In our latest exclusive player interview ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022, Mateo Kovacic recalls early memories of past tournaments as Croatia made history. He also speaks about 2018 when he was part of the squad that made the final, and he shares some thoughts on this time in Qatar…

The 28-year-old midfielder is a mainstay of the current Croatia side with 88 caps to his name, having helped his nation to the quarter-finals of this World Cup, and his recollections of past tournaments stretch back more than two decades.

First World Cup you can remember watching?

1998 a little bit, because Croatia had a great result, but the one with more that I can remember is 2002, because I got the ball that was used. It was the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and I got the ball from my grandfather. I loved that ball. I was still young but I can remember a lot. Then obviously 2006 I can remember most of it.

That first ’98 one in France was historic for Croatia…

Yeah for sure, it was big tournament for us. It was the first World Cup for Croatia and we had big players in our squad. We came to the semi-final which unfortunately and unluckily we lost, but then we won for the third place so it was a huge success for our country. One of the biggest achievements in the history of our sport.

What are your memories of watching games in those early World Cups?

I watched them with my family, with my father because he likes football as well, and of course family members came over when Croatia was playing and my friends as well. So it was a full house with a lot of people watching the game. We love to watch Croatia so it's always a full house when Croatia plays.

Did you watch other teams’ games as well?

Yes, of course. When the World Cup is playing I watch almost every game. If we are not playing, if I can watch then I'm always there to watch football because I love it.

Which would you say is your favourite World Cup?

2018 because I was there, it was the biggest achievement of Croatian football and Croatian sport in general. For sure it is my favourite one and I hope we can do this kind of achievement again because this feeling is special.

What is your favourite goal you've seen in a World Cup?

I remember that in 2010 in the opening game, Tshabalala scored a great goal for South Africa. This one I can remember quite well. And Davor Suker in ‘98 for Croatia against Germany, this one is nice. There are a lot of goals that I can remember but obviously the Croatian one from Mandzukic in 2018 to beat England, for us to reach the final, will be always a special one.

Who are the best players you have seen at the World Cup?

In ’98, Suker had a great tournament and was the national hero. In 2018, Luka Modric was the best player of the tournament so his World Cup was special. In 2010 Iniesta and Xavi – I enjoyed almost every game, so this kind of player they did amazingly and it was a joy to watch.

Favourite World Cup kit?

The Croatian one, we have a special one and we love it. I think our shirt is one of the most beautiful and it is my country’s, so I’m proud to wear it. If I choose one then it is the ‘98 one because it was our first World Cup so it was a special one.

Apart from the one Croatia played in, which has been your favourite World Cup final?

2010 - Spain against Netherlands. Spain had a great team and they were amazing this tournament, with Iniesta scoring in the last minutes of the game.

Talk a little about 2018, you must be full of memories from it.

Yeah, it was amazing. We had an amazing atmosphere and an amazing group. We knew that our generation could do great things, and to achieve something like that is amazing because Croatia is a small country.

Playing England in the semi-final, we knew they were a good team and we needed to be at our best. The first half England was maybe the better side, but then from the second half and into extra time Croatia was the better side and deservedly went to the final.

In the final I think we were the better team. Unfortunately we had some decisions against us. We came back from 1-0 to 1-1 and we had a very good game, but the luck was on the side of France unfortunately for us. But it was still a big result for our country.

Looking at this World Cup, it’s obviously one with a difference.

It is a strange one but when we arrive the feeling changes and we are prepared for something special, and I hope it can be another great World Cup for our country. You must always be positive but I think we need to go step by step. If you pass the group then anything can happen.