From Croatia, With Love: What World Cup 2018 Final Can Teach You About Mental Strength

“Another World Cup article? Et tu, Phillipus?”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you’re American), you’re aware that FIFA World Cup — probably the most popular sporting event in the world — has recently come to an explosive end.

So why am I writing about this? My domain is psychology and mental strength, plus I’m totally not into sports at all.

Well, I’m making an exception, because this is an exception. But unlike most news outlets in the world, I want to imprint you with lessons in mental strength that you can apply no matter who you are.

Quick recap:

France played Croatia. Most agree Croatia played better, but France won with a stunning 4-2. Some people say Croatia was “robbed”.

In case you didn’t know, I’m Croatian, and this is exactly why I decided to write this article in the first place. The losing team is often considered… well, a loser. They’re sad, often blame the opponents, curse the heavens and all that.

As you probably know, that’s not what Mind of Steel is about. Instead, what I’m going to focus on is accepting responsibility and dealing with failure.

It’s all about perception. And I’ll prove it to you.


When the match ended, Croatia was blown away by the amount of support from people all around the world.

In fact, many of them believe that we should have rightfully won and that the Croatian team was wronged in certain ways. They blamed some French players, the referee, and bad luck. While all of that may be true in some sense, I think it’s utterly pointless.

Most people complain about two specific elements of the game:

  1. French player Griezmann faked a foul
  2. The referee shouldn’t have awarded a penalty shot

THE RESULT: This resulted in two sequential leads for France, which made Croatia lose their edge and, eventually, lose the game and the gold medal.

Since the beginning of the match, Croatia played aggressively, had most ball possession, more shots, more everything in every sense. So when France got their lead twice under dubious circumstances, people inevitably got enraged.

This, however, doesn’t change the fact that France rightfully won the game.

Yes, they didn’t play as aggressively. Yes, they didn’t take as many shots. Yes, they had a fair bit of luck. But so what? They took the advantage of what was given to them, just as anyone would.

This is the Mind of Steel approach.

Having mental strength means not looking for excuses and playing the blame-game, but taking a look inward to see what you could have done better.

Odds are always somehow tilted.

French players took fewer shots, but maximized those shots and made sure the ball ended up in the goal. Croatian players surely did give their very best but, in the end, low-quality decisions and bad luck are inevitable parts of any sport.

Scratch that. They’re an inevitable part of life.

As much as I’m a sucker for justice and as much as I think Griezmann’s “L dance” is totally disrespectful and unsporting, in the end, it doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be complaining, but focusing on how to thrive in spite of all these things.

That’s what having a Mind of Steel is about: You’re dealt a bad hand, everything is against you, but you still make the best of it and keep pushing.

As you’ll see, this is exactly what Croatia did.


After the match ended, the streets of Croatia erupted in celebration as if we had actually won. This clip was taken at the capital’s main square moments after we “lost” the game:

This reaction perplexed a lot of people.

Where was the sadness? Where was the grief? Where were the tears? Honestly, I don’t know. I was amongst the crowd that flooded the streets with cheers and celebrations because every single person in that crowd was proud of our team.

To make sense of this, let me quote myself from my article on failure:

What these stories seemingly teach us is that success and failure are black and white antonyms. If you win, you’re amazing and talented, but if you lose, you’re worthless and incompetent.

The truth is, to get to one win that matters, you need to experience an infinite amount of failure. Hence, success and failure are more like two sides of the same coin.

Yes, we didn’t get the gold medal.

However, this was the first time our national team made it to the final, our best achievement in any World Cup series so far. Not only that, our team captain Luka Modrić was awarded the Golden Ball and named the best player of the entire World Cup.

To get to the final, we had to beat extraordinary teams (and previous WC-winners) such as Argentina and England, as well as the host Russia. We also scored the last goal of the World Cup in which Mario Mandžukić literally ran across the field to “steal” the ball from the goalkeeper.

Tell me, how is that not a representation of success?

My mom took this photo.

Worldwide news outlets often like to talk about how Croatia is a “small country with a population with only about 4 million” and how it’s “the smallest country to play in World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950”.

Honestly, who cares?

These things don’t matter when it comes to the World Cup. We have quality players who competed with other quality players. If you ask me, that’s all you should look at when it comes to this.

Once again, it’s all about the mindset and perception.

Whenever you watch a YouTube video where someone performs an amazing physical feat, you think to yourself: “Wow, now that’s pure talent!”

What you don’t see are the hundreds of hours that went into practicing that one, tiny, perfect moment for the camera. You don’t see the thousands of failed attempts and injuries. Since those failures aren’t broadcasted live across the world, we assume they didn’t happen.

But they did.

Failure cannot be avoided. The only thing you can influence is how you view each failure. You can see it either as a valuable lesson that helps you improve or as a terrible outcome which is going to depress you and cripple you from future progress.

It all depends on your level of mental strength. And the entirety of Croatia chose the right path.


The day after the World Cup ended, our national team arrived in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, for a welcoming ceremony and celebration at 2 pm local time.

This didn’t happen.

Once they arrive at the airport, it took them almost 6 hours for what is usually a 30-minute drive, so the actual greeting took place around 9 pm. The streets were literally flooded with people of all shapes and sizes who were greeting our team until they reached the main square.

Photo: Karmela Arbanasić

Official numbers estimate that OVER HALF A MILLION people were present. If you take into consideration that Croatia has a population of about 4 million in total (about 1/2 the size of New York City alone), this was something truly unseen.

In the words of BBC reporter Gavin Lee:

“You’d have thought they had won the World Cup”.

That’s because, from our perspective, we did. Gold medal or not, we made it to the final where most agree we were the better team. Luck or no luck, our entire nation is proud to the core of what our team has achieved in Russia because it’s not a small feat by any standard.

ban josip jelačić doček vatrenih 2018
Photo: Filip Žužić

Video: Sandra Hrnčić

Judging by the reactions, Croatia has gotten a lot more popular worldwide. People started having the hots for our president. Tourism exploded even more than it usually does in the summer.

At the same time, we give France props where it’s due.

There will always be shit-talking from both sides, but in the general sense, Croatians aren’t diminishing France’s gold medal. It’s theirs by right and they should enjoy every second of their victory.

However, so will we.

That’s why there was celebration instead of sadness. Beer instead of tears. We don’t consider this a failure, but a learning experience. We consider it a step forward, rather than a setback. We will learn from this and we will improve.

For now, however, we’ll party. Whether you follow sports or not, whether you’re from Croatia, France or anywhere in between, take a lesson from this aftermath. Remember, failure is not a lack of success in general but a lack of success in this moment.

It’s easy to be confident and happy and strong when things go your way.

True mental strength is about keeping the same attitude even when everything turns to shit. Never look at success and failure as black and white antonyms; if you do, you’ll experience nothing but failure.

France, I sincerely congratulate you on winning gold, you truly did deserve it. But as far as Croatia is concerned, we are the real winners of this World Cup. ?

P.S. Thanks to the amazing artist BossLogic who designed the cover photo. Check out his other designs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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