Croatia evokes memories of 1998 semifinal squad

It’s been two decades since a World Cup debutant rolled all the way to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion.

Playing in its first World Cup since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia finished second to Argentina in Group F and knocked off Romania (1-0) and Germany (3-0) before falling to France and pair of Lillian Thuram goals, 2-1. Davor Suker tallied his sixth goal in the third-place game (2-1 defeat of the Netherlands) to win the Golden Boot as top scorer.

Comparisons to that remarkable Croatian team and its array of stars -- Zvonimir Boban, Slavan Bilic, Robert Jarni, Suker -- have dogged the national team ever since. Three subsequent appearances (2002, 2006, 2014) have ended in the first round and though the current team has already qualified for the round of 16 with one group match to spare, it’s a long way from matching that remarkable run 20 years ago.

Yet while dismantling Argentina, 3-0, Thursday as a sequel to its 2-0 opening-game defeat of Nigeria, Croatia showed its has similar attributes as the 1998 team. It has a potent lineup of attackers headed by Luka Modric, whose superb strike into the bottom corner clinched victory in the 80th minute. It has a smothering defense anchored by Dejan Lovren that has blocked 11 shots while logging two shutouts. Croatia has enough skill to hold the ball as well as the pace to hit quickly on the counterattack.

And it has the confidence of winning its first two games, as did the 1998 team, as well as knocking off the opponent to which it fell 20 years ago in the last group match. It took advantage of a nervous Nigeria (which scored an own goal) in the opener and also took at least some credit for the dismal showings of Lionel Messi in particular and Argentina in general.

“This result and Argentina’s poor display was due to our good game, our compact block all over the pitch, particularly when we didn’t have the ball,” said Modric in a postgame press conference. “We cut off the lines of passing, we wanted to avoid Messi getting the ball… I believe that we played a fantastic game.”

Modric had already played an excellent game in the defeat of Nigeria. His penalty kick iced a performance that indicated that despite finishing behind Iceland in European qualifying play and reaching the World Cup via a playoff defeat of Greece, Croatia had the horses to make a strong run in Russia.

Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is an imposing presence at 6-foot-3 and in his wake Modric and Ivan Rakitic take turns swapping passes and scything through defenses on the dribble. Wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic command the flanks. Outside backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsajko are quick and tough tacklers as well as accurate passers.

Croatia has also showed commendable discipline and unity. Piqued at being left out of the starting lineup, striker Nikola Kalinic refused to enter the Nigeria match as a substitute. He complained of a back problem, as he had when called upon as a sub in a warmup match against England. Whether the cause was fitness or defiance, by Monday he was on a plane home.

Head coach Zlatko Dalic earned praise for that move as well as the tactical ploy of designating Marcelo Brozovic as one of the players to shadow Messi. When Argentina moved the ball and the Croatians shifted to cover, Brozovic or another player would step to Messi. As a result, Argentina seldom got the ball to Messi in a large enough space for him to unleash a daring dribble or spark a sharp one-two.

“Over the last few days we haven't looked at tactics because I wanted to relieve my players of the stress,” said Dalic. “We had good scouts and we analyzed the opposition well. We adapted our style to them. Let's enjoy this moment.

“In the first half we were compact and created three sitters but we failed to score. That's why I told the players in the second half that we will create more chances but we had to press higher.”

The high press forced a terrible mistake by Argentine keeper Willy Caballero in the 53rd minute. His weak chip of a back pass floated toward Rebic, who elegantly struck the ball first-time past the stranded keeper and into the net. With the advantage, Croatia stepped up the tempo of its possession play and pressure, to which the shaky Argentines could not resist.

Croatia needs only a tie in its group finale against Iceland to top the group and set up a round-of-16 match against the runner-up in Group C, which could be France, Denmark or Australia. Meeting France would offer a chance of redemption for the 1998 semifinal, which Croatia briefly led, 1-0, early in the second half.

At that World Cup, incidents involving Croatian fans marred the image of their team. Hundreds of fans showed the Nazi salute during the playing of their national anthem. The Croatian federation has been fined numerous times by FIFA and UEFA for incidents involving fans’ right-wing incidents and racist chants. Two years ago at the European Championships, UEFA fined the Croatian soccer federation $100,000 and threatened to ban ticket sales in the wake of fights and violent incidents triggered by Croatian fans.

There have been no reports of such behavior so far at this World Cup, and more performances like those against Nigeria and Argentine may swing support to a team first formed in the wake of the 1990 World Cup. In October of that year, a Croatian XI -- missing stars such as Alen Boksic, Robert Prosinecki, Boban, Suker and Jarni, who were playing for Yugoslavia in the U-21 European Championships -- beat the U.S. national team, 2-1, in the capital of Zagreb.

At this World Cup there is no U.S. team, and along with the traditional powers at least one that strives to match past accomplishments.

“I think that we will win over additional fans,” said Dalic after the rout of Argentina. “Whoever watched this match, whoever watched Croatia play, will surely start rooting for Croatia.”
3 comments about "Croatia evokes memories of 1998 semifinal squad".
  1. frank schoon, June 23, 2018 at 10:09 a.m.

    I hope Croatia wins the World Cup. It would be great for them and for their country and for soccer in the Balkans and hopefully it will instill a momentum that we can create more great players from that region...

  2. beautiful game, June 23, 2018 at 10:40 a.m.

    Croatia produced a solid team effort in trouncing Argentina which has been struggling from day one in WC qualifiers and has found no solution.

  3. frank schoon replied, June 23, 2018 at 1:47 p.m.

    Argentina can go home ,as far as I'm concerned. I'm tired of looking at that coach and the lack of inspiring play. As far as Brazil goes, they don't do anything for me, for they rely more on solo dribbles and cute 1v1. I loved Brazil in the days when they set the tone for soccer like Barcelona a a decade ago. After '82 world cup it has been downhill for me for Brazil....

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