blood and bandage

The cult World Cup teams we loved: Croatia 1998

A side jam-packed with talent, their odyssey transcended much more than sport.

Why we loved them: 

The Croatian side had already made a lot of friends at the 1996 European Championships when they reached the quarter-finals. In the group-stage, the team memorably beat the reigning champions, Denmark, 3-0 with Davor Suker grabbing a brace – his second a sumptuous chip that sailed over Peter Schmeichel’s head.

SOCCER - Euro 96 - Croatia v Denmark Laurence Griffiths / EMPICS Sport Laurence Griffiths / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

Outside of Suker’s relentless goal-scoring, the side featured a number of silky players like Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic. They had a diminutive wing-back in Robert Jarni who loved to get forward and possessed a thunderous left-foot while there was steely resistance and physicality in defence with Slaven Bilic, Igor Stimac and the versatile Dario Simic.

Above all else, Croatia were appearing at the World Cup for the first time in 1998. A handful of their squad had moved through the ranks of Yugoslavia’s youth setup and won the 1987 Under-20 World Cup before featuring for the country at Italia ’90. Now, on a world stage, they had their own flag, their own identity. It was emotional. Stimac echoed that sentiment.

When I used to play for Yugoslavia, it meant nothing. It was only sport, nothing else. Now the feeling is incomparable.”

The story: 

Croatia were drawn in Group H alongside Argentina, Jamaica and Japan. The build-up seemed to focus on the feel-good enthusiasm and optimism of the Caribbean nation, another World Cup debutant. But, the Croatians brushed them aside in the first game with Suker, Prosinecki and Mario Stanic all scoring. Prosinecki’s was a thing of beauty – it’s creation and execution something to marvel at. A divine footballer, he also made history as the first player to score in a World Cup for two different countries (he netted for Yugoslavia in their 1990 clash against UAE).

sp1873 / YouTube

Up next was an assignment against Japan, who had proved a sticky opponent for Argentina. In a tight affair, Suker conjured a moment of ridiculous craft and ingenuity when he delicately lobbed a delicious volley, on the run, over the Japanese goalkeeper Kawaguchi only for it kiss the crossbar and float over.

But thirteen minutes from the end, he trapped a cross from the left side, swiveled and drove a low shot towards the near post that squirmed under Kawaguchi and rolled over the line. It was a priceless goal. Later that day, Argentina thumped the Jamaicans – a result that ensured Croatia’s place in the knockout stages.

sp1873 / YouTube

The final group game against Argentina was a face-off to see who’d play England in the round of sixteen. In another cagey clash, the Croatians were undone by some poor defending nine minutes before the break. Ariel Ortega deftly lifted a ball through for Mauricio Pineda who rifled past Drazen Ladic. In the second half, Goran Vlaovic saw a brilliant effort come back off the combination of crossbar and post but Argentina very nearly made it 2-0 when Marcelo Gallardo’s mazy dribble took him all the way to the penalty area only for his right-footed effort to skim narrowly past the post. But, it mattered little. Croatia had made the business end of their first World Cup.

Soccer - World Cup France 98 - Second Round - Romania v Croatia Michael Steele / EMPICS Sport Michael Steele / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

From the off, Croatia tore into Romania in their knockout stage assignment. At times, they laid siege to Bogdan Stelea’s goal but the keeper was inspired, making an early double-save from Suker and then beating away a close-range effort from Asanovic. But in first-half injury time, Suker was wrestled to the ground in the area and was awarded a penalty for his troubles. He expertly tucked it away to the bottom corner, sending Stelea the wrong way. But, the referee ordered a re-take. Suker was unaffected and confidently sent the ball to the exact same place second time around. Stelea guessed correctly but still couldn’t get anywhere near it. Croatia could easily have added to their tally in the second half but Stelea continued his fine performance. Regardless, Croatia held out and progressed to a quarter-final against Germany.

