The most impressive statistic to come out of Croatia’s 2-1 semi-final win against England was that the Balkan nation did not exist when the Three Nations had last reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, back in 1990.
Instead, the talents that would shape independent Croatia’s run to the 1998 semi-finals were all part of the Yugoslavian football team, which would play it’s last international tournament as an unified Balkan territory.
A young team consisting of Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Igor Stimac and Robert Jarni would hold eventual finalists Argentina for 89 minutes, before losing on penalties. In qualifying for Euro 1992, they would romp to the top of their group before being banned from the tournament due to internal hostilities within the country.
As luck would have it, Denmark, the country which would replace them in the final draw, would go on to win the tournament.
Political turmoil and stadium riots
The core of the Yugoslav team would never play together again, yet it is arguable that Croatia reaped the benefits of the remnants. The 2018 World Cup finalists are the most successful of all the Balkan break-aways, qualifying for 10 tournaments out of a possible 12 after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
While 1998 was undoubtedly their finest hour, the Vatreni sowed the seeds for their success early on, hiring Miroslav Blazevic as head coach in 1994. The first tournament that they could qualify for was Euro 1996, where the team showed glimpses of their footballing nous.
Blazevic, one of the earliest pioneers of the 3-5-2, used it judiciously in deploying Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban behind the mercurial Suker. On his part, Boban was determined to prove his worth on the big stage.
In a Yugoslav first league clash between Boban’s Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990, tensions had boiled over barely a week after the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and its leader Franjo Tudman had gained the majority in the region’s first multi-party elections, the first pro-Croat independence party in 50 years to do so. Blazevic was a confidante of Tudman’s and would join the HDZ later. Tudman, meanwhile was a big fan of football.
Street fights had broken out between the Bad Blue Boys (Dinamo fans) and the Delije (Red Star fans) hours before the match and the situation just worsened at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. After the Delije had responded to provocation from the home fans, the Bad Blue Boys would descend onto the pitch.
Boban, Dinamo’s captain didn’t take kindly to the alleged mistreatment of one of the home support by a policeman, who the attacking midfielder kicked. The Bad Blue Boys would act as bodyguards for Boban, who would become a icon of Croat nationalism. The Yugoslav football association didn’t take too kindly to this act and suspended him for six months, resulting in him missing the World Cup.
Euro 1996 and emergence
This match had far-reaching implications, including spelling the end of the league after Croatian and Slovenian teams withdrew at the end of the year. It also became a major incident as far as the Croat war of independence was concerned.
By 1995, the war had claimed more than 50,000 casualties but it was showing signs of winding down, especially in Croatia. The team prepared for its biggest test yet as they topped Group 4 in qualifying ahead of World Cup finalists Italy and sealed an automatic spot in England 1996.
Suker was again the inspiration as the Sevilla man bagged 12 goals in qualifying and finished joint second-highest at the main tournament with three. Suker’s record goals in qualification stood for 12 years till David Healy scored 13 for Northern Ireland.
Croatia were drawn into a group containing Portugal, whose own Golden Generation had started to peak, defending champions Denmark and Turkey.
One of the most defining moments of that tournament arrived through Suker, whose insouciant chip over Peter Schmeichel in the Danish goal sealed a 3-0 victory at Hillsborough, confirming their own progression while knocking the Euro 1992 champs out.
Germany awaited them in the quarters and Croatia were knocked out with a 2-1 loss, as their conquerors went on to win the final with a golden goal by Oliver Bierhoff. The red and whites were hailed as an exciting team, however, with Suker already having sown up a move to Real Madrid before the tournament.
Golden Boot for Suker in France
Yet, their finest moment was due two years later. In truth, the core of the team had been instrumental in winning the Under-20 World Championships in 1987 as Boban, Mijatovic, Suker, Prosinecki, Jarni and Stimac were all part of that team.
Mijatovic continued to play for Serbia and Montenegro, known as FR Yugoslavia at that time but the rest were in the prime of their lives as they took on Argentina, Jamaica and Japan in the group stages. A narrow 1-0 loss to the Albiceleste followed, but the Vatreni still qualified with two victories in their other matches.
Romania were beaten 1-0 as a quarter-final re-match against Germany awaited. After Christian Worns had been sent for an early bath, Croatia cashed in and sent Die Nationalmannschaft packing 3-0.
Against hosts France in the semis, Suker opened the scoring but Lilian Thuram scored the only goals of his career to see Les Bleus through. Croatia’s tournament was over but Suker’s wasn’t, as he scored his sixth goal against Netherlands, assuring his team of third place and bagging the Golden Boot.
Forged out of strife
Blazevic, an ethnic Bosnian spoke highly of his team after they finished third, “I had wonderful players, full of a sense of patriotism. Players who were ready to do big things for their country. One of the biggest advantages Croatia has in sport is that patriotic feeling.”
Many of this generation would go on to play pivotal roles in Croatian football in the following years. Igor Stimac would serve as coach, while Slaven Bilic would be at the helm of the team for six years, and would mastermind a 3-2 victory over England at Wembley that would end the Three Lions hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008.
Suker would become the president of the football federation, but a reviled one with his reign shrouded in controversy with alleged links to match-fixers. He would get re-elected in 2017, in an election which prime minister Andrej Plenkovic had criticised for its lack of transparency.
A second golden generation has arrived in Croatia, but not without strife. Luka Modric, a child refugee, who saw his grandfather Luka Sr. executed by Serbian militia is the figurehead but there are many inspiration figures, including Mario Mandzukic, the Ivans, Perisic and Rakitic.
The Barcelona midfielder Rakitic is playing his 71st game of the season but Croatia will not give up due to fatigue, playing three consecutive extra time matches at the World Cup. Modric, like his predecessor Suker, is not universally loved. In fact, the Real Madrid midfielder could be convicted for five years if found guilty of perjury in the Zdravko Mamic case.
Mamic, a super agent and one-time vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation, is also close to Suker and accused of embezzlement and tax evasion. Fans have seen Mamic as a symbol for the corruption that exists within Croatian football and the dwindling popularity of the league, which has fallen behind many of its counterparts from Europe.
In Russia however, Croatia have forged a superb team ethic, forgetting all their troubles off the field. On Sunday, they will attempt to do something that their predecessors couldn’t, and finish the job.