Croatia at France ’98: The culmination of a tireless journey
On 13 May 1990, Red Star Belgrade made the short trip to Croatia to take on regional rivals Dinamo Zagreb. A derby fraught with tension at the best of times, this was to prove to be a historic night for both clubs and their respective nations. It became a night so celebrated in Croatian history that the Bad Blue Boys, Zagreb’s hardcore fans, annually mark the date with a commemorative gathering.
The only date that can even be compared to it by Croatian football fans is 11 July 1998. After all, it’s not every day that a newly formed nation wins bronze at the FIFA World Cup – a record for a debutant team. But, we’ll get to that later.
Chaos at the Stadion Maksimir
Days before the match between Dinamo and Red Star, Croatia had witnessed an iconic election. In two rounds of voting between 22 April and 7 May 1990, in the nation’s first multi-party poll since the Second World War, the people turned out in droves to bring the Croatian Democratic Union to power. An overtly nationalistic party that despised being a part of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, the result was practically a popular vote for secession.
In a nation where football had long been an arena for protest, tensions were running high as the Belgrade-based team made their way to Zagreb the following weekend. Around 3,000 Delije members, Red Star’s hardcore fans, made their way west led by Zeljko Raznatovic – a Serbian nationalist who was already on Interpol’s most wanted list at the time, and would go on to be indicted for crimes against humanity during the upcoming Croatian War of Independence. The atmosphere at the Stadion Maksimir was predictably venomous.
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While there were clashes in the streets beforehand, the real violence erupted during the match. After incited by the Bad Blue Boys, Delije members started ripping out advertising boards and fences in a bid to get out of the segregated away section.
In response, the Croatian ultras also pushed forward and soon the police found themselves overwhelmed. When they returned with reinforcements and water guns, the match had turned into a riot. Even today, many Croatian football fans attribute that dark night in Zagreb as the unofficial trigger for the ensuing atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, back at the Maksimir, many of the players and non-violent fans were streaming out of the stadium towards safety. All except the young Dinamo captain, Zvonimir Boban, who attacked a police officer he felt was harassing the Croatian supporters. In response, the Bad Blue Boys closed ranks around their captain, simultaneously protecting him and continuing the fight with the Delije ultras.
When asked about the incident later, which led to a six-month ban, Boban responded, “Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause.” Today, Boban is better known as the captain who led his national side to an astonishing third place finish at the 1998 World Cup in France. But, we’ll get to that later.
The birth of the Croatian national team
Despite the viciousness of the riot, the Yugoslav authorities clearly had not understood the rage that simmered under the surface of Croatian society. At least, that is the only possible explanation for scheduling an international friendly between Yugoslavia and the Netherlands at the Maksimir on June 3, just a few weeks after the Red Star-Dinamo derby.
Thankfully, there was no violence this time around, but there were clear indications of Croatian hatred as the locals vehemently booed their own national team. The celebrations following the visitors 2-0 victory were almost as predictable as the backlash towards the hosts. Just in case the message had still not sunk in, fans of Hajduk Split forced a match to be cancelled on 26 September after tearing down and burning the Yugoslav flag from their own stadium.
A few days later, a Croatian businessman named Jure Klaric decided to take matters into his own hands. Klari convinced the American national team, who were touring Europe at the time, to make a detour to Zagreb. Thus, on 17 October 1990, Croatia played their first international match.
Despite being played at the same time as the under-21 European Championship final – in which many Croat talents like Davor Šuker and Robert Prosineki were turning out for Yugoslavia – the match attracted 30,000 people. Fittingly, the makeshift Croatian national team would go on to win the match 2-1 at the Stadion Maksimir, the birthplace of their footballing independence.
In the following years, and despite being host to one of the worst wars in recent history, the Croatian national team came on leaps and bounds. They were re-admitted to FIFA in July 1992, played (and won) their first official match a year later, and played (and won) their first competitive match in September 1994.
Under the guidance of legendary coach Miroslav Blaevi – the ‘coach of all coaches’ according to locals – the Croats eased through qualification for the 1996 European Championship, even reaching the quarterfinals at the tournament.
While it is tempting to state that destiny and a sense of national pride drove an ordinary team to extraordinary heights, it would not be true. Blaevi had an extraordinary amount of quasi-mythical names at his disposal, from the aforementioned Boban, Šuker and Prosineki to players like Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni and Aljoša Asanovic. The core group of his triumphant team first showcased their talent at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile in 1987.
Yugoslavia had travelled to Santiago under protest, as both the players and the administration thought the tournament was a waste of time. This attitude soon changed after their opening 4-2 victory over the hosts. The team fell in love with the host nation’s people and nightlife, and stormed to a deserved tournament victory. Along the way, they beat teams from countries as storied as West Germany and Brazil.
Slaven Bilic, current West Ham manager and erstwhile Croatian legend, claimed that the summer of 1987 was the first step towards their bronze medal in France. The success and sheer solidarity created by that tournament was adapted for the newly formed Croatian national squad a decade later.
That statement becomes all the more remarkable when you realise Bilic wasn’t even a part of the 1987 team. In fact, he was never selected for any level of the Yugoslavian national team because his father was a known Croatian separatist.
