Croatia striker Bruno Petkovic says the team’s mental strength that has propelled them to two penalty shoot-out wins at the World Cup has deep roots in the country’s struggle for independence.
Petkovic scored a late equaliser to cancel out Neymar’s opener for Brazil in the quarter-finals, before Zlatko Dalic’s team held their nerve to win on spot kicks. They also beat Japan on penalties in the previous round.
It is a familiar pattern for Dalic’s men, who four years ago reached the final via three extra-time wins in the knockout stage, two of them after shoot-outs.
“I think one of the reasons (for this mentality), is that we are a small country,” Petkovic said on Sunday. “Even though as players we are young, we know how our country was made and gained independence in the 1990s.”
“We learned about this from our parents. We learned you fight, you work hard and you don’t get anywhere without that,” added the 28-year-old, who has become a national hero since his equaliser broke Brazilian hearts.
Some of the older players in the team have strong connections to the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Veteran midfielder Luka Modric was displaced as a youngster and defender Dejan Lovren was forced out of his childhood home.
Croatia featured in their first World Cup as an independent nation in 1998 and reached the semi-final, where they lost to hosts and eventual winners France.
France also ended Croatian dreams four years ago in Russia, winning the final 4-2, but the country of four million people has its team back in the last four again and looking full of belief.
“I think we have improved with each game, as the opponents got stronger, we got better and better,” said Petkovic.
“For me, the goal gives me huge confidence. In the extra-time periods we still believed and we supported each other. The confidence is not only at a personal level, we believe in one another.”
Dinamo Zagreb striker Petkovic spent the early part of his career in Italy, playing mainly in the lower divisions, and did not feature in Dalic’s squad four years ago.
But he has strong memories of Croatia’s run to the final, which included victory over England in the semis.
“I remember the semi-final in 2018, I was fifth or sixth-choice striker for Bologna and probably 78th choice for Croatia. I nearly left the preparation camp in Bologna to go to Moscow for the final,” he said.
Petkovic believes there has been strong continuity despite the changes in the squad.
“The foundations were set then, the younger guys came into a well-organised machine,” he said.
Without his goal though, there would have been no penalties, no Brazil exit and no semi-final to look forward and he says he is slowly realising the global impact of his strike.
“I am more and more aware of the magnitude of this goal with each passing day,” he said. “Maybe I will get this feeling again, we will see, maybe in the semi-final or final.”
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