Like the Croatian team at the World Cup in Russia, their manager Zlatko Dalic took the long, hard road to the top, and now he is at the pinnacle of the sport he is advocating for change at home.
The 51-year-old has been in charge of Croatia for less than a year. He took over a squad struggling to qualify for the World Cup, meeting the players for the first time at the airport as they departed for a do-or-die match against Ukraine in Kiev.
Since getting that 2-0 win last October to ensure Croatia reached the playoffs, where they beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate, Dalic has overseen 12 matches -- nine wins, two losses and a draw.
That run has included winning their three knockout matches in Russia after extra time and now Dalic finds himself one win over France away from lifting soccer's biggest prize.
"Throughout my career and in my life I have always taken the harder path and had to fight for everything myself," he told media at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday ahead of the World Cup final on Sunday.
And do it the hard way he has.
After learning his trade under his "mentor and tutor" Miroslav "Ciro" Blazevic, the man who took Croatia to third at the 1998 World Cup, he made his name in Croatia. He then moved to Asia where he coached major local teams Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates and Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia.
Winning the Crown Prince Cup in Saudi Arabia and going to the final of the 2016 Asian Champions League with Al-Ain meant his star was on the rise.
"I won titles, we played a semifinal and the final of the Asian Champions League, we cannot sneeze at that, this is a major competition and it brought me huge experience," Dalic said.
"I worked (in Asia) for seven years, I built a name, I managed two of the largest clubs."
And that is when his national team came calling.
"When Croatia called, I never doubted or had any dilemmas. I knew that we had great players and that I could do it, first of all on my faith in my own work, and then my faith in the players."
"They asked, 'Are you ready?' I said, 'Yes, I am.' I did not inquire further. I just sat in my car, started it and met my players at the airport before the flight to Ukraine. That was maybe 48 hours before kickoff."
"There were no negotiations, no messages. I just accepted it because my life's dream has always been to be the coach of my national team."
Dalic said that during his playing career he learned from each of his coaches, always studying training methods with an eye on the future.
"I jotted down notes...and on the basis of those I created my own coaching style. I took something from everybody and modified it over the past 12 years that I have been a coach."
"It is great to learn from others to see what they are doing, but you have to create your own style and stick to it."
"You should not give in and get stuck at the first obstacle and start changing your style or losing faith in yourself."
But even for someone as self-assured as Dalic, the situation around his team in Russia must have tested that faith.
His star midfielder Luka Modric and defensive stalwart Dejan Lovren are embroiled in an ongoing matter in which a Croatian court ruled they were unlawfully paid 50 percent of their transfer fees when they moved from Dinamo Zagreb, money they then allegedly gave to one of Croatian soccer's most powerful men. Modric reportedly may face jail time for perjury in relation to the saga.
The challenges kept coming once the tournament started.
Dalic sent home AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic for refusing to come on as a sub in their opening match against Nigeria and just before the semifinal against England, another controversy emerged.
The team fired assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic after he and first-team defender Domagoj Vida were seen saying "Glory to Ukraine" in a video posted online after their quarterfinal win over Russia, apparently in reference to the ongoing conflict on the Russia-Ukraine border.
Dalic refused to speak about any off-pitch matters on Thursday, saying he prefers to focus on the "positives in everything," but one issue he was very keen to espouse on was the state of Croatia's soccer infrastructure.
With European soccer to start its new Nations League in September, Croatia are in Group 4 with Spain and England, and Dalic is concerned.
"For teams such as England and Spain, who we play in the Nations League group phase, we need a stadium of 40-50,000 seats to have a full house to enjoy the football," he said.
"Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of infrastructure. This is a huge problem."
Taking the opportunity to highlight the issue while he has such a prominent voice, Dalic said he wants people to understand what his team has come from in order that they grasp the scale of the achievement.
And he wants change.
"Something must be kick-started. If not now, when?" he said. "In three months' time we play England in the Nations League in Croatia, but we don't have an adequate stadium or adequate pitch to host such a major nation."
"This is why we are a miracle...We have God-given talent, we have character, pride, everything else. But in all other respects, in terms of infrastructure, we are lacking."
"Unfortunately, many things will have to change back home, and this is an ideal opportunity for me to highlight it and say 'let's do something.'"
If, against all the odds, Dalic can put an exclamation mark on his soccer journey by bringing home the ultimate prize against France on Sunday, surely someone will listen to his pleas.