Croatia’s Champions League Dominance
Over the past two decades, Croatia has reached a World Cup Final as well as finished third in another World Cup, but their nation of 4 million has also delivered a variety of footballers who have impressed in European football’s premier club competition. Since 2012, a Croatian player has appeared in every UEFA Champions League Final, and since 2013, a Croatian player has won every final.
2012 would see Bayern Munich take on Chelsea at the Allianz Arena, with Thomas Müller opening the scoring in the 83rd minute and Didier Drogba equalizing five minutes later to send the game into extra time. 32-year-old forward Ivica Olić would replace Franck Ribéry in the 96th minute, but he would end up losing in the Champions League Final for the second time in three years, missing the team’s fourth penalty as they lost 4-3 in the shootout before departing for Wolfsburg that summer.
The following year saw an all-German final take place at Wembley, with Mario Mandžukić playing 94 minutes and opening the scoring at the hour-mark for Bayern Munich, only for İlkay Gündoğan to equalize from the spot shortly after. Arjen Robben would restore Bayern’s lead in the 89th minute as Bayern won their first Champions League in 12 years as well as their first-ever treble.
In doing so, Mandźukić became the fifth Croatian player to win the modern Champions League and the first since Igor Bišćan in 2005, commencing a trend that has continued until this day. After a disappointing debut campaign in the Spanish capital, Luka Modrić would excel for Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid as they beat crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid 4-1 in Lisbon. Los Blancos would secure a record 10th Champions League trophy, their first since 2002, with Modrić playing a key role in midfield in a historic night for Real.
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After narrowly missing out on the title on the final day of the season to Atlético Madrid, Barcelona would invest heavily in the transfer market, bringing in Luis Suárez, Jérémy Mathieu and a Croatian midfielder named Ivan Rakitić. Having won the Europa League with Sevilla the previous year, Rakitić would emerge as a vital cog in Luis Enrique’s midfield, offering dynamism on the ball and a relentless work-rate off the ball as Barça defeated Juventus 4-1 and claimed their first treble in six years.
Modrić would once again steal the show alongside Toni Kroos and Casemiro in midfield for Los Blancos, who defeated Atleti on penalties after drawing 1-1 to claim their 11th Champions League triumph. The following year, Modrić would come up on the winning side whilst Mandžukić suffered defeat with Juventus, whilst 2018 would see him add another title to his résume with Dejan Lovren headed back with a runners-up medal (Mateo Kovačić was an unused substitute for Real Madrid in 2017 and 2018).
After a year that would see Croatia reach their first-ever World Cup Final and lose to France in the Luzhniki Stadium, the Balkan nation would continue their success at the domestic level as Liverpool avenged their defeat and beat Tottenham 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid to secure their first title since 2005, with Lovren remaining on the bench in the final before leaving for Zenit the following year.
The quietest Champions League Final of all time played out in Lisbon between Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain in 2020, with the Bavarians taking their sixth European Cup home. In an almost too-perfect twist of fate, Bayern had signed Ivan Perišić on loan from Inter, seemingly aware that they had to have a Croatian player in their ranks in order to the competition. Their superstition proved correct, with Perišić coming off the bench in the 68th minute as Bayern secured a 1-0 victory via a goal from Kingsley Coman.
The following year, Manchester City faced off against Chelsea in front of a reduced-capacity Estádio de Dragão in Porto, with Kovačič coming off the bench in the 80th minute as Thomas Tuchel’s side prevailed with a 1-0 victory. Modrić would follow that up with another sensational performance as Real Madrid defeated Liverpool 1-0 in Saint-Denis, holding his own against the Reds and dropping a vintage performance at 36 years of age.
Modrić has a strong chance of picking up his sixth UEFA Champions League winners’ medal with Real Madrid into their 11th semifinal in the past 13 years after dispatching Chelsea. They will face Manchester City, whilst an Inter side featuring Marcelo Brozović will take on a Milan side featuring Ante Rebić. For the 12th year in a row, a Croatian player
Last year, the evergreen Luka Modric picked up his fifth UEFA Champions League winners medal and he stands a very real chance of picking up his sixth this year. On the other side of the semifinal bracket Inter, featuring Marcelo Brozovic will play their arch-rivals AC Milan, featuring Ante Rebic, which means that for the 12th year running, a Croatian player will feature in the UEFA Champions League final. Unless Manchester City can win their first-ever Champions League title this season, this year’s final in Istanbul will see a Croatian player lift the trophy for the 11th year in a row.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty Images