Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 60-Croatia Finally Have Their Moment to Shine (1998)

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Since joining FIFA in mid 1992 the newly independent Croatia had started to slowly but surely harness the abundance of talent within its borders and get itself together to get to a major tournament. A Croatian team had in fact played in 1940 against Switzerland and Hungary but the tour was not recognised. This was followed (after Germany had invaded) by Croatia joining FIFA and they played a heap of friendlies before the Axis powers were booted out and the region was again swallowed up by Tito’s Yugoslavian empire.

Following independence and under Miroslav Blazevic the golden generation was starting to shine through. The first tournament they went for was Euro 96 and qualified easily by topping a group that featured the might of Italy and a bunch first timers from the Eastern bloc like themselves before they went out in the quarter finals to eventual champs Germany.

At France ’98 many were seeing the side as an unknown quantity. They had just snuck in to second spot in their qualifying group thanks to a 3-1 victory over fellow former ‘brothers’ Slovenia with a team full of fantastic individuals but were unknown entity as a gelled unit. The team did still feature some absolute legends including the animal of Serie A Zvonimir Boban who led the side. He was joined by Premier league defenders Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic, the creative midfielder Robert Prosinecki and the flying left back Robert Jarni.

Drawn with fellow debutantes to the ball in Japan and Jamaica (along with the powerful Argentina) Croatia first up had Jamaica who held them 1-1 in the first half before their brilliant Real Madrid striker Davor Suker got off the mark along with Prosinecki. In the second match they had to beat off a well organised Japanese side 1-0. Suker was again the scorer late in to the second half and Croatia were through in to the next round. In the dead rubber they fought hard but a full strength Argentine side did them over 1-0.

The group stages were a little easy for the Croats and was to be expected in a way but in the knockout stages was where the fairytale started to kick in. First up was the impressive Romania who had topped a tricky group featuring England, Colombia and Tunisia (beating England 2-1). The Romanians were starting to get a tad cocky and had even all dyed their hair yellow to match their shirts in a showing bonding but they didn’t count on the bonding of a country that had been waiting for independence and a chance of a World Cup like this for decades.

In a tight game Croatia got the better of Romania in the first half with a few chances and then scored a penalty moments before half time after Asanovic had been fouled. Suker strolled up and coolly took the penalty to score…well kind of. The referee claimed that there was encroaching on the area and the penalty would have to be taken again. Suker had to again hold his nerve, showed little emotion and nailed the ball past the keeper in what must have been a rather stressful situation to put the side ahead.

Romania huffed and puffed with their little peroxide heads zipping everywhere but Croatia bossed the midfield thanks to Prosinecki and Boban to leave it at 1-0. Next up was a quarter final with heavyweight Germany who had done away with Mexico in the previous round. Many of the people not really sold on Croatia’s chances were thinking this was the time when they would bow down to a apparent greater side after their ‘easy’ run so far…didn’t happen. After an evenly poised first half Croatia kept the supply to Oliver Bierhoff (a man with quite possibly largest head in the world) and Jurgen Klinsmann cut off to leave it 0-0 towards half time.

Croatia then had the advantage when the normally unflappable defender Christian Worns went in hard on Suker who was dancing past him to get through on goal and got himself a red card and an early bath. Harsh tackle? Depends on your point of view and karma really. Deep in to stoppage time Croatia took advantage of the extra man with Jarni scoring first after Stanic did brilliantly to set him up (it would be Jarni’s only ever goal for Croatia after countless games). In the second half Germany had no answer to the Croatian onslaught and with confidence surging through their veins the replacement for the injured Boksic in Vlaovic and then the wonderful Suker scored late in the second half to put Germany out 3-0 and shock a few of the naysayers of the side’s ability, the semi finals now beckoned.

If battling the evil hun wasn’t bad enough for Croatia they now faced the hosts France in the second of the semi finals in Paris. Once again the Croatians fought hard kept the danger men of the French side quiet in a first half full of semi decent chances to France but there was no innocuous sending off close to half time this time and it was 0-0. Just minutes in to the second half a brilliant left footed pass by Asanovic found Suker (who else) who slotted past Barthez easily and the Croatians were in front to shock the Parisian crowd and the rest of the world in general.

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Croatia would have set their mode to harry and frustrate in regards to their opponents from getting an equaliser but France were back on level terms a minute after the opener, the glorious right back Lillian Thuram scoring his first ever goal for France thanks to a tricky little flick from Djorkaeff. With Zidane kept to speculative shots and Henry still too green to take a game by the scruff of the neck Thuram popped up from right back again to dance around his marker and slot home in the 69th minute. Despite the defender Bilic faking an assault to get a French player sent off Croatia had finally run out of luck and they were out after battling to try and get an equaliser in front of a fanatical crowd.

It wasn’t all over though. The third place play off still beckoned and they took on the Guus Hiddink led Dutch side that had gone down to Brazil in Marseille. Prosinecki scored first for the Croatians before a bullet like low shot from Zenden got the Dutch back on level terms. The number 9 Suker wasn’t done with still, his goal towards half time was enough for Croatia to take third spot after they held out the Dutch who were probably still feeling the effects of their end to end classic from the previous Tuesday.

Some would see third spot as a token gesture at the World Cup but if you can remember seeing the joy on the faces of the Croatian players with their medals and the saluting the fans on a lap of honour you could see how much it meant to them. You could also see how much it meant to the nation who had gone through so much and only just climbed out of the mire to stand on its own two feet as an independent being. Suker would finish the tournament with six goals and win the golden boot to go next to the nice shiny European Cup he had won with Real Madrid in the previous May.

Croatia would go on to take pretty much the same team to Japan/South Korea in 2002 under new boss Mirko Jozic but they looked slower, seemed over the hill and were out in the first round. 1998 may have been all about the French and convulsing Brazilians in Paris hotel rooms for the final but the bloodstained chessboards showed what a ‘little’ team could do.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

Comments

  1. The Avenging Eagle will be pleased that you have honoured her heritage, Dennis. Small compensation for your Cats ritual slaughter last weekend. How did the united Yugoslavia perform in World Cups between WW2 and 1990?
    Dynamo Zagreb + Hajduk Split + Red Star Belgrade should have equalled a pretty formidable team in those years.

  2. Dennis Gedling says

    Yeah you’d think so but they only ever had success in the Euros. They won the first edition of that in 1960 and only ever made the semis once post world war 2 and that was in 1962. Very disappointing considering the talent they had. Thought Tito would have whipped them in to shape.

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