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Croatia captain Niko Kovač has told his team that victory tomorrow in their opening UEFA EURO 2008™ encounter with Austria would smooth their path towards the quarter-finals while defeat would not be a total disaster.
It did not help their qualifying chances four years ago in Portugal when Croatia began with a goalless draw against Switzerland and before they face another underdog team in the form of the co-hosts, Kovač rallied his men to produce a winning performance. "The first match is always very important because this is not a league with 34 rounds, where you can make a mistake and still become champions," the midfielder said.
"Austria are called outsiders but that does not mean that they don't have a chance," he added. "The favourite team does not necessarily qualify for the second stage. When it comes to the European Championship, you can not be sure where you stand. I have been here several weeks preparing while some others have only had three weeks. All of us who have played for a longer time have some experience but still you can't help being nervous because Austria are playing in their own country."
If the match at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion does not go according to Croatian plans then Kovač says all hope is not lost for Slaven Bilić's team. "The coach has already said that this result will not be a complete victory or a complete loss," he added. "But still, it is very important because it can set things going both for ourselves and the fans. We saw in France [at the FIFA World Cup 1998 when Croatia reached the semi-finals] how much easier it is to continue if you start with a victory."
Facing Austria has a special resonance for the 36-year-old who joined FC Salzburg two years ago having spent all his life in Germany where his clubs included Hertha BSC Berlin and FC Bayern München. "Two years ago I thought it was the summit to play against Germany where I was born and now this is another special situation to play against Austria where I live and work. My ties with Germany are stronger than those with Austria but of course I know all about Austria so nothing will go unnoticed here."
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