This article is a part of the 30 day Special Series from Football Bloody Hell devoted to the World Cup 2018.
When talking about World Cup triumphs, there is one we tend to fail to mention. In 1998, the Balkan region had just survived one of the bloodiest wars in the last century and the result of this war was the dissolving of Yugoslavia. It was divided into Serbia & Montenegro, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania and Slovenia. These were left to their own devices, left to fight their own battles and to develop their own democratic systems. This was no easy process, so when Croatia reached the World Cup in 1998, it was a triumph for a new nation, a nation that was in need of a national identity, something its people had been robbed of for years. This World Cup was something that could at least help bring the public some kind of a national identity, no matter how utterly dreadful they played.
However, they didn’t play too horribly. They shocked the entire world with their individual skill and tactical setup. Sure, they had reached the quarter-finals of the Euros two years earlier, but as an even more broken nation. Some in Europe perhaps knew that Croatia had something cooking, but the entirety of their success was something not even the most astute betting man could have guessed.
Slaven Bilic, Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Goran Vlaovic were the keys in this magnificent squad that ventured into areas unknown in the summer of ‘98. With tactical and individual brilliance were they the main shock of the tournament and after having beaten a few prolific teams on their way forward, they sadly lost against subsequent World Cup champions France at the illustrious Stade de France. While this wasn’t yet the end of their triumphant summer, this good run in the by far most prestigious championship in the world showed the world that Croatia was back, both as a footballing nation and as an institutional power in world politics. This is the story of a team that gave their nation an identity anew.
After having qualified from a group consisting of a few other Balkan nations together with the brilliant Denmark, they reached their first World Cup ever. In this world cup, they were placed in the same group as Argentina, Jamaica and Japan. Two rather easy teams at the time and one much more difficult one in Argentina. The Argentines had a decent team back then, consisting of players like Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega, but this team was the main and sole obstacle for an impressive Croatian side that managed to beat Jamaica 3-1 in their first-ever World Cup game. Main man Davor Suker showed glimpses of his Real Madrid form right away and instantly became their key player in attack. He was their focal point and their threat up top.
He was not seldom joined by Goran Vlaovic. Vlaovic played for Valencia at the time and had an impressive goal-scoring record in La Liga. Behind this axis, Croatia fielded Prosinecki as a left-winger, Asanovic, Zvonimir Soldo and Zvonimir Boban shared the two central midfield positions. The right-wing position was shared by a few players, but no player really made this his own. Left-back was occupied by versatile wing-back Robert Jarni, who had become a potent goal threat during his time at Real Betis, often bombing forward attacking and exposing spaces in the final third. Jarni scored his first and only goal for the Croatian national team during the summer of ‘98. The three remaining positions in defence was shared by Slaven Bilic, Igor Stimac and Dario Simic, where Igor Tudor got playing time as well, but due to his age (19) it was limited as his minor experience was deemed a problem. The goalkeeper was 34-year-old Drazen Ladic, an experienced campaigner who had played for capital side Dinamo Zagreb his whole life.
They lost against Argentina and had to beat Japan in order to reach the Round of 16. This was easier said than done as Japan had presented a defensive unit that was able to hold their own against both Argentina and Jamaica, but after an important goal by key striker Davor Suker, Croatia progressed as second-placed in the group. While this group was far from the group of death, this must be seen as a major success for a side partaking in its first World Cup ever. The Croatian team was inexperienced in general. Three players had taken part in the World Cup 1990, but for Yugoslavia. Davor Suker was only 22 years old at the time and got no playing time at all in the Yugoslavian squad that reached the Quarter Finals of what is often called the worst World Cup ever.
Croatia had now reached the Round of 16 in their first World Cup ever, with a squad without major international experience, having just survived one of the bloodiest wars Europe has seen in the last century. They had been major underdogs but had managed to go this far. This was already a success for the new nation, but they weren’t finished. Romania was their opponent in the nation’s first-ever knockout game in World Cup. They edged past Romania with 1-0 after a penalty from Suker, but the scoreline did not tell the exact story of the game. This penalty had been earned as Croatia had been piling on the pressure with their attacking wing-backs and mobile attack. Zvonimir Soldo and Boban had dictated play from the middle and the win was an obvious one. Romania was a decent side, but had lost most of the brilliance it showed at the 1994 World Cup. Croatia were through to the Quarter Final, where the first real obstacle presented itself.
