Croatia opened their Euro 2016 on Sunday with a deserved 1-0 win over Turkey that should have seen a more comfortable winning margin. With the three points secured, they will now be looking to seal a Round of 16 place by beating the Czech Republic in St Etienne on Friday. Tom Simmonds thinks that this should be the least we expect of the men in red and white check.
Croatia will forever be the answer to a pub quiz question, as the team who finished third in the World Cup just over five years after being officially recognised by UEFA. That achievement is the foundation stone of Croatia’s comfort with tournament football since they made their debut at one in Euro 96. Two quarter finals in the Euros and that third place in 1998 is impressive for such a young nation.
Their Euro 96 run coincidentally also began win a 1-0 win over Turkey, and they quickly marked themselves out as purveyors of attractive, attacking football. Their performances at Euro 96 reminded fans that the Yugoslavian team that was broken up by the Balkan Civil War, which contained a significant Croatian contingent, would almost certainly have won Euro 92 had they not been expelled, and would have gone close to winning the 1994 World Cup were Yugoslavia still a nation at that time.
The 1996 adventure, fuelled by the goals of the lethal striker Davor Šuker and the clever promptings of Zvonimir Boban and Aljoša Asanović, was ended in the quarter finals by the pedestrian German side who won that tournament almost by default. Revenge was to be Croatia’s at the same stage of the 1998 World Cup in France, when goals from Robert Jarni, an early prototype of a modern full-back, Goran Vlaović, and Šuker secured a 3-0 win over a German side hurtling towards their Year Zero moment.
These feats, while remarkable, can be better understood if we look back to when that brilliant Yugoslavian side was in its infancy. This team won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 with Šuker, Prosinečki, Jarni, Boban and centre-back Igor Štimac all in the squad. They were also bubbling under a senior side who arguably should have won the 1990 World Cup (they were knocked out by Argentina in the quarter finals on penalties).
It was Croatia who ensured that England did not qualify for Euro 2008, where their last deep run, into the quarter finals where the lost on penalties to, you guessed it, Turkey. England’s non-qualification led some pundits and publications who tend to fixate on these things to speculate that a brand of ultra-nationalism engendered by Croatia’s traumatic journey into nationhood was adding an extra frisson to the team’s play. This invoked yet again the tired-and untrue-line that England’s players cared less than those who made up other international teams.
It is also a view which massively insults the excellent football that Croatia have played since their inception, and played in 2008 under Slaven Bilić. That vintage, which made a star out of Luka Modrić, won all three of their group games, including a 2-1 win over finalists Germany, before being denied a semi-final place by an injury time equaliser from Semih Şentürk before their unlucky exit.
The current squad is packed with dangerous options, which includes two world class playmakers in Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, who are good enough to start regularly for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. A richly talented midfield triumvirate is completed by Inter’s Ivan Perišić who, despite his missing a sitter against Turkey, is a potent weapon in his own right.
For a young nation, there is already a muscle memory of making progress in tournaments embedded in Croatian football. There have been failures too (failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and a poor showing in Brazil last time out, for example), but these are inevitable for all nations, as the Netherlands can tell you now. With the early win Croatia have got behind them, and a performance which promises more in the games to come, the 18-1 you can get on Croatia looks a sound each-way investment.
Do you agree that Croatia represent the best outside bet to lift the trophy? Who are your dark horses?
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