SAO PAULO (AP) — A confident Croatia is ready to spoil Brazil's party in their World Cup opener and continue a long tradition of first match upsets at the tournament.
With all the pressure on the host team, Croatia coach Niko Kovac said Wednesday that his team can deliver a "historic result" in Thursday's match in Sao Paulo.
Kovac acknowledged that Brazil is the clear favorite in the Group A game, but added that few teams would like to face his squad either.
"They are not going to have it easy against Croatia," he said at Itaquerao Stadium. "We are a tricky side and I am sure that we will show that and demonstrate that tomorrow."
Even a draw would significantly enhance Croatia's chances of advancing from a group that also includes Mexico and Cameroon.
It would also deliver a blow to Brazil — a clear tournament favorite — and join the list of opening game upsets that include Belgium's defeat of defending champion Argentina in 1982 and holder Italy being held to a 1-1 draw by Bulgaria four years later. Cameroon then defeated defending champion Argentina in 1990 while reigning champion France lost in 2002 to a Senegal side making its first appearance at the World Cup.
"I am sure and convinced that tomorrow this team can create a historic result," Kovac said.
The team has surprised before.
Back in 1998, no one believed that Croatia — still recovering from a bloody civil war in the Balkans in the early 1990s — could possibly finish third in its maiden World Cup. But with Real Madrid striker Davor Suker leading the way, it did.
The current squad includes top players like Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic, who earlier Wednesday told Croatian media he would be joining Barcelona next season — where he will team up with Neymar, his opponent on Thursday.
However, Croatia will have to face Brazil without prolific Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended after being red-carded during Croatia's playoff against Iceland last November — the team's final hurdle on its way to the World Cup.
Team captain Darijo Srna said Croatia would rely on its fighting spirit in Thursday's opener.
"I can't promise that we will beat Brazil but I can promise that we will give our all, to the last atom of strength," he said.
The team's notoriously boisterous fans appeared equally optimistic.
Dino Bijac, a 40-year-old Croatian fan draped in his country's red checkered jersey in downtown Sao Paulo, said his team could surprise with a draw, maybe even a win.
"We're not looking to ruin the party. We expect to have a party of our own," he said, as a passenger from a car cruising by defiantly screamed "Brazil" in his direction. "We are ready to surprise."
Follow Aron Heller on Twitter @aronhellerap
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