Pooled alongside world and European champions Spain and Italy in Group C, luck did not exactly smile on Croatia in the UEFA EURO 2012 draw, but captain Darijo Srna is still happy enough.
The 29-year-old FC Shakhtar Donetsk captain might have been tempted to abandon any dreams of reaching the quarter-finals after the groups for the final tournament were decided, but while it looks grim for Slaven Bilić's side, Srna was thrilled at the opportunities that lay ahead.
"Our group is not that bad," he told UEFA.com. "Playing against Spain; it's every player's dream. Then you have Italy and the Republic of Ireland; the whole world will be watching those matches, and we can reach the knockout phase. Spain are favourites to win EURO, but our meeting with them will be interesting. And our first match against the Republic of Ireland will be very dangerous. They have a big coach in Giovanni Trapattoni. But, I think it will be good for us; we need to win that match."
The only minor disappointment for Srna in the wake of the draw was that Croatia would be playing their games in Poznan and Gdansk, Poland, rather than in his adopted home country. "I am really sorry that we won't be playing in my Ukraine," he said. "We had Shakhtar's training camp as our first-choice base but that is not an option now as it is too far from Poznan. We would have had a perfect environment there.
Maybe more fans from Croatia will come to Poland as it is closer than Ukraine, but our fans would follow us to the end of the earth."
Croatia justified the faith of their travelling supporters with a 3-0 play-off win in Turkey, which coupled with a 0-0 draw at home sealed their progress to the finals, and helped erase any bitter memories of an up-and-down qualifying campaign. "I am glad it ended this way and that we reached the finals through the play-offs," said Srna. "We showed great character. We had never been under such pressure, and our success is all the greater as a result."
Next summer's finals will loom that little but larger for Srna now that Shakhtar have been eliminated from the UEFA Champions League. "It's not the end of the world," he shrugged. "We are doing our best – our president and coach know that. We will try again next year."
Moreover, while clubs like Chelsea FC and FC Barcelona showed interest in him in the past, Srna insists he has never regretted joining the Pitmen from HNK Hajduk Split in 2003.
"It's very nice to play and live in Donetsk; people are crazy about football here. We have conditions that much bigger clubs in Europe probably cannot match," he said, adding: "I am not sorry that I never joined a big club in western Europe. I will never be sorry. If I could have my time again, I would do the same.
"I am proud of what I have done. I came here when the club was at a low level," continued Srna. "Now, Shakhtar are among the best clubs in Europe, and I have been the captain for five years. I have won a lot of trophies, I was in the UEFA Champions League team of the week last season, and all with Shakhtar. It's much more difficult to do that with Shakhtar than with Barcelona. It's a big honour for me."
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