'They’re heroes no matter what the result' - Croatia's footballers uniting a young nation

"They're heroes not matter what the result today," is the sentiment echoing throughout the streets of Dubrovnik, Croatia ahead of tomorrow's World Cup showdown with France.

A party atmosphere is building on the streets in Croatia ahead of the World Cup final against France that’s being touted as a battle of David versus Goliath. Source: 1 NEWS

Croatia's national team has far exceeded the nation's expectations and as sport often does, it’s united the post war-torn country in a new way.

The Yugoslav wars are still a relatively recent memory for the nation of just 4 million people, not just in the minds of fans, but also players.

Take captain Luka Modric for example – a household name here, but his lifestyle as a football superstar is a far cry from his childhood. 

At age 6, his grandfather was executed and his home burnt by Serbian Militia. 

He lived as a refugee, playing football in various hotel corridors and bomb shelters as his town was shelled and when the shelling stopped he would head back outside and kick a ball around the rubble and landmine-filled streets. 

1 NEWS' Joy Reid with Croatia fans. Source: 1 NEWS

Many players grew up without electricity and water.

Our taxi driver tells me, it’s that past which has given this team a mental strength which surpasses other world teams and has seen them become the lowest ranked team to ever make a FIFA World Cup final.

It’s a bit of a David verses Goliath this match.  France which has 16 times the population, is ranked 7th in the world and is an EU powerhouse versus a country which is just 27 years old (it became independent in 1991), an EU member for only the past 5 years and ranked 20th

The French are the favourites - they’re unbeaten in their five previous games with Croatia, winning three times, but the Croatian locals don’t care about odds, they have utter faith in their team.  T

hey have literally put up their score predictions in shop windows (Croatia 1 – France 0) and one man in the market is selling trophy replicas with Croatia’s name on the winner’s spot.

"It’s already won," he tells me confidently. "It’s coming home".

Apparently it’s bad luck in Croatia to wear your team shirt before game day so the sea of red wasn’t as prominent yesterday as it is today – but there were certainly a lot of flags flying and football merchandise was flying off the shelves. 

Today the nation’s wearing them - the red checkers are everywhere, even the airline staff have swapped their EasyJet orange for red and white – some fans have even painted the pattern on their sweaty heads (it’s 29 degrees today).

You can feel how important this match is to the country.  Supermarkets, city tours, shops are all shutting down for the game, and if the team win, there’s a national holiday on Monday to allow as many people to head to the capital, Zagreb, to welcome home the team being called the "second coming of the golden generation of 1998".

In 1998 the Croatia made it to the semi-finals but they were beaten by France who went on to win the tournament.

This is the first time Croatia has ever appeared in a World Cup final. 

When the tournament kicked off four weeks ago, not many would have thought this small country – the smallest to reach a final since Uruguay in 1950 – would go so far but the locals here are full of faith.

"We will win," they tell me with not an ounce of doubt.

Even non-football fans are convinced.

"I usually don’t really follow football but I’m euphoric because we’re a small country, going through some rough things, the country is a bit divided but football is something right now that will bring us all together."

It is also putting the country on the world stage.

During the semi-final, a tour operator tells me that Croatia was googled 200,000 times, and its national tourism website was clicked on 250,000 times.

This is marketing you can’t buy.

One guide telling me she hopes "there won’t be a single person in the world who will use the word Yugoslavia again, everybody will know about Croatia."

For a country that relies on tourism – a group of footballers are not only lifting a country’s moral but also its economy.