Association football was first introduced to Croatia by English expatriates working on industrial projects in Rijeka and Županja in 1873. By 1907, local clubs had been established in Croatia and a modern edition of the sport’s laws was translated and published. Before the nation’s independence, Croatian footballers played for the national teams of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1919–39) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–90), though during periods of political upheaval, ethnically Croatian sides occasionally formed to play unofficial matches. A hastily arranged Croatian side, managed by Hugo Kinert, played a few matches in 1918–19.

In 1940, Jozo Jakopić led an unofficial national team representing the Banovina of Croatia (part of Kingdom of Yugoslavia) in four friendly matches, against Switzerland and Hungary.Following invasion by the Axis powers, the Croatian Football Federation became briefly active, joining FIFA on 17 July 1941, representing the Independent State of Croatia. The side, led by Rudolf Hitrec, went on to play 15 friendly matches, 14 of those as a member of FIFA.Croatia’s first recorded result as a FIFA member was a 1–1 draw with Slovakia on 8 September in Bratislava.The Independent State of Croatia continued playing matches until 1945 and the end of World War II, when SR Croatia was formed as constituent part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia