Although steeped in experience from taking charge of clubs around the world, Watford Head Coach Slaven Bilić built his reputation within the sphere of international management.
In the summer of 2006, the proud Croatian was appointed manager of his nation’s footballing side after a period in charge of the Under-21 team. A defensive stalwart for Croatia during his playing days, Bilić was tasked with reinvigorating Croatia’s footballing prowess.
The 54-year-old led his side to famous victories over England to secure a place at the 2008 European Championships, making it to the quarter-finals – Croatia’s joint-best finish at the tournament, which included a 2-1 win over eventual finalists Germany.
Despite missing out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup Finals, his Croatia team secured passage to the 2012 Euros, but fell just short of progression past the group stages, with advancement occupied by finalists Italy and eventual winners Spain.
Combined with his knowledge and know-how, Bilić is well-versed in his nation’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of the 2022 World Cup, which starts today (November 20).
“Croatia is never among the favourite spots in the media or with pundits, those are always reserved for big nations,” Bilić began. “Make no mistake, nobody likes to play against us [Croatia].
“We have a team that on the one hand is very experienced, and then again we have a few young players who are protagonists and who aren’t there to make up the squad numbers. We have a few of them who are ready and will start. The young players bring you enthusiasm, they bring you energy. They aren’t afraid to take risks.
“In the midfield, maybe it’s not the best, but no midfield is better than Marcelo Brozović, Mateo Kovačić and Luka Modrić. Nobody has it better. We can go far.”
Speaking on the unique togetherness that the Croatian side possesses, Bilić believes that it will serve them well in this edition of the World Cup.
He added: “No one knows, but because I was a player and a manager for six years [I do], the biggest quality of the Croatian national team has always been, and it still is, the group. It doesn’t depend on the manager; the group are always friends.
“They are best friends. They like to spend time together. Some national teams after three weeks together are bored with each other, but no, these guys like to stay for ages and not many teams have that.
“We are really good and every time the expectations are big – sometimes realistic, sometimes not. This time we are going full of confidence because very recently we qualified for the final four of the Nations League and the guys are confident, not big headed. They have all the ingredients.”
One of the Watford boss’ first actions as first-team manager of his country back in 2006 was to promote a young Luka Modrić who had been restricted to substitute appearances during the previous World Cup.
More than 150 caps later, the midfield maestro has had a huge impact on Croatian football, captaining his country to their best finish at an international tournament as they finished runners-up during the 2018 World Cup.
Reminiscing on Modrić’s stellar career and his star qualities on the eve of another international tournament, Bilić believes that the 37-year-old remains one of the best players in the world.
“Is there anything new I can say about Luka [Modrić]?” he asked. “I’m probably the one who has said the most about Luka because I have been with him since the Under-21 squad in Croatia.
“He is unique, not just for Croatia, but in the world of football. He is still as hungry and as enthusiastic like he was when he was 17 or 18 years old. He is the same character, the same everything. Not to mention his skill, his vision, his rear-view mirror – he can see the whole pitch, he sees everybody.
“He is one of the best midfielders ever to play football. He comes into that category with players like Zinedine Zidane and other top, top players.
“Luka has that mindset and character; he likes to play football. He played recently against Cadiz for Real Madrid and he played 90 minutes. He isn’t one of those who will miss this game because of the World Cup - he wants to play.
“If you ask me, he is the best. He was the best five years ago, four years ago, three years ago and more. He’s not one of the best at the moment, he is the best. Nobody plays like Luka Modrić in the midfield, nobody.”