Five things about Croatia before they start the European Championship finals in Group D against Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey:
Croatia burst onto world football stage
Croatia existed briefly as a football entity between 1940 and 1944 before becoming a part of Yugoslavia. After the communist state crumbled, Croatia joined Uefa and Fifa in 1993. Only three years later, the Croats made their international tournament debut at Euro ‘96 and two years on stunned the football world by finishing third at the 1998 World Cup in France. Davor Suker, now the Croatia football federation president, finished the tournament’s top scorer.
High hopes for Euro 2016
Now Croatia has great expectations of Croatia’s current crop at Euro 2016 -- if the fans can get behind Ante Cacic’s side instead of living up to their reputation for causing trouble. Real Madrid pair Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan pair Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are among Croatia’s top players, although the country has been plagued by fan violence and hooliganism over the years.
At Euro 2016, Croatia face the Czech Republic, Turkey and Spain in what should be a tightly-contested Group D. Their June 21 clash with defending European champions Spain is expected to hold the key to progress to the last 16 knockout round. Goals by Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki, part of Croatia’s ‘golden generation’, secured a 2-0 win over Spain in a historic first clash in Valencia in 1994. But since then Croatia have drawn one and lost three, including a 1-0 loss at Euro 2012.
Despite the importance of the final Group D game against Spain, Croatia fans will be eagerly awaiting June 12 for what will be their fifth meeting in European Championship competition, including qualifying, against Turkey at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Turkey, who like Croatia made their Euro debut in 1996, have beaten Croatia only once in official competition -- a 3-1 penalty shoot-out victory in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008. Four years later, Croatia made amends by thumping Turkey 3-0 thanks to goals from Vedran Corluka, Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic in the play-offs to qualify for Euro 2012.
Resistance to Cacic
If Croatia make an impact in France, it will come in spite of fans’ initial resistance to the appointment of coach Ante Cacic, who ran a television and radio repairshop for 13 years up to 1991 in one of Zagreb’s busiest shopping thoroughfares. “I had a shop in Ilica street,” Cacic told the Vecernji list daily on his appointment last October. But Cacic, also a one-time coffee shop owner, admits he is now more up to speed coaching football than repairing televisions. Asked if he could repair a TV set now, he replied smiling: “No chance! I would not know how to open it. It’s a different world.”