Two years before, the Germans eliminated Croatia in the last eight of Euro ’96, on their way to winning the tournament outright. But Ciro Blazevic’s side were desperate for revenge and weathered an early storm. Jurgen Klismann missed a glorious early chance while Oliver Bierhoff saw a great header pushed away by Ladic. The game-changer came five minutes from the interval when Christian Worns was dished a straight red card after a challenge on Suker. It was a harsh decision and Croatia made the most of their extra man.

Soccer - World Cup France 98 - Quarter Final - Germany v Croatia Matthew Ashton / EMPICS Sport Matthew Ashton / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

Just before the break, Stanic found Jarni bombing forward. He wasn’t closed down, wound up that explosive left foot and arrowed a low drive to the bottom corner. As Germany frantically pushed for an equaliser throughout the second half, Croatia expertly exploited them on the counter. With ten minutes to go, Goran Vlaovic drilled a terrific strike with the outside of his right boot. The Croatian fans started to light the flares. It was party time. In in the 85th minute, Suker showed mesmeric skill, control and determination to dribble along the by-line, cut back inside and somehow force the ball past Kopke to make it 3-0. Revenge was sweet.

sp1873 / YouTube

The semi-final against France was tight but thrilling. Suker had been well-marshaled by Desailly and Blanc but struck the opening goal right at the beginning of the second half after a majestic pass from Asanovic. As replays were still being shown of the goal, Croatia were dispossessed on the edge of their own box, a through-ball from Djorkaeff found Lillian Thuram who swept home the equaliser. With twenty minutes left, the full-back popped up again, brilliantly curling a left-footed drive to the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Soccer - World Cup France 98 - Semi Final - France v Croatia Matthew Ashton / EMPICS Sport Matthew Ashton / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

Croatia were stunned and tried desperately to get back in it. Suker immaculately took a ball down at the far post and just as he was about to pull the trigger, Desailly appeared from nowhere to block. Later, a deflected shot from distance seemed to be looping over Fabien Barthez only for the keeper to show his agility, scurry back towards his line and athletically tip it over. The dream was over for Croatia but what a journey it had been,

In the 3rd/4th place play-off against Holland, Prosinecki and Suker scored either side of a Zenden strike to secure a marvelous achievement for a true cult World Cup outfit.

Stand-out player: 

Soccer - 1998 World Cup - Semi Final - France v Croatia - Stade de France LUCA BRUNO / AP/Press Association Images LUCA BRUNO / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

Davor Suker scored six goals at the tournament and continued from where he left off at Euro ’96.

It wasn’t just about the amount of goals but the type of goals he scored. He had an incredible first touch (something Irish fans would come to learn in the Euro 2000 qualifiers) and could set himself up perfectly for a strike without having to check back and re-align his body.

Even when struggling to dominate a game (like the semi-final against France), he’d still crop up and finish when it mattered most.

An immensely under-rated striker who was past his best when he came to the Premier League and played for Arsenal and West Ham. Between 1996 and 1998, he was arguably the best finisher in Europe and without him, this Croatian team would’ve lacked plenty.

Stand-out moment: 

In their opening group game against Jamaica, Croatia had a free-kick in a great position on the left side. Everyone expected the ball to be swung in dangerously to the area. But Robert Prosinecki had other ideas.

EveryFourthYear / YouTube

Standing with Robert Jarni, he touched the ball to the wing-back who stopped it immediately, making a better angle for the play-maker to bend in a cross. A Jamaican player came to close him down but as Prosinecki moved to make contact with the ball, he dummied instead and rolled it with his studs to push him towards the touchline. With the ball now on his left, he looked up, got right under it and curled an incredible strike over Jamaican goalkeeper Warren Barrett and into the far corner.

Classy, fresh, entertaining – it sums up this Croatian side perfectly.

The cult World Cup teams we loved: Sweden 1994

The cult World Cup teams we loved: Denmark 1986

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