Croatia’s way to the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup is like playing a game and encountering bosses and Germany was the first real test, a nation that had just won the Euros, but with a team on the decline. Boss Berti Vogts, the marking genius from the 1974 World Cup, had forged a decent team with minor quality. Comparing this team to the talented team that had won the Euros one year earlier was not something one was encouraged to do. Many players were now missing. They had left the national team on a high or had just retired, the sensational duo of Rudi Völler and Klinsmann had been dissolved and Berti Vogts had to field Ulf Kirsten, Oliver Bierhoff and an aging Klinsmann. Kaiserslautern’s title-winning striker Olaf Marschall was a possibility, but he was aging as well, and the mediocre Bierhoff-Kirsten duo was favoured. Lothar Matthäus still played football and still tended to show his presence with reckless challenges, but that was basically it. This was a German team in the midst of a generation shift and it was most definitely on the decline, which was on show two years later in the 2000 Euros.
So this was in no way Germany at the height of its power, but it was still Germany- an experienced animal with drive and passion, mixed with a very experienced manager who had experienced these kind of situations first hand. This game was in no way a stroll in the park for Croatia, or well, it wasn’t supposed to be. The game finished 3-0 to the Croatians after Jarni had opened the scoring with his first international goal from long range. Vlaovic had doubled the lead after 80 minutes. Then, Suker scored his fourth goal of the tournament in the 85th minute to send the Germans home in shame. The triumphant Croatians were ludicrously lucky, they had reached the semis in their maiden World Cup, a remarkable feat without a shadow of doubt.
So when they then ventured into even darker alleys, it was no real surprise that they were going to get robbed. They got pitted against Zidane’s France in the semis. The game was going to be played at the French national stadium, something that of course benefitted the multi-cultural French team more than the Croatians. The French story is important to tell as well. It was one of the most multi-cultural squads a nation had ever presented in a World Cup and players like Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry and Christian Karembeu represented the nation that had taken them in and nurtured them into normal members of society. To call this move lauded would be an exaggeration. The French people at this time had a tendency to be xenophobic, but many historians and sociologists claim that the World Cup in 1998 was a unifying feature, something that brought the entire people of France together- people of all cultures, genders and ethnicities. Therefore, it would in no way be an exaggeration to call the semi-final between France and Croatia a very important game for both countries. Croatia was on the prowl for a national identity, while France could unify its people with a World Cup win.
The semi-final was a calm affair in the beginning. Two teams playing controlled football. Both had clear focal points. France had Zidane, while the Croatians had Suker. The latter would become the one to break the deadlock. Suker scored an unexpected goal one minute into the second half. The Croatian fans were on uncharted levels of euphoria. Hrvatska actually had the lead against the hosts at their national stadium. The joy was short-lived though as Lilian Thuram equalized after only a few seconds. Thuram became the hero and the talking point of this game when he scored 2-1 in the 69th minute to send France through to an illustrious final. The Croatians had performed admirably at one of the best national team at the time, but their triumphant journey had come to an expected end in Saint-Denis.
However, this wasn’t really the end. Croatia still had a bronze match to play against the Netherlands, a team that had performed better than most would have expected. Dennis Bergkamp had been the key in this Dutch side, which also included the likes of Frank De Boer, Van der Saar, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Aron Winter. But as often is in the bronze match- the favorites tend to just give up. We saw this at the 2014 World Cup when the Dutch beat a broken Brazilian side 3-0 in the bronze game, even though the Brazilians had home advantage. In 1998, Croatia shocked the world once again by beating a great Dutch side 2-1. Davor Suker scored another goal and thus became the tournament’s top scorer on six goals.
Croatia’s triumphant summer of 98 must be seen as a real factor in the rebuilding of the nation after the war. It was another step towards a national identity as well as a step towards footballing greatness. It’s also another example of when an underdog goes on to shock the world, something most football romantics nowadays crave on a weekly basis. Humanity has grown very fond of underdogs, teams that do well against the odds and so have I. Triumphs like Croatia’s in 1998, Germany’s in 1954, Sweden’s in 1994 or the Greek European Championship in 2004 tend to make our love for the amazing sport grow and they really are the fine part of football.