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Croatia keeping up appearances

Croatia and its footballers have profited from the chance to shine on their own independent feet.

Croatia keeping up appearances
Croatia keeping up appearances ©AFP/Getty Images

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, where they finished third in the group behind eventual finalists Spain and Italy. Croatia continued their successful streak of qualifying for final tournaments, reaching the 2014 World Cup and UEFA EURO 2016. In the latter final round, Croatia defeated title-holders Spain and won their group, reaching the last 16.

In 2012, Croatia hosted the UEFA Futsal EURO, enjoying a historic success in front of their home fans by reaching the semi-finals for the first time.

Croatia’s Under-19 team finished third in the European championships in 2010 - emulating a previous generation in 1998, when the competition was an Under-18 event, and third place also went to the Under-16 team in 2001, before the championship became an Under-17 competition.

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.


Davor Šuker

Davor Šuker
Davor Šuker©Getty Images

Nationality: Croatian
Date of Birth: 1 January 1968
Association president since: 2012

• Davor Šuker helped Yugoslavia win the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile, and in the wake of Croatian independence, emerged as a star striker – and was voted as Croatia's Golden Player to mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004.

• Šuker won a Spanish title and the 1997/98 UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid CF, and his six goals at the 1998 FIFA World Cup helped him to win the Golden Shoe, while Croatia took bronze medals. He also enjoyed fine spells with hometown side NK Osijek, GNK Dinamo Zagreb, Sevilla FC and Arsenal FC.

• Involved with the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) since 2010, Šuker assisted in particular in the work of the regional football bodies. Always considered as an ambassador for Croatian football, he has looked to continue in that role as HNS president, and is now preparing for a second term, this time of four years, after being re-elected in April 2014. He was elected as a member of the UEFA Executive Committee at the XXXIX Ordinary UEFA Congress in Vienna on 24 March 2015.

General secretary

Marijan Kustić

Marijan Kustić
Marijan Kustić©HNS

 Nationality: Croatian
Date of birth: 10 February 1975
Association executive president since: 2019

• Marijan Kustić came to his current position in April 2019, having worked at the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) as director of competitions and infrastructure, a role which he began in January 2018. He is also a former member of the HNS executive board for Lika-Senj County, and he was also in charge of several managing roles in regional football.

• Kustić has an active political career. He is a former member of the eighth constituency and current member of the ninth constituency of the Croatian parliament. In his parliament role, he is a member of the Tourism Committee, Local and Regional Self-Government Committee and Gender Equality Committee.

• Until 2006, he was an active player for lower-division club NK Novalja. Following his playing career, he was a director of the same club, before moving into other football roles and duties.