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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #3: Croatia 1996-98

Completing an international hat-trick, here's Twisted Blood's Andi Thomas.

I suspect, deep down, it was the shirts.

Euro ‘96 was the first tournament that really hit me square between the eyes. Having come to football slightly late, Italia ‘90 and Sweden ‘92 largely passed me by, John Jensen aside, and I recall USA ‘94 more as series of moments – Diego Maradona’s boggle-eyes; Paul McGrath’s magnificence; Bebeto’s cradle-rocking; Leonardo’s elbow; Roberto Baggio doing a Diana Ross – than as a tournament of narrative or character. But Euro ‘96 was different.

Hindsight, of course, suggests a certain reassessment of the traditional Football Came Home And It Was The Best Tournament Ever narrative (see this piece by Rob Smyth, for instance), but for a 12-year-old international football neophyte it was a glorious summer. And England’s progress through and ultimate exit from the tournament – again, less impressive in retrospect, perhaps – gave proceedings an intoxicating momentum.

It was, of course, Croatia’s first tournament as well. Oblivious to the political snafu in the Balkans, my 12-year-old self fell for the nouveau nation’s verve and flair; their dash of brutality; their army of devoted and noisy fans; and most of all the personality and personalities of the team. Whereas England were fielding ten profoundly boring men and one morbidly interesting Gazza, Croatia were, front to back, as fascinating as they were exotic. Most enthralling was the midfield, built around two of the finest players of the nineties: the brooding, brilliant Zvonimir Boban – who I knew vaguely from Football Italia, and who I had somehow learned once beat up a police officer, but in a good way, whatever that meant – and loose-limbed dribbling genius Robert Prosinečki – who I am convinced bears the blame for my occasional urge to dye my hair blond. It hasn’t happened yet.

And the shirts, obviously.

Up front, there was the charming lethality of Davor Šuker, about whom two things stand out above anything else. The first was my stepdad saying “he looks like Lyle Lovett”, which, while I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, is a pretty good spot. The second was that goal against Denmark, to round off a 3-0 scalping of the defending champions. Not just for the brutal, satanic geometry of the finish – an angle and weight so pure and malicious that it lifts the finest goalkeeper in the world high into the air, before depositing him in a helpless, hapless heap – but also for the ensuing celebration: one arm in the air, saluting the stadium and accepting the applause. A grin so wide as to threaten the structural integrity of his head. Compelling delight.

Having secured qualification from the group stage with that defeat of the Danes, they were rolled 3-0 by a pretty fine Portugal team, which meant Germany in the quarter-final. Šuker defied the laws of nature to score with his right foot but Croatia, unluckily, lost 2-1. I was hooked. By the time France rolled around in ‘98 they were my confirmed second team, and what with my first being Wales, there wasn’t much chance of a clash of loyalties.

Plus, they had cool shirts.

The France World Cup was, of course, Croatia’s footballing apotheosis. Progress through the group stage was more-or-less serene. Jamaica and Japan were dispatched comfortably, before a narrow defeat to Argentina set up a second-round tie with Gheorghe Hagi’s newly-blond Romania. Croatia emerged 1-0 victors, Davor Šuker replying to the referee’s instruction to re-take his successful first half penalty by blasting it twice as hard into the same corner. While the penalty award was itself a touch soft, Croatia dominated the second half, had the better of the chances and were deserving victors. And waiting in the quarter-finals? A rematch with Germany.

I always feel there is something slightly tawdry about applauding a red card, particularly one that doesn’t emerge from violence or malice. Corinthian values and all that jazz. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy about a dismissal as when Christian Wörns was dispatched, mid-way through the first half, for clumsily felling Šuker. It was as though the world was shaping itself to my whim, doing everything it could to ensure Croatia’s progress. “Football”, remarked Gary Lineker, for once not auto-cueing a pun into oblivion, “is a simple game: it’s eleven against eleven for 90 minutes, and then the Germans win”. But eleven against ten?

