semifinals, may want to take note.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports