Despite off-field chaos, limited resources, Croatia in final
MOSCOW (AP) — Davor Suker was discussing the magnitude of Croatia's achievement reaching the World Cup final when he was interrupted in the Moscow hotel lobby by a familiar figure.
One man is always "boss" for the former Arsenal and Croatia striker.
"Davor," inquired Arsene Wenger, his coach at Arsenal. "You want to take revenge against us?"
It has been 20 years since Wenger's homeland of France stopped a Croatia side featuring Suker in the semifinals of the World Cup.
Now Croatia, with Suker as head of the country's soccer federation, has gone a stage further at the FIFA showpiece. Victory over France in Moscow on Sunday would hand Croatia its first major soccer title, one final twist in this World Cup where the established order has been shaken.
"We're a small nation but a big nation in football," Suker said. "We made third place (in 1998). Now we can be better."
Long after the powerhouses of Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain departed Russia — a tournament that the United States, Italy and others didn't even qualify for — Croatia is still standing, showing that the teams with the biggest budgets don't always prosper on the field.
"We just find a solution in football. We do hard work," Suker said. "Resources are limited but (there are) school games, street games and we just find the key to success and we just keep going."
Just reaching the final ensures Croatia will bank $28 million. Winning it secures another $10 million from FIFA for a federation that operates on a budget of 30 million euros ($35 million), according to Suker.
Leading Croatia into the final is a chance for coach Zlatko Dalic to publicly appeal for some of that windfall to be reinvested to infrastructure and developing the game domestically.
"This is a huge problem," Dalic said through a translator. "I hope something may be kick-started because if not now, when? I want to highlight conditions we work in and others. We have God-given talent, character and pride but in all other respects we are lacking.
"Many things will have to change back home and this is an ideal opportunity for me to highlight it. Football and other sports have brought so much joy to Croatia that we must bring attention to it."
Croatia lacks a stadium with a capacity exceeding 35,000. Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where the final will be held, seats 81,000. England, which Croatia beat in the semifinals at Luzhniki, plays home matches in the 90,000-seat Wembley.
"We do not have an adequate stadium to play in," Dalic said. "This is why we are a miracle. This is why we have such players who brought us joy and happiness."
But it has not been a smooth journey to the final. As Dalic acknowledges: "There were too many negative things about our national team."
Two members of the World Cup delegation have been sent home. Striker Nikola Kalinic was banished for refusing to come on as substitute in the opening game against Nigeria. Assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic was expelled earlier in the week for making a pro-Ukraine video with defender Domagoj Vida, prompting jeers from the Luzhniki crowd on Wednesday.
"There really wasn't any kind of a scandal," midfielder Ivan Rakitic said Friday. "This whole affair with Vida we have managed to put it all behind us. Everybody has a very positive image of our players."
But an ongoing corruption case cast a cloud over the team.
Damir Vrbanovic, the director general of the soccer federation, has been at matches despite being convicted last month in an embezzlement and tax evasion case linked to the transfer of captain Luka Modric from former Dinamo Zagreb to Premier League club Tottenham in 2008. Modric, who has declined to discuss the case at the World Cup, has been charged with perjury. Former Dinamo teammate Dejan Lovren is also under investigation for suspected false statements as his transfer to Lyon in 2010 is investigated.
"I try to deflect negative things from players, the national team and squad," Dalic said. "It's easy to slip into problems. We had many and if I were to create more as a coach we wouldn't stand a chance. I had to be the one to focus on the positives."
Croatia has routinely been fined or forced to play in empty stadiums when hosting World Cup and European Championship qualifiers over discriminatory chants and imagery, including a swastika that was drawn on the field before a home game last year, and fans fighting with each other.
"The cult of our national team was in tatters," Dalic said. "There were many people who boycotted the national team but now there are people out in the street celebrating."
It is why, for once, Suker is willing to talk to The Associated Press. No longer are there only scandals on the Croatia soccer agenda. There could be silverware to take home.
"I'm so glad," he said, "and I'm so excited to have all this celebration."