Croatia struck first. On the stroke of half-time, Robert Jarni lashed in his only international goal from fully 20 yards, before Tardelli-ing off into a massive Croat man-pile (one of the joys of this team is the utter glee that greets every goal). Back came the European champions: Oliver Bierhoff forced Drazen Ladic into a sharp reaction save; Dietmar Hamann hit the post with a deflected drive. And Germany were pressing again when, in the 80th minute, a misplaced attacking header set Boban free in midfield. He fed Goran Vlaović on the right, who whipped another drive past Andreas Köpke’s despairing paw, and slapped the wind out of the German sails. Šuker quickly added a third – as in ‘96, he used his right, a foot that apparently only functioned in the presence of German defenders – and, somewhere in Milton Keynes, a lank-haired teenager went quietly ecstatic.

The semi-final against France is overshadowed as a game not only by the retrofitted narrative of la France qui gagne, but also Slaven Bilić’s notorious face-clutching collapse, which led to Laurent Blanc’s dismissal and suspension for the final. Without wanting to defend the more-or-less indefensible – though Bilić’s own reasoning can be found in Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain, and is worth a look, if only for balance – it is important not to forget just how unlucky Croatia were to lose. Having restricted France to long-range efforts, Croatia took the lead within the first minute of the second half, Aljoša Asanović shredding the offside trap for Šuker to net his fifth of the campaign. But nary a minute later, Boban, the genius playing the fool, executed a quick pirouette on the edge of his own box, then dallied. France pounced. Lilian Thuram scored. And then twenty minutes later, rumbling up the right, he scored again.

A fun fact about Lilian Thuram: his given name is “Ruddy”. Another fun fact about Lilian Thuram: he played 142 games for France. A final fun fact about Lilian Thuram: he scored exactly two goals. Those two goals. That’s how unfortunate it was; downed by a non-scoring right-back having the best of all possible days at the office. The complete, utter, and total bastard.

Šuker picked up the golden boot in the third-fourth playoff [and miles away in York cost Adam Bushby roughly £70 in the process (he had Gabriel Batistuta as top scorer you see) – ed], and Croatia took the bronze. It is futile to speculate how this side might have fared in the final, yet it is hard not to conclude that their vibrant, attacking football would have given them a real chance against what turned out to be a shellshocked and demoralised Brazil. But it was not to be and the team fell apart thereafter. Failure to qualify for Euro 2000 precipitated the resignation of maverick coach Miroslav Blaževič. By this time Boban had already gone; Prosinečki, Šuker and the rest would never hit the same heights again.

It remains my undying belief that this team deserves to rest, if not alongside, then certainly not far behind Cruyff’s Dutchmen, or Puskas’s Hungarians, as one of the finest to get within sight of the ultimate prize. And more importantly, for me at least, they were the glorious nearly-men that I fell in love with; a seductive, ridiculous, happy team that had everything and contrived to cock it all up. Tragedy sometimes has an allure that crass, simple triumph cannot hope to match.

Plus, those shirts. Those shirts were fucking cool.

Andi is responsible for the quite magnificent Twisted Blood and can be found on Twitter @Twisted_Blood


  1. Those shirts were cool. The šahovnica (chessboard) represents the five regions (horizontally) of Croatia and how all five are a patchwork of the former kingdoms of Red Croatia and White Croatia. The traditional design is with a red square in the top left corner but twice in their history (the Nazi puppet regime of the 1940s and the kingdom of 1918) they have gone with white square in the top left. So these days white square top left = right wing and apparently some fans even roll their sleeve round a bit and fasten it in place with a safety pin when they wear the shirt to demonstrate that they are rightist.

    The coat of arms is waay cool - it has a golden goat.

  2. Excellent stuff. It's great when the internet makes you realise there are others out there like you. Euro 96 rolled around when I was 12 too and I still associate that summer as much with Croatia (and their shirts) as with England. Has a football ever arced more beautifully than the one lobbed over Peter Schmeichel by Davor Šuker?

    Last year I wrote a little piece about Croatia and Yugoslavia in general for my own blog. Would a unified country have made the difference in 1998? I like to think so.