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Croatia hopes to emulate past victories

Coach Zlatko Kranjcar feels, the team has the potential to win the tournament provided they beat Japan and Australia to reach the next round.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 16:50 IST

The fledgling Balkan country has a considerable pedigree since joining FIFA in 1992. It has qualified for five of six major international tournaments, including the last three World Cups.

In Germany, the Croats hope to emulate their maiden World Cup appearance in France 1998, where they finished third.

Pele has singled Croatia out as one of the hidden favorites of this year's tournament - most probably swayed by the team's recent 3-2 victory over two-time world champion Argentina in a warm-up match.

The Croats also led five-times champion Brazil in another friendly before having to settle for a 1-1 draw.

In its short history since winning independence in 1991, Croatia has only lost five European Championship or World Cup qualifying matches. The team finished undefeated atop Group 8 in qualifying, beating rivals Sweden and Bulgaria.

In the last two World Cups, they have racked up victories over Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

The successful road to Berlin has rekindled passions in the soccer-mad country of 4.2 million and raised hopes that a new crop of talented players could fill the shoes of the storied '98 generation.

Besides the trademark red-and-white checkered jerseys, many still remember captain Zvonimir Boban, who helped AC Milan to a string of league and European titles; Robert Prosinecki, who wore the colors of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona; and Davor Suker, who won the 1998 World Cup golden boot award as the top striker.

"It may sound far-fetched, but we could go as far as they did, maybe further," coach Zlatko Kranjcar said. "If we are spared injuries and luck goes our way, we can beat anyone - even Brazil."

The Croatians will have a chance to do just that. They are in Group F with the titleholders, as well as Japan and Australia.

"Realistically, Brazil is in a world of their own. The key to the next round depends on our matches with Japan and Australia. After that, anything is possible," Kranjcar said.

Croatia bid farewell to their old stars in South Korea and Japan four years ago, exiting prematurely after a win against three-times champion Italy, but costly losses to Mexico and Ecuador.

Kranjcar took over the national squad after it flopped at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal under defensive-minded Otto Baric.

A former striker who captained Croatia in its first international match against the United States in 1990, Kranjcar returned players to their natural positions, reviving the team's creative flair and impulse to attack.

The strategy revolves mostly around his son, Niko, who is tasked with feeding the team's front men or moving into a scoring opportunity by him.

The backline is Croatia's main forte, with current and former Juventus defenders Robert Kovac and Igor Tudor acting as pillars alongside AC Milan's Dario Simic and Hertha Berlin's Joe Simunic.

Rangers forward Dado Prso spearheads the attack. A spirited fighter with a gentle touch when it comes to finding the net, Prso scored five goals in the qualifying phase.

"Croatia is not one of the favorites, but we're certainly dangerous for all of the favorites," Prso said.

First Published: May 08, 2006 16:50 IST