Croatia has surpassed the great Yugoslav teams of the past

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic celebrates after his team advanced to the final during the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The official heir to Yugoslavia's achievements at the World Cup is Serbia, but the modern standard-bearer of those teams seems to be Croatia

MOSCOW — The official heir to Yugoslavia's achievements at the World Cup is Serbia. The current standard-bearer of those teams seems to be Croatia.

The Croats, who have reached the World Cup final for the first time and will face France on Sunday for the title, have had the most success at the world's biggest soccer tournament since Yugoslavia descended into war in 1991 and spawned seven different FIFA nations.

Croatia reached the semifinals at the 1998 World Cup with a team led by striker Davor Suker that beat Germany in the quarterfinals before losing to host France. Croatia then won the third-place match against Netherlands, the best World Cup finish for any team from the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had its own success back in the day. The team reached the semifinals at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 before losing to host Uruguay. There was no third-place match at that tournament, so Yugoslavia — made up of players from Serbian-based clubs — officially finished fourth behind the United States on goal difference.

Yugoslavia also produced a fourth-place finish at the 1962 World Cup after losing to host Chile in the consolation match, and reached the 1990 quarterfinals.

Those old Yugoslav teams were known as the "European Brazilians" for their neat technical moves that sometimes produced great play.

After late communist leader Josip Broz Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia started falling apart amid political bickering between its republics. Ethnically-inspired differences exploded into wars.

Slovenia, then Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo split from the federation one after another. More than 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless in the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War II.

Since the breakup started, the country now known as Serbia has qualified for four World Cups, including this year's tournament. The team was still known as Yugoslavia when it played at the 1998 edition, then became Serbia and Montenegro when it qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

The only time that team made it out of the group stage was when it reached the round of 16 in 1998.

Croatia is playing in its fifth World Cup. After finishing third in its debut in 1998, the Croats were eliminated from the group stage at the 2002, 2006 and 2014 tournaments. The only time they failed to qualify was for the 2010 World Cup.

Croatia gained membership to FIFA as an independent nation in 1991, therefore forgoing any claims to Yugoslavia's historic results. Serbia, through its name changes, has remained a FIFA member and therefore has rights to those records.

Of the other current teams that came out of the breakup, Slovenia has twice qualified for the World Cup, while Bosnia did so once. Neither managed to get past the group stage. Montenegro only became a FIFA member in 2006, and Kosovo in 2016.

Already breaking new ground as a World Cup finalist, Croatia will be more focused on trying to beat France on Sunday in Moscow to make up for that semifinal loss two decades ago instead of worrying about Yugoslav history.

"We have a good opportunity to give them something back for 20 years ago when they reached the final," defender Dejan Lovren said after Croatia's 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals. "Maybe it's our time to revenge something."

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More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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