From War to World Cup: The Incredible Rise of Croatia as a Footballing Nation

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By Dan Parry

Key ingredients needed for creating a cult world cup side: an eccentric manager with innovative tactics and interesting methods, tick (Miroslav Blazevic). A midfield general and symbol of national pride, tick (Zvomonir Boban). Hard as nails Centre-Back, tick (Slaven Bilic). Forty a day smoker and creative genius, tick (Robert Prosinecki). A world class striker with supreme finishing skills and Pierce Brosnan-esque floppy hair, tick (Davor Suker). A whole lot of heart and a young nation pushing them on, tick, tick, tick!

Nothing much was expected of Croatia going into the 1998 World Cup, the nation was in its debut World Cup and only its second major international tournament as an independent state.

Croatia had only become a fully independent nation state in 1991, the football federation of Croatia only became officially recognised by FIFA in 1993, and their only experience of an international tournament before the World Cup came just two years previous in Euro 96 in which they were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals.

It was believed that they would advance from the group stages of the World Cup but anything further than that would be a bonus. However, this charismatic Croatia side proved the entire world wrong as they fought their way through to the semi-finals, killing some giants along the way and making a couple more sweat for good measure.

For the crop of 1998, the story begins 11 years before in 1987. The gifted Croatians who formed the backbone of 1998’s heroic squad also played pivotal roles in the Yugoslavia side. In fact, players such as Suker, Jarni, Prosinecki and Boban were integral members of the famous Yugoslavian under-20 team that won the 1987 under-20 World Cup. The heralded side gained great acclaim and impressed throughout the tournament before eventually defeating West Germany on penalties in the final.

Over the next few years tensions in the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Yugoslav state began to boil. After the death of former president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the former socialist federation state began to unravel, and nationalistic independence movements became more prominent. Ultimately, tensions in the Balkan state boiled over; Yugoslavia began to splinter, and bloody conflicts and violent wars proceeded.

At times, these tensions even manifested themselves on the football pitch. There was an infamous Yugoslav league game in Croatian capital Zagreb between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990 (historically the best teams from Croatia and Serbia) which descended into violence as ultras from both sides invaded the pitch leading to fierce clashes with the police. It was during this match that future national team captain Zvominir Boban became a symbol of Croatian independence when he kicked a policeman whilst trying to protect a Dinamo Zagreb fan.

On a wider and more devastating scale wars raged for many years and many horrendous atrocities were committed across the entire region as Yugoslavia disintegrated into smaller nation states. Croatia, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, declared itself an independent state in June 1991. In 1992 it was officially recognised by the Eurpean Union and the United Nations but the conflict with Serbia continued until 1995.

Although Croatia had declared itself independent in 1991, an unofficial Croatian national football team had begun to play exhibition games in 1990. The first of which came against the U.S.A. and resulted in a 2-1 victory. By 1993, the Croatian Football Federation gained full membership to both FIFA and UEFA but unfortunately the timing meant that Croatia would be unable to compete in the qualifying tournament for the 1994 World Cup. However, they did manage to qualify for the 1996 European Championships being held in England and got their first taste of international tournament football as an independent country.

In the lead-up to the tournament manager Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic took over full control of the squad in 1995 (he had been dividing his duties between the national team and Dinamo Zagreb since 1993).

Ciro was already Croatia’s most successful managers (they call him the coach of coaches) thanks to his exploits with Dinamo Zagreb and was certainly well-known to the players, many having come through the Dinamo youth system under his tutelage. Although most revered him, his methods, at times, lead to some friction and not everyone saw him in such a favourable light.

For example, whilst Slaven Bilic refers to him as father and sings his praises, his relationship with Prosinecki was somewhat more tumultuous. Blazevic famously claimed that he would eat boots if Prosinecki were to become a great player. Blazevic has claimed he said this not because he believed it but rather to give a lazy Prosinecki a proverbial kick up the backside. However, some others claim that he failed to properly recognize and manage the talent of Prosinecki during their time together at Dinamo.

Throughout his time as Croatia chief Blazevic stuck quite vehemently to his beloved 3-5-2 formation that he pioneered in the 80’s. Typically his line-ups would be quite consistent also, only chopping and changing when injury made it necessary.

Drazen Ladic was a regular in goal. Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic (both plying their trade in the premiership by time the world cup came around) took two of the three defensive births whilst the other one would be shared between Zvominir Zoldo or Dario Simic. The solidity of a defensive three gave Robert Jarni and Mario Stanic full license to attack from their respective left-wing-back and right-wing-back positions.

They lined up with an extremely creative midfield who all possessed an exceptional eye for a pass which helped to unlock the poaching abilities of Suker. A typical midfield three would contain Captain and AC Milan player Boban, Asanovic, and then either Mario Silvic or Prosinecki depending upon the opposition. The starting front two were normally Suker and Allen Boksic (he missed the 98 world cup due to injury), or Goran Vlaovic.

The tournament debutants were drawn into a tough Group D, which also contained fellow newcomers Turkey, Portugal, and defending champions Denmark (Yugoslavia’s replacement in 1992). Croatia were managed by Blazevic and the squad included many of the same players who would go onto to compete at France in 1998.

First up came Turkey who were defeated 1-0 at the Nottingham Forest’s City Ground thanks to a late goal from young striker Goran Vlaovic. This was followed by an outstanding victory over reigning champions Denmark, a 3-0 scoreline came courtesy of a brace from Suker and a strike from Boban.

