It was no great surprise when Croatia reached a second successive FIFA World Cup finals in Korea and Japan. After all, there would be something wrong if the 19th-ranked soccer nation could not find a place at football's top table. Yet just as sure was the sense of relief in the streets of Zagreb and Split that the preliminaries were over and done with.
For two years earlier Croatia's stock was falling fast. A run of three wins in 15 games had dented their reputation abroad, while home fans were less than impressed by elimination from the UEFA European Championship. Failure to beat Yugoslavia in Zagreb in the teams' last Group Eight qualifier left Miroslav Blazevic's men third in the race for EURO 2000™ behind their Serbian rivals and Ireland.
End of the line
This seemed to spell the end of the line for the country's golden generation of players, the journey from heroes to villains now complete. Aljosa Asanovic, Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki, Mario Stanic, Igor Stimac and Davor Suker ... they had played for some of Europe's top clubs as well as their country at EURO '96™.
Yet their biggest achievement was in making Croatia a household name at France 98. The fledgling nation finished third after victories over Jamaica and Japan in the first round, then Romania and Germany en route to a semi-final meeting with the hosts. This they lost 2-1, yet Blazevic's side bounced back to beat the Netherlands in the third-place play-off. Suker's sixth goal of the finals secured both a 2-1 success and the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer.
'Proud to be Croatian'
"I said before we came to France that no one should underestimate us, that there was no limit to what we could achieve," Blazevic said at the time. "Proud to be Croatian," was the more succint message on supporters' T-shirts.
Rejuvenated by Jozic
That pride was hurting by the start of qualifying for the 2002 finals in Korea/Japan. However, former Yugoslavia Under-21 trainer Mirko Jozic rejuvenated a squad that was looking as tired as Blazevic's refrain about the third-best team in the world. Jozic replaced the latter in October 2000, and went on to register five victories and three draws as Croatia won Group Six ahead of Belgium, Scotland, Latvia and San Marino.
Jozic's men leapfrogged leaders Belgium on the last day after an Alen Boksic strike defeated the Red Devils in Zagreb. Boksic is one of a number of stars to have flirted with retirement from the national set-up - Bilic, Boban and Stimac went the whole hog. But along with Jarni, Prosinecki, Dario Simic and Igor Tudor, he gives experience to a group which includes the more youthful talents of striker Bosko Balaban, midfielder Igor Biscan and brothers Nico and Robert Kovac.
The old guard were the fruit of the old Yugoslavia. One of the last vestiges of that regime - and its attendant communist-style patronage - disappeared with the death in 2000 of former Croatia president Franjo Tudjman, a well known supporter of both the national team and NK Dinamo Zagreb. Now it remains to be seen how the new generation, and the domestic game as a whole, cope without the footballing certainties of the past.
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