AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Longtime Croatia captain Luka Modrić knows full well that Brazil is the favorite — by a whopping 7-1 margin, according to the latest odds — for Friday’s all-or-nothing quarterfinal match at the 2022 World Cup.
That’s just fine with him.
“Of course Brazil is the favorite,” Modrić told reporters at a press conference here on the eve of the match. “Favorites can also lose.”
The underdog role suits the Croatians well. It’s one they know, too. The nation of under four million people surprisingly reached the final of the last World Cup, losing to France 4-2. Only three participants at this tournament — Uruguay, Wales and host Qatar — have smaller populations. All of them were eliminated in the first round.
Yet here is Croatia among the last eight standing for the second World Cup in a row after beating Japan on penalties on Monday in the round of 16. And they’re doing it with an almost entirely different set of players; 18 of the 26 men on coach Zlatko Dalić’s roster weren’t on the team four years ago.
But beating the Japanese is one thing. Eliminating Brazil is quite another. “I believe that the match ahead of us will be the most difficult one,” Dalić, in possibly the understatement of the year, said Thursday. “I can compare it to the  final against France. I wish it came a bit later.”
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Yet in some ways, facing the team many of the experts and all of the bookies expect to add to their record five World Cup titles at Lusail International Stadium on Dec. 18 could be seen as a relief. This young, rebuilt Croatia squad will return home with their heads held high even if they don’t pull off a feat most consider impossible by stunning the Seleção on Friday. Inside the camp, they are quietly confident that they can shock planet futbol.
“There is no better motivation than playing in the quarterfinals against Brazil,” Modrić said. “Anyone could only dream of such a match. We know what Brazil means in the football world.
“We don’t have a lot to lose,” the 37-year-old Real Madrid maestro added. “Croatia is one of the eighth best in the World Cup. That’s a great success, and we want to do more. If we managed to win, it would be spectacular.”
Croatia is more than good enough to cause Brazil problems. And Modrić knows many of their opponents inside out. He’s currently teammates with three of the Brazilian players, Éder Militão, Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo, at the club level. He spent eight seasons in Madrid sharing central midfield with another, the more defensive-minded Casemiro, who left for Manchester United earlier this season. Casemiro and Vinícius Júnior are both expected to start on Friday.
“I’ll give my teammates a few words of advice” on how to stop them, Modrić said. “We can still be friends after the match but on the pitch, it’s a different story. Everybody is fighting for their own country and focusing on themselves.”
Croatia’s focus will be on defending first. Do that well, and they’ll have a fighting chance against a team that put four goals past South Korea in the first 36 minutes of their last outing. Surviving the early onslaught will be key.
“We want to score as soon as possible, so that later we can feel comfortable,” Brazil coach Tite said Thursday.
“I believe that Brazil is the fastest and the best national team at this World Cup,” said Dalić. “We must not leave them too much space.
“Brazil is always the favorite,” he continued. “We must be ourselves and play our best match. If we do that, we have a chance of winning. We can’t be satisfied only with reaching the quarterfinals.”
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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