Croatia at the 1998 World Cup
I’m well aware Croatia’s performance of reaching the World Cup final last year is the best performance of a somehow underdog in the circuit and it will remain in the football history for a long time. Especially knowing that they deserved to even win; however, tough luck with that shitty defence and how they couldn’t convert their many chances into goals in the final against France. Frankly, it plagued the Croatians for quite a while now, and 20 years before said performance, Croatia was making their World Cup debut. In France, 1998. For a country still plagued by the destructive aftermath of their independence war against Yugoslavia, as well as their war against Serbian secesionists in the Republic of Krajina and the totalitarian politics of their then president Franjo Tudman, Croatia only had football for a couple of solace. The national team had reached the quarter-finals at Euro 96, and was representing the freshly independent country for their first World Cup ever. Their team was not as mainstream as the team that finished runner-ups at a World Cup. They had stars, but if anything, it was mostly players from the internal championship. Apart from Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban, there were players like Robert Jarni, who’d sign with Real Madrid after the World Cup; Mario Stanic, an important man of Parma’s 90s glory days; and Slaven Bilic. And that brought uncertainty.
Part of the uncertainty surrounding the Croatian national team came from their lack of international tournament experience. Having been barred from the 1994 tournament, only Šuker, Jarni and Prosineki had competed in a World Cup before – for Yugoslavia in 1990.
They needn’t have worried, as Prosineki led the way against Jamaica in the Croats’ opening match. His decisive second goal in a 3-1 victory made him the first player to score a goal for two different nations at the World Cup. Although they lost to Argentina in their final group game, a 1-0 victory over Japan secured Croatia’s place in the knockout stage. Once there, another 1-0 victory over Romania – a scoreline flattering the losers according to most match reports – took Blaevic’s men to a quarterfinal.
If their unexpected achievement wasn’t enough, there were also a couple of other reasons to be happy. Yugoslavia, which had become just Serbia and Montenegro by this point, had lost in the first knockout round. In addition to this nefarious source of motivation, Blaevi could also call upon the emotions of revenge as Croatia was drawn against Germany – the team that had knocked them out of the 1996 European Championship. According to Bilic, Tudjman decided to take the squad out for lunch before the big day, in a bid to take the pressure off. However, it didn’t seem to have worked, as Germany came out roaring in the first half. After forty minutes of sustained pressure, Croatia had a stroke of luck that usually accompanies teams destined for glory.
Christian Wörns, Germany’s outstanding sweeper, lunged into a tackle against Suker, leaving the referee no choice but to send him off. By half-time, the bewildered Germans were trudging off the pitch, having conceded a seemingly avoidable late goal by Jarni. If the first half had been a display of uncontrolled and lucky play by the Croatians, the second was a tactical masterpiece. Although the Germans pushed forward and created chances, as they had to, Blaevic’s men held them at a relatively safe distance while maintaining a threat on the counter.Finally, after a pulsating match, the Šuker and Goran Vlaovic scored in the last ten minutes to put the Germans out of their misery. It was a low point in German footballing history, and they would respond by pouring funds into youth programs that would eventually deliver the World Cup in 2014. However, back in 1998, Croatia was astonishingly through to a semi-final against the hosts.
After a tense first half at the Stade de France in Paris, Davor Šuker put Croatia ahead in the 46th minute with his fifth goal of the tournament. It didn’t last long though, as Lilian Thuram scored the first of his two goals that night within a minute – the only goals he ever scored for France. However, for one minute, Croatia could dream. A country that had not yet risen from the ashes of a destructive, genocidal war of independence was on the brink of an achievement even Leicester couldn’t match. In the end, they had to make do with bronze, after a deserved 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the third-place playoff.