(Persia Digest) - Branko Culina writes in ESPN News that on Sunday, we'll see a final that very few people would have predicted a month ago.
While France was one of the fancied teams along with Brazil, Spain and Germany, not many people believed that Croatia would get out of group stage let alone make the final.
In fact, the TAB had Croatia at odds of 34-1 to win the World Cup.
For the 170,000-strong Croatian-Australian community, the joy of watching and following Croatia had been a real roller coaster ride, especially defeating Denmark and Russia on penalties, and their semi-final against England going to extra time.
In the group stage Croatia won all its games against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland. The game against Argentina, which Croatia won 3-0, was a first sign that the team just might prolong its stay in Russia. The win against Iceland was the icing on the cake as it allowed Croatia to top its group and avoid meeting France in the group of 16 knock-out stage.
This was seen during the recent Australian visit of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, when Croatian-Australians turned up in huge numbers to welcome her. Croatian musicians including the 2 Cellos visit Australia on a regular basis further strengthening the bond between Croatians here and abroad.
Hope for a beleaguered country
Reaching the final of the World Cup is an enormous boost for Croatia (population 4.2 million).
Since gaining independence things haven't turned out as well for the country as many people had hoped for.
Political corruption, a poor economy and unemployment have people disappointed and angry with the events in their homeland, so much so that over the past 20 years 400,000 people have left Croatia hoping for a better life elsewhere.
However, all that has been forgotten over the past month. Wild celebrations have been the order of the day on each occasion the team has played and won.
Croatians love their sport — football of course is number one — but they also excel in handball, skiing, basketball and water polo and tennis, with world-class players like Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic.
For such a small country it is remarkable how successful its sporting teams are and a lot of that is down to passion, pride, fighting spirit, bravery and mental toughness.
The build-up to the final is truly remarkable and will only get bigger when the team arrives back in Zagreb after the final, win or lose.
Of course the real winners of Croatia's success will be the Croatian Football Federation who will pocket a huge windfall in the excess of $50 million.
Hopefully this will be put to good use to build better infrastructure for the future generations and ensure that Croatia can reach semi-finals and finals football on a regular basis (not just once every 20 years).
Australia and Croatia united in sport
We have also seen that with Croatian-Australians their determination and pride to stand for something and be somebody has produced an amazing number of footballers for the Australian National Team.
There have been three Croatian-Australian Socceroo captains in recent years — Mark Viduka, Mile Jedinak and my son Jason Culina — and some well-known players in Zeljko Kalac, Tony Popovic, Ned Zelic, Mark Bosnic, David Zdrilic and Josip Skoko.
And it goes both ways, let's not forget that Australian-Croatians Josip Simunic and Joe Didulica played for the Croatian national team. Simunic, who grew up in Canberra, captained the side.
Don't give up on Croatia
Most football experts will tell you that France is almost a certainty to beat Croatia in the final, not only because France boasts some of the biggest names in world football — including exciting 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe (worth a staggering $295 million), Antomie Giezeman, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba — but because Croatia will be exhausted after playing three consecutive extra-time games.
As well as big names capable of individual brilliance, they are backed by a tireless, strong midfield and a very athletic and rock-solid defence.
But Croatia also have outstanding individuals in Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona) and Mario Mandukic (Juventus). All three are winners playing for big clubs in major leagues in Europe.
Modric is the key to Croatia's success. He is like an orchestra conductor, his touch, vision, decision-making and ability to bring the best out of his teammates make him a joy to watch. Against England he looked tired but still managed to control the game.
The team has an ability to do the unthinkable, just like they did 24 years ago when they gained their much sought and hard-fought independence.
Branko Culina is a Croatian-Australian football coach and former player.