The immensely talented defender played international football for the first time at the age of 23, when Croatia opened their official account away against Australia in 1992. He would go on to become a mainstay of the national team, and one of Blaevi’s most important players in 1998. But, we’ll get to that soon.
“Soldiers on the Pitch”
While most neutral observers would have credited Šuker’s goals – six in seven matches to win the Golden Boot – or Boban’s leadership, Blaevi is clear that one person deserves overwhelming credit for the Bronze – Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.
During the qualifiers for the World Cup, Croatia dropped four points at home to Slovenia and Denmark, prompting a crisis of faith in Blaevi’s leadership. When the Croatian Football Federation demanded, and received, a resignation from their head coach, Tudjman stepped in to intervene. He called the Federation and threatened them to back off Blaevi. In the former manager’s own words, “if it had not been for him [Tudjman], I would not have been coach and Croatia would not have come third.”
Considering the socio-economic and political situation Croatia found themselves in after a devastating war of independence, the President’s willingness to get embroiled in a battle over the leadership of the national team was indicative of a national fervour. The Croats knew they had a special team, and when Blaevi’s men scraped past Ukraine in the qualifying play-offs, the supporters were expecting magic. However, even they couldn’t have foreseen what was to come.
Part of the uncertainty surrounding the Croatian national team came from their lack of international tournament experience. Having been barred from the 1994 tournament, only Šuker, Jarni and Prosineki had competed in a World Cup before – for Yugoslavia in 1990.
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They needn’t have worried, as Prosineki led the way against Jamaica in the Croats’ opening match. His decisive second goal in a 3-1 victory made him the first player to score a goal for two different nations at the World Cup.
Although they lost to Argentina in their final group game, a 1-0 victory over Japan secured Croatia’s place in the knockout stage. Once there, another 1-0 victory over Romania – a scoreline flattering the losers according to most match reports – took Blaevic’s men to a quarterfinal.
If their unexpected achievement wasn’t enough, there were also a couple of other reasons to be happy. Yugoslavia, which had become just Serbia and Montenegro by this point, had lost in the first knockout round. In addition to this nefarious source of motivation, Blaevi could also call upon the emotions of revenge as Croatia was drawn against Germany – the team that had knocked them out of the 1996 European Championship.
According to Bilic, Tudjman decided to take the squad out for lunch before the big day, in a bid to take the pressure off. However, it didn’t seem to have worked, as Germany came out roaring in the first half. After forty minutes of sustained pressure, Croatia had a stroke of luck that usually accompanies teams destined for glory.
Christian Wörns, Germany’s outstanding sweeper, lunged into a tackle against Šuker, leaving the referee no choice but to send him off. By half-time, the bewildered Germans were trudging off the pitch, having conceded a seemingly avoidable late goal by Robert Jarni.
If the first half had been a display of uncontrolled and lucky play by the Croatians, the second was a tactical masterpiece. Although the Germans pushed forward and created chances, as they had to, Blaevic’s men held them at a relatively safe distance while maintaining a threat on the counter.
Finally, after a pulsating match, the Šuker and Goran Vlaovic scored in the last ten minutes to put the Germans out of their misery. It was a low point in German footballing history, and they would respond by pouring funds into youth programs that would eventually deliver the World Cup in 2014. However, back in 1998, Croatia was astonishingly through to a semi-final against the hosts.
After a tense first half at the Stade de France in Paris, Davor Šuker put Croatia ahead in the 46th minute with his fifth goal of the tournament. It didn’t last long though, as Lilian Thuram scored the first of his two goals that night within a minute – the only goals he ever scored for France.
However, for one minute, Croatia could dream. A country that had not yet risen from the ashes of a destructive, genocidal war of independence was on the brink of an achievement even Leicester couldn’t match. In the end, they had to make do with bronze, after a deserved 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the third-place playoff.
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However, that was not all they won during that fateful summer in France. They earned the adulation of neutral supporters across the globe for their inventive and carefree football, while Blaevi became a cult hero by carrying around a gendarme’s hat in solidarity with a French police officer that was put into a coma by German thugs early during the tournament.
Even today, the iconic red and white checks on the Croatian jersey invoke a sense of rebellion, of desire, of a passion that doesn’t subside when you realise that you don’t call Zagreb home.
This emotion is only strengthened when you realise what the players themselves had gone through. Petar Krpan, a substitute forward, had fought in the war. Asanovic, who lost two close friends in the fighting, described Croatian sporting achievements with the phrase “small country, big players, very big players.” Štimac, whose brother fought in a triage unit, said that the team was in France to show the Serbs that “football was still alive, that we [Croats] were still alive.”
As is only fitting, the last word should belong to the radical, socialist, rock star, nationalist defender that is Slaven Bilic: “Before [during the 1996 tournament]. We had just come out of the war and we were like soldiers on the pitch, making our country recognised. We’re still doing that, but, thank God, now we are a normal country. It takes the pressure off. It should be down to pure football.”
The Croatian team of 1998 showed the world that death and destruction doesn’t have to end in despair. Instead, their long, tireless journey had culminated in perhaps the greatest achievement in World Cup history.