Eastern Europe has always been a hotbed of talented soccer players, with a national team that has often far exceeded expectations. From a March 1994 FIFA ranking of 125th in the world to becoming the third best team a mere five years later, Croatia went on to finish runners-up in the 2018 World Cup.
Despite not being the largest country or even being blessed with an overly strong domestic league, Croatia has a long history of producing superb soccer players.
Many of the best Croatian players often move overseas to play for large European teams, becoming household names in the process.
Today we’re going to look at the seven best Croatian soccer players of all time, taking a closer look at some truly exceptional players.
7. Mateo Kovacic
- Position: Central Midfield
Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has a resume that most players would do anything to emulate. Having played for three of the biggest European clubs, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and now at Chelsea, the technically superb Kovacic is an excellent deep-lying playmaker.
Compared to fellow Croatian Robert Prosinecki, Kovacic is a technical, versatile midfielder known for moving forward with the ball.
An excellent dribbler and passer of the ball, the Croatian star is a crucial player for his national team and, at only 27, can still improve as a player.
Kovacic may not be a prolific goalscorer from midfield, but his link-up play, assists, and creativity in a midfield role make him an excellent team player. With over a hundred league appearances for Chelsea, we should expect much more from the talented playmaker over the coming seasons.
With 81 international caps already to his name, Kovacic could go on to become one of Croatia’s most capped players.
6. Ivan Perisic
- Position: Left Midfield
A veteran winger with a superb pedigree, Ivan Perisic has been one of the most consistent, successful, and efficient Croatian players of all time. Able to play in a multitude of positions, Perisic has represented Croatia in no fewer than five international tournaments, scoring 32 goals in 113 appearances.
One of Croatia’s golden generation, Ivan Perisic first appeared on the radar at Belgian club, Club Brugge before a 2011 move to German giants Borussia Dortmund. A decent return for Dortmund saw Perisic move to Wolfsburg, where he again improved year after year.
In 2015, Perisic moved to Italy, where Inter Milan fans got to see the Croatian winger play for seven seasons.
Over 200 league appearances for Milan, with a very respectable 48 league goals, made Perisic one of the best wide players in Europe, and it seemed that he was getting better with age.
With each season bringing more experience, his influence grew, which led to the now 33-year-old moving to Tottenham Hotspur in 2022.
A superb player with a wealth of experience, Perisic has been brought to London to add a winning mentality and a great work ethic. An excellent player, Perisic will help a relatively inexperienced Tottenham hopefully take the next step and win trophies.
5. Zvonimir Boban
- Position: Attacking Midfield
An outspoken, combative player, Zvonomir Boban is a Dinamo Zagreb and AC Mian legend; known for his creativity, excellent free kicks, and versatility, Boban spent a decade at Milan, where he won four Serie A titles and a Champions League medal.
Boban captained Croatia to third place in the 1998 World Cup as a leader both on and off the field. Boban was an excellent finisher, with the ability to bend the ball from a distance, and over a 16-year career, he scored 68 league goals and 12 at the international level.
After nine successful seasons with Milan, Boban was farmed out on loan due to the emergence of Rui Costa, who took over the attacking midfield role that Boban had held for close to a decade.
Unhappy with the loan and not keen on being a substitute, Boban retired from soccer in 2001, eventually going on to receive a degree in History before becoming a soccer pundit for Sky Italia.
Just as when he was a player, Boban still has no problem voicing his opinions and has built a reputation as a vocal and opinionated pundit.
4. Dario Simic
- Position: Right-Back
Arguably one of the finest defenders to ever emerge from Croatia, Dario Simic could play in every position in defense, from center back to wingback.
Simic was known for his hard-tackling, no-nonsense approach to defending; excellent in the air and comfortable on the ball, Simic was a mainstay in the Croatian national team for 12 years, becoming the first Croatian to reach 100 caps.
