Going out with a bang
Before a ball has been kicked at Euro 2004, it's first coaching casualty has been confirmed.
Worn down by constant media criticism, Croatia boss Otto Baric has decided to stand down after the finals. The news is hardly the ideal way for the Croats to gear up for tough Group B fixtures with France, England and Switzerland, but Baric's decision was far from a shock.
From the moment he took over from Mirko Jozic after the nation's disappointing World Cup 2002 campaign, local football writers have been attacking the 70-year-old on a number of fronts.
His safety-first tactics have riled many, then there is his alleged lack of man-management skills, not to mention his ever-changing line-up and, of course, it is easy to pick on his advanced age. Every aspect of his character has been dissected and support for Baric within the Croatian federation has been slowly but surely draining away as a result.
However, he will not be going quietly. On announcing his departure, he fired both barrels in the direction of his accusers: 'We've made it to Portugal, albeit through the play-offs, we're among the best 16 national teams in Europe,' he states. 'Everyone should be happy, but apparently it's not enough. Instead of happiness, all you hear is negativity.
'There is nothing constructive about the criticism. It's a moot point whether the writers could do my job. Criticism is fine if there's a reason for it. But in this instance, there's no justification.'
No longer able to call on such outstanding attacking-third talents as Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, the Croat Class of 2004 may not have as much individual skill as the side which finished third at France'98. However, under Baric's stewardship, Croatia have certainly gained in tactical discipline and defensive solidity. Not for nothing did they concede just five goals in ten games en route to Euro 2004.
'I think we have a team capable of becoming as good as the one which did so well at the 1998 World Cup, ' claims Baric. 'I've got a close-knit team with lots of courage, spirit and nerve. We know how to battle for results, most of the squad play in top European leagues and there's a lot of technical ability in our ranks too. This is our chance to show what we can do on the big stage.
'We've some great young players. Goalkeeper Pletikosa, striker Olic and midfielders Babic and Srna, have every chance of making a name for themselves in Portugal. Put them together with the older men like the Kovac brothers, Tudor, Zivkovic, Prso and Simic and you have the framework of a very competitive side.
'Provided we are lucky with injuries, which hasn't been the case this year, we can do well. What is vital is that we win our first match against Switzerland. If we don't we have a problem. Igor Tudor is suspended for that game which is a shame. He's a key man for us in the centre of defence, he has so much influence. It's more bad luck for him after missing the last World Cup through injury.'
Baric is right to place the emphasis on a winning start to Euro 2004. Once the Swiss are out of the way, the real work will begin for the Croats. 'We will need all our best players against the French and the English,' says Baric, who led Rapid Wien to the Final of the 1985 European Cup-winners' Cup, where they lost to Everton.
'We've drawn two of the best teams in the world and of course it will be difficult for us. The French have exceptional players in all areas of the pitch and we cannot expect them to under-achieve like they did at the 2002 World Cup. The vital thing for us will be not to show them too much respect, not to be intimidated by the presence of Zidane, Henry, Vieira and the others.
'England beat us in a friendly at the start of the season (3-1 in Ipswich) and they looked very good. Eriksson knows exactly what he is doing and they are especially strong in midfield with Beckham, Scholes and Gerrard. They are a team with enormous will to win and belief and that can take you a long way. We will have to be at our best to come out on top in this game.
'We're not afraid of either the French or the English. We have our own strengths which we hope to exploit. We have the right spirit and collective organisation. We don't need to hide away from anyone.'
Only the Croatian media seem to be sending a shiver of fear down the spine of the weary Otto Baric. Thierry Henry, David Beckham and the rest will be hoping that they can send him into retirement with little to remember from his final throw as a national team coach.