When you think back to France 98, there are a few memories that jump to life. The entertaining French team that won the tournament, England losing to Argentina on penalties, and the Ronaldo fiasco which seemed to dominate the final. However, I wonder how many of us still remember the Croatian team who were making their first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals as an independent nation. A team that made the world sit up and notice them, with a squad laden with star players.
The team would line up in either a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 formation, depending on the quality of the opposition, with Dario Simic and Robert Jarni playing as wing backs, and Zvonimir Soldo, Slaven Bilic and Igor Stimac playing centre back. The midfield three consisted of Robert Prosinecki, Aljosa Asanovic, and Zvonimir Boban, with Mario Stanic and Davor Suker up front.
Croatia had qualified from a group consisting of Denmark, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia. They finished runners-up to Denmark to qualify for their first ever World Cup Finals, and were drawn in Group H alongside Argentina, Jamaica and Japan. It was a group the supporters and team felt they could progress through.
Their first game took place at the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens against a Jamaica side consisting of Robbie Earle. Croatia started well with Stanic forcing the keeper to dive low and save in the 6th minute, after some good work by Suker on the left-hand side. If Croatia thought they would be in for an easy ride they were very much mistaken. Jamaica came close following a header from a corner that was just headed off the line by Simic, with goalkeeper Drazen Ladic in no man’s land. The Croatian’s finally took the lead in the 27th minute. A well worked short corner produced a shot which cannoned off the crossbar to the feet of Stanic a few yards out, who controlled the ball and found the empty net. Croatia were beginning to control the match and a ball over the top found Stanic in the area, who laid the ball off to Suker. Suker, with time and space, hit a right foot shot which hit the bar and was cleared. Three minutes later Suker forced a good save from Jamaica keeper Warren Barrett. With seconds left in the first half, the Croatian support was silenced as Jamaica drew level. A great cross from the left landed pinpoint on to the head of Robbie Earle who powerfully headed home.
It took Croatia just eight minutes into the second half to retake the lead and what a strike it was. Prosinecki received the ball from a short free kick on the left side of the area. He took on the first man and looped a stunning chip in the corner of the net from a tight angle. It was a fantastic strike from Prosinecki and a strike of pure genius. Jamaica almost hit back immediately, an unmarked Deon Burton putting his header wide from seven yards. Croatia sealed the match on 69 minutes as Stanic found Suker in the area who controlled the ball on his chest and fired into the net, the ball taking a deflection to wrong-foot the keeper. The game finished 3-1 to the joy of the Croatian support.
It was a great start for the team who faced Japan in their second group match six days later in Nantes. Croatia started brightly with Suker putting a long range header just wide in the 7th minute, followed by a shot on the half-volley four minutes later. The match was starting to become the Davor Suker show as two minutes later he put a left foot free kick just wide. Stanic should have done better when through on the goal, only to drag the ball wide of the left-hand post. It was Japan who came closest to taking the lead on the half-hour mark, Masashi Nakayama forcing an excellent left-handed save from Ladic. Suker continued to cause the Japan defence problems and looked the most likely to score, but at half time the sides remained level.
The second half continued much the way of the first. Suker had more half chances but each time the ball would finish wide or over. However, he was getting closer, and his chip over the keeper on 71 minutes came back off the crossbar. The deadlock was finally broken by Croatia and that man Suker. Asanovic broke down the left-hand side and crossed deep into the area. Suker controlled the ball with his left before unleashing a shot which the keeper simply couldn’t stop. Suker celebrated and almost collapsed in relief as his teammates landed on top of him. The Croatian supporters lit flares and celebrated in the stands, the goal had finally come. It was not a vintage performance by Croatia. Too many passes had gone astray and chances wasted, but the important thing was the result and they had done enough to beat Japan 1-0.
The final group game was a tough match for Croatia as they faced Argentina at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in front of 31,800 supporters. Again it was Croatia who started well, Suker putting a header just over after one minute of the match gone. But it was Argentina who scored first on 35 minutes with a great finish from Mauricio Pineda after Ariel Ortega had played him through. Argentina almost went further ahead just before half-time. Soldo had Ortega on the edge of the box. Ortega took the free-kick which was blocked by the wall back to Ortega, who hit a left foot shot that goalkeeper Ladic managed to just push wide.