A product of the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy, Simic played 140 league games for his hometown club over six seasons, performing well enough to catch the eye of the Italian team Inter Milan. Three years and 66 league appearances later, Simic did the unthinkable and moved
to Inter’s arch-rivals, AC Milan. After a promising first season, Simic became just a bit-part player, usually restricted to substitute appearances over the next three seasons.
Due to a lack of playing time, the no-nonsense defender moved to Monaco in 2008 and again played just a supporting role. After two seasons, Simic moved back to his first club, Dinamo Zagreb, where he made no appearances before retiring in 2010.
In his prime, Simic was one of the most solid defenders in Serie A, and Croatia’s first player to 100 caps is a worthy addition to our list of great Croatian players.
3. Mario Mandzukic
- Position: Centre-Forward
Blessed with the perfect physique for a striker, Mario Mandzukic was a giant of a man, 6,3” tall and built like a barn door; he used his strength to hold off defenders, bring teammates into play, and bully defenses into submission.
With 166 league goals and 33 international goals to his name, Mandzukic was the perfect target man; he was an excellent team player that used his physique to act as a focal point for long balls but had the skill and technique to carry the ball and shoot from a distance.
Teammates loved playing alongside Mandzukic thanks to his selfless running and ability to score goals and bring other players into play. Mandzukic would often drop deep to get the ball, dragging defenses out of position and opening up space for quicker players to move behind the lines.
A consummate professional, Mandzukic was a leader on the field, displaying mental toughness and a willingness to sacrifice himself for the team. Often played out of position to help the team, Mandzukic worked harder than anyone and was noted for his superb fitness.
One of the finest strikers Croatia has ever produced, Mandzukic was nicknamed “Warrior” by Juventus fans, which should tell you all you need to know about this legendary striker.
It’s no surprise that top teams such as Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid all sought Mandzukic out to lead the lines; he was that good.
2. Davor SukerEmbed from Getty Images
- Position: Centre-Forward
The most deadly striker Croatia has ever produced, Davor Suker was and is a divisive figure, but his exploits as a soccer player are beyond reproach.
Croatia’s top goalscorer with 45 goals in only 69 appearances, Suker also scored an eyebrow-raising 203 league goals in 448 appearances for some of the best European clubs around.
After dominating the Croatian league with Osijek and Dinamo Zagreb, Suker got his big move in 1991, when he moved to Sevilla, scoring almost a goal every two games for five seasons.
He then moved to Spanish giants Real Madrid, where he won a La Liga, as well as winning the Champions League the following season.
A member of the Croatia team that finished third in the 1998 World Cup, Suker was often much more prolific for his country than for his clubs, and at times, his international exploits got him back into the starting lineup for his club.
The 1998 Golden Boot winner and the 1998 Dallon d’Or runner-up, Davor Suker will go down in history as one of the greatest strikers his country has ever produced.
1. Luka Modric
- Position: Central Midfield
Diminutive genius Luka Modric is one of the most decorated players in soccer history, with a trophy haul that can scarcely be believed. One of the greatest midfielders of all time, Modric’s creative vision has been vital for both Real Madrid and Croatia for over a decade.
Often compared to several of the best players ever to play soccer, Modrics’ name is rightly mentioned alongside those of Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo, and Johan Cruyff.
The best player at the 2018 World Cup, Modric led Croatia to a runners-up place, an incredible achievement for the playmaker. The same year, he won the Champions League with Real Madrid and for his stand-out performances, Modric became the first Croatian to win the Ballon d’Or.
For his club, Modric has won 20 major honors with Real Madrid, including three incredible consecutive Champions League titles (five overall), three La Liga titles, and four FIFA Club World Cups.
Despite playing against and alongside some of the best players around, Modric stands head and shoulders above many; with an ability to find space and the tactical intelligence to be able to use it, Modric is the ultimate playmaker. Now into his late 30s, Modric still has plenty to offer the game.
He makes the ball, and his teammates do the running as he orchestrates attack after attack from a deep-lying position and could comfortably continue at Madrid for several seasons.
We could wax lyrical forever about his passing range, his ability to skip past challenges, and his calmness under pressure. But, to say, Luka Modric is the complete midfielder.