The break-up of the old political and geographical order in the Balkan region presented Croatia and its footballers with the opportunity to shine on their own talented feet. A gifted generation quickly took the country to an eminent place on the world stage and hopes are high that future Croatian players can further enhance that reputation.
Croatia's first clubs were founded in Zagreb in 1903: namely, First Football and Sport Club, and Croatian Academical Sport Club. The Croatian Football Federation (Hrvatski nogometni savez or HNS) followed nine years later, being established in the same city on 13 June 1912. Teams from the regions of Istria and Dalmatia were precluded from joining because they fell under Austrian rule.
The first national championship therefore featured only sides from Zagreb – five in total – when it began on 26 September 1912. The new competition was interrupted, however, as Austria-Hungary entered the First World War in 1914, and sporting activity ceased until the hostilities ended. In 1918, after the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes came into being (it was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929), the HNS was incorporated into a parent Yugoslav Football Association (FSJ) which was created in April 1919 and based in Zagreb. Controversy arose in 1929 when an FSJ assembly decided to move the association headquarters to Belgrade.
The HNS was re-formed in 1939 and gained widespread autonomy with the formation that August of the Highest Football Association of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This confederate system gave the HNS the right to organise international matches, the first of which was a 4-0 Croatia victory over Switzerland in Zagreb on 2 April 1940. When Yugoslavia disintegrated after the outbreak of World War Two, the HNS functioned within an Independent State of Croatia. It was admitted as a full FIFA member on 16 July 1941.
In 1945 the Federative People's Republic of Yugoslavia was born, although the change hardly affected the HNS which continued to operate in the territory of the People's Republic of Croatia as part of the new state. Croatian teams and players were able to take a successful part in the European club competitions. GNK Dinamo Zagreb reached the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (forerunner of the UEFA Cup) final in 1962/63 before lifting the trophy in 1966/67; they were also European Cup Winners' Cup semi-finalists in 1961. Later, HNK Hajduk Split contested two European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-finals, a UEFA Cup quarter-final and a Cup Winners' Cup semi-final; HNK Rijeka, meanwhile, made the last eight of the Cup Winners' Cup in 1978/79 and the same stage of the UEFA Cup in 1983/84.
On 8 October 1991, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatia regained full independence and became a member of the United Nations. The HNS renewed its FIFA membership in July 1992 before joining UEFA on 16 June 1993. Croatia's national side soon made their presence felt by progressing to the EURO '96 quarter-finals on their major championship debut. They went one better at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, finishing third after losing the semi-final to hosts France. Croatia later qualified for four successive final tournaments: the 2002 World Cup, UEFA EURO 2004, the 2006 World Cup and UEFA EURO 2008 – as quarter-finalists in Austria/Switzerland. Although Croatia missed the qualification cut for the 2010 World Cup, they were back in contention at UEFA EURO 2012.
The country's footballers certainly have a rich legacy to uphold. Bernard Vukas, Vladimir Beara, Zlatko Čajkovski and Branko Zebec were in the FIFA team that played a commemorative international in London in 1953; Dražan Jerković and Davor Šuker top-scored at the 1962 and 1998 World Cups; and Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban were the best players at the 1987 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile. Their successors have been no less impressive, with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić being two of the best midfielders in Europe, representing Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona respectively. Past players also figure prominently among the nation's football administration: Davor Šuker now serves as HNS president while former Croatia captain Niko Kovač is national coach.
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