Croatia came out in the second half more determined, and Goran Vlaovic hit the crossbar from 25 yards. Marcelo Gallardo almost increased Argentina’s lead after a great solo run which he put wide of the far post. The South Americans were looking stronger, with Juan Sebastian Veron sliding the ball to Diego Simeone, whose shot was saved by the foot of Ladic. Argentina won the game 1-0 and finished top of the group, but Croatia had also qualified as they finished runners-up, and so progressed to the knockout stages. The supporters knew that qualifying from the group was possible, and faced a good Romanian side consisting of Gheorghe Hagi, one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe.
With the Stade Chaban-Delmas full, the teams kicked off the last 16 match in brilliant sunshine. The Croatian fans were in full voice, screaming their team on. The first chance fell to Croatia, once again Suker shooting left footed which was saved well by Bogdan Stelea in the Romanian goal. Stelea continued to deny Croatia, first tipping a shot over from Vlaovic, before making a great save from Asanovic. Romania had their real chance of the match at the half hour mark when Ilie was closed down by Ladic, forcing the Romanian to shoot quickly at the on-rushing keeper. Right on half time, Gabriel Popescu brought down Asanovic in the area, leaving the referee no option but to give the penalty. Suker stepped up and slotted the ball into the bottom right-hand corner to score. As he wheeled away in delight the referee was calling him back due to encroachment. Suker stepped up for a second time, the pressure building, and slotted the ball into the same corner to give Croatia the lead at half time.
Clear-cut chances were few and far between, with the best falling to Croatia right at full time as Petar Krpan shot straight at Stelea from close range. But it didn’t matter; Croatia had won 1-0 through Davor Suker’s penalty to advance to the quarterfinals. Sheer delight for the players and management team on the bench, Croatia had beaten an extremely talented Romanian side who were clear favourites. But Croatia had been excellent and only due to Stelea in the Romanian goal had the score stayed 1-0. Confidence was sky high throughout the team, who now faced their toughest test against Germany. The Germans were current European Champions and favourites for the match.
The match kicked off in Lyon at the Stade de Gerland in front of 39,100 fans. The Germans were so strong, with world-class players in their squad like Jurgen Koehler, Lothar Matthaus, Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann. The match kicked off as dusk settled over Lyon. The pundits predicting only one result, a Germany win. The Germans looked the most likely to score as tackles flew in from both sides. Dietmar Hamann put a header over the bar from six yards when he should have hit the target. The screw was beginning to turn and looked only a matter of time before Germany broke the deadlock. A great cross from Heinrich from the right was met by Bierhoff who headed the ball downwards, but Ladic did well to save and scramble away. Croatia were struggling to get into the game until the 40th minute, when Christian Woerns was sent off for a clumsy foul on Suker. The sending off seemed harsh, with the German players remonstrating with the referee.
It was the moment that turned the match. Just before half time, Stanic found Jarni who had pushed forward at wingback. He unleashed a low left-foot drive into the bottom right-hand corner. The fans burst into delirium in the stands as the half-time whistle was blown. The second half kicked off and Germany almost got back to level terms. A corner kick from Michael Tarnat found Bierhoff in the area, who volleyed at goal after a flick from Klinsmann. Somehow Ladic managed to stop the ball crossing the line, despite the protests from the German players. Boban struck a powerful shot on the edge of the area that forced keeper Andreas Koepke to tip over. Croatia were beginning to take control of the match as Germany pushed further forward for the equaliser. Chances fell to Boban and Vlaovic who both hit over the bar.
Finally, on 80 minutes, Croatia killed the game. Boban fed Vlaovic on the right side of the area, who fired in a fantastic right foot shot from the outside of his boot into the net. With the Croatia fans in full voice, Suker popped up with five minutes left on the clock to score the third. It was a good finish as the Croatian cut in from the left to fire under Kopke. Suker ran to celebrate with the Croatia bench, not quite believing what they were achieving. At the final whistle, a stupendous roar came from the Croatian support. The players on their knees, not believing the amazing result. It was a magnificent performance, at times a battling one, but not only had Croatia emerged from the other side, they had done so in style against a world class German side.