With qualification already guaranteed Blazevic decided to rest his key players and gamble on his squad’s fringe players, but a talented Portugal side, inspired by a certain Luis Figo, proved to be a step to far as they were thrashed 3-0. Defeat meant Croatia finished the group as runners-up below Portugal.

In the quarter-final stages they would go on to face eventual tournament winners Germany. In this game, the Croatians were undone by a red card and a German side with superior tournament experience but still managed to give the 1990 World Cup winners a run for their money.

Jurgen Klinsmann opened the account with a penalty in the 20th minute that came courtesy of a handball from Nikola Jerkan. After half-time Suker evened the scores with a typically stylish finish, putting the keeper on his backside whilst coolly rolling the ball from his left foot onto his right before finishing into an empty goal.

However, barely six mintues later Croatia were delivered an almighty blow to the solar plexis when important defender Igor Stimac was sent off for a foul on Mehmet Scholl. 3 minutes after that, a poorly defended cross allowed Mathias Sammer to put Germany ahead 2-1. Subsequently, Croatia were unable to recover as Germany took charge of the tie and the Croatians were sent out of the tournament.

Although it was undoubtedly disappointing to go out of the tournament in such manner, the tournament provided the side with vital experience. The competition played a monumental role in the rise of the small nation as an important European footballing power, and was a major learning curve for all involved. Without a doubt, the experience gained from the tournament played an important role in their 1998 success.

By time the 1998 World Cup came about Croatia were no longer an unknown quantity, and many pundits predicted a respectable showing from the small nation’s side with them expected to at least qualify from their group and advance to the group stages. In the group stages, they were drawn with fellow tournament minnows Jamaica (the only side to qualify that came from a country with a smaller population than Croatia) and Japan, as well as giants Argentina.

Proceedings began with a conclusive 3-1 victory over Jamaica. Stanic, Prosinecki and Suker all scored to put the tie to bed. Six days later Suker scored the only goal of the game as Japan were defeated 1-0. The victories meant that the final group stage tie against Argentina became a group decider. Croatia suffered their first defeat of the tournament as a goal from defender Gonzalo Pineda put the South Americans ahead. Nonetheless, Croatia progressed from the group in 2nd place and faced Romania in the 2nd round.

The newly-dyed blonde bombshells of the Romania team managed to frustrate the Croatians for large parts of the match, with an inspired performance from their goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea helping to keep the scores even.

However, in first-half injury time Croatia’s star striker, and tournament revelation, Suker popped up yet again as Croatia were awarded a penalty for a foul on the forward. The Real Madrid based Suker stepped up and sent the ball past Stelea into the bottom right corner before the referee called him back for a retake seconds later. Not to be deterred the Croatian scored again in an almost identical fashion. The Romanians were incapable of mustering a reply and Croatia moved on to the quarter-finals.

In the quarters they were drawn against their Euro 96 nemesis Germany and managed to produce arguably Croatia’s finest international performance and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Up until this point Germany had barely been troubled as they progressed though the competition with ease. Many expected them to breeze through this Croatia side on their inevitable journey to the final.

Initially, the Germans confirmed prior predictions as the Berti Vogts managed Germans strangled the life out of their opponents, not even allowing Croatia to register a single shot on goal.

In the 40th minute everything changed when Norwegian referee Rune Pederson, dubiously, showed centre-back Christian Worns a straight red-card for an ‘open-field’ tackle on Suker.

The red provided Suker and his teammates an incredible opportunity to break through the Germans ranks and they took full advantage. Croatia absolutely overwhelmed the more illustrious Germans in a blistering performance.

Left wing back Robert Jarni scored the first goal with a fine finish to break the deadlock in the 45th minute. Germany put up a brave defensive performance against the marauding Croatians but couldn’t prevent the second goal which came in the 80th minute as Vlaovic put one past Kopke.

Five minutes later, the tournament’s favourite predator Suker killed off the game with his 5th goal of the competition. In the space of 60 minutes, and thanks to some fortuitous refereeing, Croatia had gone from being the darkest of dark horses to tournament contenders with a realistic chance of leaving France with the Jules Remee.

The eyes of the world set upon Paris for the semi-final as Croatia went into the tie hoping to cause an even larger shock by eliminating the hosts, France. Unfortunately, for the Croatians it appeared as though lady luck favoured France on this occasion.

For the first 45 minutes both sides seem to struggle under the weight of their respective pressures. Croatia gained the upper hand in the 46th minute as Suker scored yet again. But France responded in quick fashion only a minute later as their right back Lillian Thuram did something he had never done before in his international career, he scored a goal.

In the 70th minute Lillian Thuram turned up again to score the second of the game, and what would turn out to be the second goal of his France career. In the 76th minute Laurent Blanc was sent off and Croatia tried to force a breakthrough but France stuck to their guns and did not capitulate like the Germans who came before them. They held on and went through to the final which they won by defeating a distinctly out of form Brazil side.

Croatia were afforded a consolation of sorts as they defeated a Dutch side containing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer 2-1 in the 3rd place play-off. Once again Suker lead from the front and scored the winning goal, whilst also bagging himself a very justified Golden Boot award in the process.

Due to some outstanding performances and fantastic support, Manager Miroslav Blazevic and his players led by the likes of Zvominir Boban, Davor Suker and Slaven Bilic put Croatia onto the world map. Not only in a footballing sense but also in a broader one.

The manager and his players created a footballing and national identity for the seven-year old state and it is one that continues to endure to this day, as can be witnessed by the seemingly endless supply line of technically and tactically adept footballers being churned out of Croatian academies. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Rakitic are some of the most prominent players from the current crop of Croatian footballers who claim to have been inspired by their 1998 predecessors.