It has taken twenty long years, and many tournaments, but Croatia finally have a team that can emulate their French conquest of 1998.
25th June, 1991 was a remarkable day in Soviet history. Millions of people heaved a sigh of relief and cried tears of joy, as Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The people were no longer bound to a state they felt no attachment towards, and it was an ending that signaled a new beginning – over three million Croatians could finally (and officially), refer to themselves as such.
Almost a year before this joyous occasion though, the Croatians were still very much a part of Yugoslavia. They resided in Yugoslavian borders and were still in the process of fighting for a separate nation. They were very much Yugoslavian citizens at that point, and had to abide by the country’s rules, and respect the nation itself.
On the 3rd of June, 1990, the Yugoslavian team walked out onto the field in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. They were jeered and booed throughout the match, a wave of uneasiness and hostility spreading across the stadium as the Croatians present were not shy to show their disdain towards Yugoslavia. Football was only a medium; the message sent in those boos was a much bigger one. It was the Netherlands that Yugoslavia were playing, and the game ended 0-2 in favour of the former. A loud cheer went across the stadium for the same as the away team stood soaked in applause from a home crowd.
A few months later in October, the United States stepped on to the same field; they played a different team, but were greeted by the same crowd. The difference being, the crowd were clearly in very different spirits this time around. Despite not yet being an independent nation, the Croatian national team went out and played in their now famous red and white checkered jersey. The Yugoslavia national team was still an officially recognised team, but Croatia had clearly had enough of their association with them. Official declaration or not, they were not waiting. The fans cheered for the country they were loyal towards, and the game ended 2-1 in favour of the home team. Supporters in Zagreb went home elated, knowing that this was a start of better things to come.
The beginning of a team
A new national flag, a new currency, and a new football kit for a new football team – all of that came in the early 90’s post independence.
A nation in its infancy is proud, and remembers the days of old. The locals were fanatic about football. They had been obsessed with the beautiful game, and finally, they would have a football team that wore colors, sang anthems and represented an identity that belonged to them every time they played.
“When I used to play for Yugoslavia, it meant nothing. It was only sport, nothing else. Now the feeling is incomparable.”
Centre back Igor Stimac echoed the sentiments of the nation when he said this. There was now an added incentive for the players to go out and play. Every pass was more calculated, every tactic more meticulous, and every tackle gave an extra rush of adrenaline to the players. For if the fans took pride in their team, the players took even more pride in representing the land that they loved.
Expectations were not sky high for the team. The starting eleven had never played together before, and there was a visible lack of chemistry. The Croatian team was an unknown quantity as a unit – as individuals, there was no lack of talent.
The talisman and most recognisable player was Davor Suker, who was plying his trade for Sevilla at the time his nation became independent, and later moved on to Real Madrid. There was Slaven Bilic, a talented and tough-as-boots defender who was not afraid to bruise his opponent. Robert Prosinecki, Stinac and a few others made up a promising squad. Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic was the coach, a former Bosnian international who was assigned the task of making this group of players realise their potential.
A debut in the footballing world is as important as a first impression in a job interview; you go into an office with track pants and an unironed shirt on, chances are you will remain unemployed. The world had seen Croatia play a few friendlies here and there, but when they qualified for the 1996 Euros, it was the biggest occasion for the team so far. Europe would be watching, and an impact at this tournament would go a long way for the nation.
The Croats were but an afterthought in that year’s competition. Nobody really thought they would pose any challenge to an actual contender. There were detractors, there were questions. A country so small, what can a squad with so much unknown quantity possibly do?
Second game of the group stage, bang. The Croatians played with such fluidity and style that you would not be mocked if you thought that they were one of the tournament favourites and not debutantes playing against teams ten times more experienced than them. Sukar and co beat the defending champions Denmark 3-0 in a one sided game, and the world started to take notice. There was something special in the making.
Eventually, their run was halted in the quarter final by the German team, who went on to win the tournament. There was disappointment at the end of those 90 minutes, and frustration, but no despair. The squad had shown what they were capable of, and no one was going to take them lightly again.
A dark horse is born
Two years later, nearly the same group of players under the same coach traveled to France for their first World Cup. Another debut in a major tournament awaited, as did millions back home who expected an improved display from their national team.
The 1998 FIFA World Cup is memorable for several reasons. France won the World Cup on their home soil, Ronaldo proved beyond doubt that he was the best player in the world whereas Michael Owen showed why he was the best young talent in the game. It was a month of madness and passion; something that the World Cup is synonymous with.
There was also a World Cup record equalled that year, a record that had stood for 32 years. A record that still stands.
Drawn in a group with Argentina, Jamaica, and Japan, the build up around that group was the debut of Croatia and Jamaica both in the World Cup, with the Caribbean outfit having more of a feel good factor, considering how an impoverished third world country had managed to reach this stage.
Croatia cared not for that. They beat their fellow debutantes 3-1 in their first game, with Prosinecki creating history as he became the first player to score for two different national teams at the World Cup – Yugoslavia in 1990, and Croatia now.