The win pitted the team against hosts France. The semi-final took place at the Stade de France. 76,000 supporters crammed into the fantastic stadium. A strong France team lined up with one of the world’s top players, Zinedine Zidane, in midfield. This was the biggest game in Croatia’s history. Zidane came close early on, in the 4th minute, with a low shot that Ladic saved well. The Croatian keeper again saved well from a long-range free kick from Stephane Guivarc’h, diving low to his right to push the ball to safety. Croatia were starting to come into the game, and on 34 minutes, Asanovic put the ball wide of both Fabien Barthez and his left post. But Zidane was causing all sorts of problems. A long ball by Laurent Blanc was half cleared but fell straight to the majestic Frenchman, who volleyed the ball from 30 yards towards goal, only for Ladic to scramble across his goal and push the ball wide. The half time whistle went with the sides level, Croatia were still very much in the game.
The second half was only a minute old when Croatia found the break through. A fantastic through ball by Asanovic found the run of the prolific Davor Suker, who took one touch before firing a left-foot shot into the net past Barthez. It was a goal of pure joy for the players and Croatia fans. The fans started to feel the impossible could happen. But the joy was short-lived. Youri Djorkaeff passed through to Lilian Thuram of all people, who finished past Ladic to level the scoring. Suddenly it was all France, with Thierry Henry forcing another good save from Ladic. France finally took the lead on 69 minutes. Again it was the full-back Thuram who scored. He played a one-two with Henry and hustled Jarni, before hitting a fantastic left foot shot which curled round Ladic into the net. It was unbelievable from Thuram who scored his first international goals for France, both coming against Croatia in the semi-final. Seven minutes later Laurent Blanc found himself sent off after raising a hand at Bilic, who certainly made the most out of it. Croatia had hope and immediately went on the offensive. But despite some half chances, they failed to find the equaliser. At the final whistle it was sheer delight for France and the country, but unfortunately for Croatia, they were out. They had battled so hard but had just come up short against one of the best teams in the world.
Croatia had the 3rd place play-off against Holland to play, again played at the Parc de Princes in Paris. The Netherlands started well as Patrick Kluivert with a good turn and shot, forced Ladic into a smart save. Five minutes later, however, Croatia took the lead. Jarni attacked down the left and crossed into Prosinecki, who controlled the ball and turned to shoot into the net with a great finish. The match was level after 21 minutes with a superb goal from Boudewijn Zenden. He received the ball on the right-hand side and ran at the Croatian defence before unleashing a thunderous left-foot shot into the net. Croatia hit back on 35 minutes with a beautiful flowing move. Boban played the ball short to Asanovic who drove into midfield and laid the ball off to Prosinecki, who immediately played the ball back into the path of Asanovic who had arrived on his run forward. Asanovic drove to the edge of the penalty area and checked back to find the advancing Boban, who played the ball straight to Suker on the left-hand side of the area. Suker hit his shot first time into the corner of the net to put Croatia 2-1 up at half time. It was a fantastic team goal, and Suker had scored his sixth of the tournament.
The second half was just as entertaining as the first. Both teams continued to create chances with the best falling to Holland, but Ladic pulled off a great save against Clarence Seedorf, as his outstretched left foot somehow clipped the ball over the bar. At full-time Croatia, had done it.
They had finished third in the World Cup, which was a truly remarkable achievement. They had played some unbelievable football during the tournament and had beaten some of the best teams around. Their performance against Germany had been one of their best, and to get so close to the final, only to be beaten by hosts France, was a magnificent story. In Davor Suker they had a player who would always grab a goal, as he finished with six goals and the Golden Boot, as well as being voted the third best player of the tournament. But this Croatian was not just a one-man team. Ladic in goal had made some great saves throughout the tournament, and Boban and Asanovic battled hard in midfield and created some wonderful chances for Suker.
Croatia were a great team with some fantastic players, but their team spirit was a joy to behold. They came to France with the view of getting out the group, and left as the third place winners, so close to pulling off the impossible and reaching the final. A small nation maybe, but by the end of the World Cup, everyone knew who this small plucky nation was.