It’s been a year of Cinderella moments for junior Loyola guard Bruno Skokna. The Loyola men’s basketball team had its moment when it made the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Four months later, Skokna is living another Cinderella moment: his home country of Croatia is in the FIFA World Cup Final for the first time in history.
Skokna said going into the World Cup he wouldn’t have thought they’d make it to the final. Croatia is the fifth-smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup, so Skokna said he was excited by how far the team has gone.
“You never expect that,” Skokna said. “I was rooting for them and I knew what they were capable of, but you never think this could happen so you kind of hope for the best.”
Skokna said soccer has always been a part of his life. It’s the most popular sport in the world and Skokna said just about everyone in Croatia plays it as a kid.
“Since I was a little kid, I was always watching soccer [and] playing soccer,” Skokna said. “Then, later on [when] I was 10 or 11, I started to move on to basketball, but I still follow soccer.”
Croatia has been an independent country for 27 years, and has qualified for the World Cup six times. In those six attempts, the team made the semifinals once — in 1998 — when it was knocked out by France. Now, they’re taking on France in the World Cup Final.
Skokna was back in Zagreb, Croatia for the group stage of the World Cup and was able to watch the games with his family. He said while he didn’t go to any watch parties, they’re a big deal in the nation.
“Basically, the whole country stopped [after the win against England],” Skokna said. “Everyone’s on the streets out there until like 2 or 3 a.m. The cars were blocking the streets, the people were outside of their cars, they had torches lit, singing and yelling.”
During the semifinal game against England, Croatia was down 1-0 within five minutes. They tied up the game in minute 68. They ended up going into extra time when, Croatia scored in minute 109 to win the game. Skokna said he was nervous, but once Croatia scored to tie the game, he knew they had a chance to win it.
“When we scored the second goal, I was on the edge of my seat for the rest of the game,” Skokna said “There was one guy on our team, [Mario] Mandžukić, he would act and throw himself on the floor just to pass the time and I was like ‘Yes, yes let’s go, everyone on the floor,’ I was pretty excited.”
Skokna said the basketball team and Croatia national team have more than one commonality. There is a mutual belief and harmony between the players that allows them to do well.
“I think they believe in each other. They believe they can beat anyone,” Skokna said “When you kind of break that barrier, you see that anything is possible. There’s no limits in your mind.”
After the group stage, every one of Croatia’s games have gone into extra time. When asked about the exhaustion Croatia might have faced playing three 120-minute games — a standard match is only 90 minutes — in a row, Skokna said he wasn’t worried. He said there are enough days in between games for them to rest.
“They play with so much heart that I don’t see them at any moment to get tired,” Skokna said. “In these games, you don’t have any time to be tired, so you just give your everything.”
While France has more experience — they’re one of eight teams to have ever won — in the World Cup Final, what Croatia lacks in experience they gain in drive. Croatia has a bigger cause to fight for — their first ever World Cup Title.
“Even though we’re underdogs, we have [some] of the best players in the world,” Skokna said.
Skokna gave specific examples of Luka Modrić, who plays for Real Madrid. He also pointed out Modrić has won four Champions League titles and Ivan Rakitič, who plays for Barcelona.
“There’s not a fan who doesn’t believe in both of them,” Skokna said.
Skokna said no matter how the game goes, he’ll never forget watching Croatia’s World Cup run. Only one team can come out a winner — and he’s hoping Croatia can bring home the title.
“I can’t be more proud of, not my teammates, but my country mates,” Skokna said.
The World Cup Final is set for July 15 at 10 a.m. CDT.