A tricky Japanese outfit was also conquered in the next game, and it was Suker who was the hero. Thirteen minutes before the final whistle, the team’s talisman managed to squirm a shot under the goalkeeper as a priceless 1-0 win combined with the Argentines’ thrashing of Jamaica ensured that qualification to the next round was set.
It was not to be a perfect record as the team lost to Argentina in the final game, but it mattered little as they prepared to face Romania in the round of sixteen.
With the previous loss all but forgotten, Croatia went all guns blazing against a Romanian team in the knockout game, but found it tough to get past goalkeeper Bogdon Stelea, who was having one of the games of his life.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
It was Suker who earned a penalty just before half time, and he calmly slotted it past Stelea into the bottom corner. With the players ready to celebrate, the referee ordered a retake. Irritated but unfazed, Suker went the exact same way again, and it was the same result. Romania could not score, and Croatia had now managed to reach the quarter finals in both of their first international tournaments.
Bog govori: pomozi si sam, pomoći ću ti – heaven helps those who help themselves
The run so far was no luck; it was pure skill and determination. Nothing seemed to faze this team. But now, their biggest challenge awaited. Two years ago, it was the Germans who had thwarted the ‘Blazers’ and ended their run in the Euros in the quarter finals. It would be the same game again, in the same round, but at a bigger stage. Doubts rose once more – defeating Jamaica, Japan and Romania is one thing, but traditional heavyweights and professional party-poopers Germany would be a tougher beast to tame.
Denmark were the first team to feel Croatia’s wrath as they fell 3-0 to them in the Euros. The German squad on that day felt the same way as the Danish must have, as Blazevic’s men blasted through them 3-0. It was not a normal victory; it was a win so impressive and unprecedented that it became a message to teams around the world. A comparatively inexperienced team had just toppled one of the biggest names in world football.
You could hear it in the collective voices of the fans in attendance, and you could see it in the eyes of the players. Something out of the ordinary had just happened, it was not written in the script. Six years ago, the fans in the Zagreb were booing the Yugoslavian national team towards a loss at what was their home ground. Today, their country was in the semi-finals of the World Cup. You would have to have a heart made of rocks to not be moved by the scenes that unfolded post match. It had been a long and winding journey that had begun years ago when the Croatians demanded independence, and there are few things more joyous than success at the end of immense hardship.
The penultimate stage of the World Cup saw Suker and co face off against the host nation, and it was a defensive masterclass in a thrilling game that saw France win 2-1 and advance to the finals. Suker found the net yet again, but the team fell one hurdle short as the players lay there on the ground after the match with their head in their hands. The fans were still shouting. Blazevic must have looked around the stadium and felt the pride of their journey overcome the grief that accompanies a loss like this. Tears were shed, but there was not one Croatian in the world who was not proud of what their idols had accomplished. The players had given everything they had, and more.
Defeating the Dutch in the third place play off, Croatia became the first debutant country since Portugal in 1966 to finish third in the World Cup – the record. Suker finished as the tournament top scorer with six goals, and the team left their mark on World Cup history as arguably the finest debut in the world’s biggest tournament.
Time to create new memories
Croatians have not forgotten. Be it Suker’s goal against Germany which sent the fans into delirium when he somehow controlled the ball at the by-line, dribbled back in and cut inside to slot his team’s third, or the memorable Prosinecki free kick which saw him create history – the fans back home remember what it felt like to be on top of the world.
The current squad consists of players such as Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Dejan Lovren amongst a few others, all of whom have played top level football with big clubs.
Due to the heroics in 1998, the Croatian squad have since then been one of the dark horses of almost every tournament they have been in, something that holds especially true for this team, which might be the most talented group of players since Suker and co themselves.
Since that wonderful campaign, the Croatian team has failed to advance to even the knockout stages of the World Cup, let alone reach as far as their predecessors did. The story has since been the same – expectations and a good squad which play decent football, but always fall short. Very, very short.
And that is the narrative that coach Zlato Dalic and his men look to change.
So far, the team has played as well as you could have hoped. Croatia are now, more than ever, expected to get past a group consisting of Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria – but it is the way they demolished Lionel Messi and co that really stands out. Traditional big dogs, blistering attack, the magic man himself was nullified in one of the most spirited displays we have seen from any side so far. 3-0 to the Croats, and absolutely nothing for the frustrated Argentines. Croatia are not only going through, they are most probably going into the knockout rounds as group winners and as a very formidable threat for whichever opponent they get.
There is little doubt that every time Modric leads his men out on the field, the players will remember what it was like to be young kids who saw their idols tear apart Germany in the quarter finals all those years ago. This time, it is them who need to be the idols, as kids back home kick a ball in their backyard and wear a Croatian jersey with Modric 10 written on the back, hoping for some magic. Fans want something more than just a knockout stage game that ends in the same old story of the team being “dark horses” who pose no real challenge to the top nations.
Croatia waited over 70 years for independence from Yugoslavia. A blooming country now that has a good GDP and ranks high in the Human Development Index, the struggles of the past seem all worth it. It has been two decades since their football team saw dizzying heights. The fans are patient, they always rally behind the players that represent them, and it is now time that they got back what is rightfully owed to them – another World Cup campaign to be proud of.