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Rigg: Fringe players get Real shot

Real Madrid about an hour ago
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May 30, 2006

Recreating the heroics of 1998?

History

Croatia go into their third consecutive World Cup finals looking to find the kind of performance which saw them finish third on their debut appearance in 1998.

The nation joined international football in 1990 after the break up of the old Yugoslavia. They were able to call on some of Yugoslavia's bigger names, including Robert Prosinecki who had been named the best young player at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Since then the only tournament they have failed to qualify for is Euro 2000. They made their first appearance at Euro 96 in England, emerging from a group which included Portugal, Denmark and Turkey as runners-up before going out to eventual winners Germany in the quarter-finals.

That experience served them well when they made it to the 1998 World Cup in France. Buoyed by the goals of striker Davor Suker, Croatia impressed as they reached the semi-finals by claiming revenge for their Euro 96 exit to Germany by thumping them 3-0.

That victory booked a last-four showdown with hosts France and it looked as though another upset was on the cards when Suker scored the opener. But France came back in the second half to turn it around and send Croatia crashing out. That game also brought one of the most infamous moments of the finals as Slaven Bilic's amazing piece of play-acting saw Laurent Blanc sent off and suspended from the final.

Croatia went on to finish third in France, beating Holland 2-1 in the play-off. Suker was again on target, with his seventh of the tournament, and finished with the Golden Boot.

With many of their best players soon entering their dotage, Croatia have struggled to repeat those heroics in tournaments since and missed out on Euro 2000. Despite beating Italy in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, they lost to both Mexico and Ecuador meaning they failed to make it to the knockout rounds. And it was a similar story at Euro 2004 as, though drawing with Switzerland and France, they went out after losing to England in the final match of the group stage.

It's difficult to predict what's in store for the Croatians this summer. They have a tough task with clear favourites Brazil also in Group F. But with Japan and Australia taking the remaining two places it is wide open for the second spot in the group. Much will depend on how Australia adapt to life among the elite and how Zico's Japan cope with the different challenges playing the game in Europe presents.

Even so, with either Italy or the Czech Republic likely to lie in wait for those who progress from Group F few would predict anything more optimistic than a place in the Round of Sixteen.

The gaffer

Zlatko Kranjcar is the man charged with reviving the fortunes of Croatia on the world stage. Kranjcar's appointment after Euro 2004 did not meet with universal approval, but in leading the nation to automatic qualification he his silence those who were opposed to his selection as successor to Otto Baric.

A playing legend for Dinamo Zagreb, where he played 556 first team games and scored 99 goals, the club's mascot was created in homage to Kranjcar and carries his nickname - 'Cico'.

He played for both Yugoslavia and Croatia as an international. The forward won 11 caps for Yugoslavia in a six-year spell. And he has the distinction of being the first ever captain of the Croatian national side when wearing the armband as they entered international football against the United States in October 1990.

Kranjcar moved into coaching in 1991 and his first managerial job came a year later with Segesta. His first taste of success came with Croatia Zagreb, who he took over in 1994, leading the club to the Croatian double in his first season. He then coached Austrian club FC Linz, NK Slaven Belupo and NK Samobor before returning to Croatia Zagreb.

It was a triumphant return for the coach as he again won both the championship and the FA Cup - as well as leading the side into the Champions League. After brief spells in Egypt and Slovenia with FC El Masry and NK Mura respectively, he again won the Croatian championship - this time with NK Zagreb.

Croatia turned to Kranjcar after Euro 2004, but many claimed he wasn't a strong enough character to lead the national side. There was more criticism when he selected his son, Niko, in his first squad. The irony was that the very same journalists had slammed Baric's decision not to name him in the European Championships squad.

Those critics were soon silenced when Croatia held off the challenge of perennially strong qualifiers Sweden to top Group Eight with an unbeaten record. The victory in Sweden in the latter part of qualifying was impressive and all but sealed Croatia's place in the finals.

Kranjcar changed Croatia's style to employ wing-backs alongside a strong central midfield partnership. But it has been the performances of his son which propelled the side forward.

One to watch

Those who doubted his ability on the international stage have been proved very wrong. Niko Kranjcar is now a vital member of the side, sitting behind a two-pronged forward line and looking to open up the opposition.

Such has been the impact of Niko in World Cup qualifying that his performances have drawn comparisons with France's Zinedine Zidane plus England and Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard. The Hajduk Split star featured in nine out of Croatia's ten qualifying matches - the only player from the Croatian league to be a regular in the team.

The 21-year-old was earmarked for great things at a young age, dubbed 'the greatest promise of Croatian football' when aged 16 and was linked with Juventus, Barcelona and AC Milan. Weeks before he turned 17 he scored on his league debut for Dinamo Zagreb and at the start of 2002/03 became the youngest player to captain the club - that season they won the championship.

As well as winning an FA Cup with Zagreb, he was also voted into second place in the Croatia Player of the Year poll. He cost Split a fee in the region of £1million when moving in January 2005.

Considering all the hype over his ability it must be a surprise that he did not make his competitive international debut until his father took charge.

Now he is an integral member of the side and if Croatia are to make an impact at the finals much will depend on how he adapts to being among the world's elite. If he does impress it's unlikely he'll be returning to Hadjuk Split.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.