Made in Germany: Croatia′s Bundesliga stars have ′no fear′ ahead of England semifinal | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 10.07.2018
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Made in Germany: Croatia's Bundesliga stars have 'no fear' ahead of England semifinal

Germany is home to over 225,000 Croatians and many Vatreni players have Bundesliga experience. Many fans in Germany will be watching with interest as Croatia face England for a place in the World Cup final.

Chants of "Hrvatska!" filled the air from Zagreb to Osijek to Split when Ivan Rakitic's penalty sent Croatia into their first World Cup semifinal since 1998, but cheers were also heard further afield in foreign cities which the Croatian diaspora call home.

In Salzburg in Austria, car horns blared among the foothills of the Alps while in Munich, an estimated 1,000 flooded onto the city's Leopoldstraße to party.

Over 225,000 Croatians live in Germany, making them the fifth largest immigrant group in the country – so it's no surprise that many Croatian footballers have spent their formative years or significant parts of their professional careers in the country.

At this World Cup, coach Zlatko Dalic has been able to call upon four current and six former Bundesliga players, including Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric, who is looking forward to the semifinal clash with England with particular relish after enduring a difficult spell with Leicester City in 2015.

"I didn’t play much and it was difficult to get into the team, because we were playing so well," he told press on Monday, referring to the Foxes side which spectacularly went on to win the Premier League that season. Since then, the striker has scored 36 goals in 93 appearances for Hoffenheim since arriving in 2016.

Kramaric doesn't harbor any regrets though. "My stay in England was still a great story," he said. "It was my first time outside Croatia and everything was really new. It was a great experience I could talk about for days and days. But I hope to be able to talk about Croatia and this World Cup for years and years."

In his 36th appearance for Croatia against Russia in the quarterfinal on Saturday, he scored his 10th international goal, drawing his team level at 1-1 before the Vatreni progressed on penalties to set up the meeting with England – the only semifinal team with no Bundesliga players.

"England were one of the favorites for me before the tournament," said Kramaric. "They are young and hungry with no international movie stars."

'We're not scared'

The provider for Kramaric's first World Cup goal was strike partner Mario Mandzukic. The pair are likely to lead the line again against England and Mandzukic, a two-time Bundesliga champion and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, believes he and his teammates will pose the biggest threat that England have faced so far.

"We respect our opponents but we're not scared," said the 32-year-old veteran. "We're going to leave every last drop of sweat on that pitch because we've waited so long for this – our greatest desire and dream."

In Mandzukic and Kramaric, Croatia boast two dangerous center-forwards, but they are also dangerous on the flanks and on the counterattack – situations in which the pace of former Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund winger Ivan Perisic and Eintracht Frankfurt's cup hero Ante Rebic can be lethal.

The whole system pivots around the formidable midfield duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, bitter rivals at Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, but an experienced partnership in the famous checkered Croatian jersey.

Gulf in experience

All told, Croatia boast nine Champions League winners' medals between them, while half of the squad already have 40 international caps or more. England are much less experienced but midfielder Jordan Henderson is convinced The Three Lions can make up for that in other areas.

"This is the most together England team that I’ve been involved in," he told press on Monday. "The biggest thing the gaffer has brought in is identity, how we wanted to play as a team, and getting to know each other even deeper than previously. You can see it on the pitch."

The gaffer in question, Gareth Southgate, is expected to name an unchanged side from the quarterfinal win over Sweden, and was keen to point out that England are hardly a team of novices either.

"We also have players who have won trophies this year and who have played in big finals," he insisted. "So we try to involve those players in some of the discussions around their thinking and preparation."

It's the attention to such small details which has proven to be such an advantage for England at this World Cup. The intelligent work of a humble, likeable side has re-captured the hearts of fans it had been in danger of losing.

Should England progress to their first final since 1966, there will be no stopping the wave of ecstasy in England. For Croatia, it will be a first ever final, and the party will start again in the Balkans – but also in cities across Germany.

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