Since their heroic performance at the 1998 World Cup in France, where they eliminated Germany and finished third in the tournament, Croatia’s recent history on the biggest stage has been marked by struggle. Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric, a seasoned veteran at dealing with the sudden blows of life, has played an influential role in helping the Vatreni to the fina for the first time.

What kinds of problems did he face as a youngster in the Croatian league? How did he find his way from the heart of the Balkans to the forests of the German Mid-West? And is he the right fit for Croatia’s midfield titans Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic? investigates…

A matter of principle

The same fire where players like Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic were forged was responsible for igniting the footballing spark in Andrej Kramaric, who joined Dinamo Zagreb’s academy at the age of six. In 2009, he made his professional debut for Croatia’s most successful club and found regular game time as a substitute, netting seven goals in 24 appearances throughout the 2009/10 season en route to a domestic league title.

Andrej Kramaric (l.) is a product of Dinamo Zagreb’s academy, just like Luka Modric. © imago / Pressefoto Baumann

The future looked bright for the young attacker with his boyhood club, yet his development was halted with the arrival of coach Vahid Halilhozic and a big influx of new centre-forward signings. Even though he faced no serious injuries, he was relegated to a minor role for the next two seasons, collecting a handful of appearances before being loaned out to Dinamo feeder club Lokomotiva Zagreb in 2012.

With 20 goals in 45 appearances over the next two seasons, which helped Lokomotiva to an all-time high second place league finish, Kramaric established himself as the best young striker in the Croatian league, prompting serious doubts about Dinamo’s thought process in loaning him out in the first place. He had already achieved a similar goals per minutes return at the Maksimir stadium as a 19-year-old, so there’s no reason to think he would not have had a similar impact had he stayed at Dinamo.

He returned home for the 2013/14 season, only to see himself mysteriously ostracized to the bench once again even though he had scored two goals in his first four games. He made his frustration public and promptly moved to Rijeka that same campaign with a noticeable impact from the get-go, aiding his new club to consecutive second place finishes and earning himself top honours in the league’s scoring charts with 21 goals in 2014/15 even though he only played in the first half of the season.

After a disappointing spell with his boyhood club, Andrej Kramaric enjoyed immediate success with rivals Rijeka. © imago / Eurofootball

This performance also earned him a debut cap for Croatia in late 2014. At age 24, Kramaric was ready to chase after a bigger challenge away from his homeland and English Premier League side Leicester City signed him in the winter of 2015.

From Fairytale to Fairytale

While he signed for Leicester the season before the club went on to shock the world by winning the Premier League title in 2015/16, he was not on the guest list for Jamie Vardy’s party. After only scoring two goals in 13 league matches in the closing half of the 2014/15 campaign, newly-appointed manager Claudio Ranieri mostly overlooked the Croatian, giving him a mere two appearances from the bench before sending him out on loan to Hoffenheim for the latter part of the season. This lack of game time also meant that Kramaric was not eligible to receive a Premier League winners’ medal.

Andrej Kramaric’s transfer to the English Premier League took much longer than it should have. © imago / Michael Regan

Despite the frustration he must have felt after finding himself relegated to obscurity once more, his switch to the Bundesliga was a gust of fresh air beneath his wings. He immediately became a regular starter at Hoffenheim under Julian Nagelsmann, who earlier that season had taken over the club as the youngest manager in the history of the league.

When Kramaric arrived in January, the club were sitting dead last in the standings and his five goals in 15 matches proved crucial to turn the ship around and finish the season in fifteenth place. Die Kraichgauer swiftly made Kramaric’s deal permanent.

The following season saw Hoffenheim reach previously unimaginable heights largely thanks to Nagelsmann’s managerial virtues and Kramaric’s 15 goals in 2016/17, more than any of his teammates. The Croatian played in every single league match and turned on the afterburners in the latter part of the season, scoring 11 times in 14 matches, including a 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim’s first against the record champions.

Fourth place at the end of the season meant that the club would play in the Champions League qualification phase after the summer. “Julian Nagelsmann is class,” Kramaric told German publication Die Welt. “We have some players who are older than him and I’m sure that he will become a top coach like Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.”

Patience is a virtue

Although their first foray into the UEFA Champions League ended early, with eventual finalists Liverpool winning their qualification round match-up, their Bundesliga campaign could not have started any better. Hoffenheim remained undefeated until MD7, defeating Bayern once again, this time by 2-0 in the process. The Sinnsheim Orchestra looked to be in tune until the music abruptly stopped.

Watch: Hoffenheim stun Bayern with 2-0 win thanks to Kramaric’s quick thinking. (From 0:33)

The team hit a slump in form that saw them fall all the way to ninth by January. Between the third and twenty-first games of the season (more than six months apart), Kramaric was unable to find the back of the net, a fact that the German press did not miss and led to many questions regarding his role in the squad, including from his own coach, who still played the Croatian in every game that season, but made him start from the bench when the dry spell seemed most evident.

“The matter of trust is like the story of the chicken and the egg”, Nagelsmann told German sport magazine Kicker. “Where does it start? Does the coach give it for the player to pay back? Or does the player earn it and only then does the coach give it? Even though he’s not always playing from the start, I still trust him because he’s always in the matchday squad and constantly comes on from the bench.”

Once Kramaric got his scoring mojo back against Hertha Berlin on Matchday 21, he went on a hot streak with six goals in five games on the bounce. This coincided with an overall improvement in the squad, with Serge Gnabry and Mark Uth also playing a big role to pip Borussia Dortmund for third place on the last day of the season after a convincing 3-1 victory.

Watch: Kramaric opens the score to secure third place for Hoffenheim vs. Dortmund. (From 0:09)

Kramaric the charm to go all the way?

Prior to Russia, Croatia had only won three World Cup matches since legendary striker Davor Suker made them the belles of the ball in France ’98. After disappointing in Korea-Japan 2002, a winless Germany 2006, not qualifying to South Africa 2010 and getting convincingly eliminated by Mexico on the last match of the group stage in Brazil 2014, the Vatreni squad is looking to capitalise on a new golden generation led by Modric, Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, former Bayern forward Mario Mandzukic and, of course, Kramaric.

A 2-0 win in their Russian premiere against Nigeria followed by a memorable 3-0 win against Lionel Messi and Argentina secured qualification within two games. A convincing win against against bogey team Iceland despite hefty rotations meant topping the group with 9 points, sealing their best World Cup performance to date since the French fairytale of 1998.

That has been followed by dramatic penalty shoot-out wins over both Denmark and hosts Russia and an extra-time victory over England in the semi-finals. Will the fairy tale continue to a conclusion in Sunday’s final?

Jaime Duque Cevallos

Click here to see how Kramaric and Croatia do with our World Cup wall chart!

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