Croatia's moment of truth
Croatians are disillusioned.
Their country has been in recession for five years now, with the unemployment rate steadily rising from 9.6 percent in late 2007 to more than 22 percent this year. The government has been unable to spur economic recovery, major political parties have been hit by various scandals, and people have long been losing faith that a better future will come anytime soon. The prevailing feeling is depression; Croatians are running out of things to believe in.
Do they believe in their national football team? That is a hard question. While the arrival of manager Niko Kovac in late 2013, just before the World Cup playoffs, did wonders for the atmosphere in and around the team, the public support somehow seems quieter and more constrained than on previous occasions. Football can no longer generate nationwide euphoria to the same extent that it did in 2006 or 2008, when the overall climate in the society was far more optimistic.
It may also be that Croatians take too much for granted when it comes to their team. In the two decades since the country gained independence and was allowed to enter international competitions, the Vatreni have missed only two tournaments: the 2000 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup. Fans got used to Croatia being a more or less regular participant on the big stage.
Shades of 1998 -- when a side featuring Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki won third place in the nation's first ever World Cup -- are still very much present. But that set the bar impossibly high for later generations, making it harder for fans to appreciate any lesser success.
Sober voices observe that qualification is a great achievement in itself for a country with a population of just 4.3 million and a rather poor league standard. Yet those voices aren't always heard.
The general consensus is that Croatia, with stars like Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, should be able to qualify for the knockout stages. Those were the expectations ahead of the tournament, and that is a notion supported by the media, most of whom have turned tabloid since the start of the economic crisis in a desperate bid to keep their business going. The fact that major football nations like Spain and England are already out of the tournament after two games bears little relevance to fans in Croatia.
Kovac is a smart man. He always expected that the final group match against Mexico would decide his team's fate. Having made it thus far, he knows only too well that his team will be judged more by their performance against El Tri than by anything else. "It's like a final to us," he said.
Everything they've been through -- the playoffs, the preparations, the defeat against the hosts, and the drubbing of a lacklustre Cameroon side -- comes down to this one match, these 90 minutes that make all the difference between failure and success. This is the moment of truth for the Vatreni.
Only if they win -- and get past the group stage at the World Cup for the first time since 1998 -- will the pressure be off, and Croatians back home will recognize them as winners, finally allowing euphoria to kick in. Otherwise, they will feel the team let them down just as everyone else in the country has.
Make no mistake that Kovac has prepared his men accordingly.
Aleksandar Holiga is an independent football writer based in Zagreb, Croatia. Follow him on Twitter @AlexHoliga