Croatia have qualified for three successive World Cups since Independence, reaching the Semi Final in 1998. It's a remarkable record for a nation of 4 Million. It could be about to end.
Croatia may have been resurgent under Slaven Bilić, qualifying emphatically for the EURO 2008 tournament, pimping McClaren's England along the way, but 2007-8 was a long time ago. Croatia seem not to have recovered from Eduardo's broken leg and losing on penalties to Turkey in the EURO 2008 quarter final in Vienna.
Qualification is no longer in Croatia's hands. Although Croatians can be quietly confident of England issuing a beating to Ukraine, Croatia may be less sure of themselves in their "must win" in Kazakhstan or advancing beyond the 2nd place playoff where they could face France, Germany or Russia, or even Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter would be an intriguing fixture to say the least.
The Bosniaks would be as formidable an opponent as any Croatia could face. Bosnia-Herzegovina are managed by Miroslav "Ćiro" Blažević (the Bosnian Croat who took Croatia to France in '98). Ćiro is a charismatic elder with shades of Bill Shankly. One or two words and one suspects he could create chaos in the minds of the Croatians. One or two passes and one can be sure Dzeko and Mismiovic will create chaos for the Croatians.
The hype surrounding such a fixture would be of a Honduran-Salvadoran nature. War will not be declared, but brawls could be commonplace. Mostar may not be the best place to watch the match.
Croatia's best hope for reaching South Africa maybe a playoff against the likes of the Irish, Israelis or Latvians. And then what? Can Slaven Bilić inspire the always faithful to glory or will Croatia finish another disappointing 3rd in their group?
Football has proved to be a more crucial adhesive than Catholicism for the Croatian nation. Former President Franjo Tuđman once declared that "football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars."
Failure to qualify may send swarms of checkered-shirted Croatians back to church next summer, preferring sermons from their priests over Bosniak and Serbian performances on the pitches of South Africa.