Croatia’s highest pedestal in international football was the surprising third-place finish in France 1998. Star attacker Davor Suker led the Croats to glory, seven years after independence and three years after the war that ensued from their split from Yugoslavia.
Football would be the rallying point for nationals and the year came earlier than they could ever have imagined. Ten years after their French miracle, a similarly miraculous outing in Austria and Switzerland merely ended in an optical illusion; a mirage.
Slaven Bilic: A Star From A Miracle
Slaven Bilic was a defender in his playing days and he starred in France 98 where he impressed with his ruggedness and energetic spirit.
Ten years after he played a great role as part of the 1998 team, he led his nation to the Euros and dared them to dream. Eccentric and electric on the sidelines, Bilic roared his players on all the time and ensured they gave their best. He had some of the finest footballers in Europe in Darijo Srna, skipper Niko Kovac, Ivan Rakitic, Ivica Olic, Mladen Petric, Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Klasnic and others. Dreaming big was never an issue, he had the men in numbers and they had real quality. If anything dared to extinguish their hopes of a Cinderella, the group they found themselves in killed such enemies at its first thrust.
German Juice, Made In Croatia
In the second group game of the tournament, Croatia remained unfazed as they had defeated Austria and started the tournament on a strong note.
Germany, third-placed at the World Cup at home just two years before, were tipped to stop the Croatian ride. It was a long one. Darijo Srna struck first on the 24th minute after a beautiful pass from Daniel Pranjić. Croatia were playing with much more swagger and energy as Ivan Rakitic had replaced Mladen Petric going into the game. This allowed former Tottenham man, Nico Kranjcar more space to find the killer.
Just when Die Maanschaft expected open heavens and a rain of goals, then Hamburg attacker and a man who went on to spend 14 years in German football, Ivica Olic made the game irredeemable with a second. Lukas Podolski pulled one back on the 79th minute but it proved too little too late.
Croatia sealed their supremacy in Group B with a final group win over Poland and that gave them a magical ride to the Quarterfinals where a flying dream had its wings clipped.
The Turkish Tussle – Death at the Death
The Turks had surprised even themselves in the 2002 World Cup four years after Croatia had also stunned the world, with a third-place finish in Korea.
Turkey, led by star attacker Hakan Sukur were defeated twice by Brazil at that World Cup in South Korea/Japan but managed some important games well enough to finish on the podium.
Six years later, they were daring to dream again, much like Croatia and the cost of ambition was left on the pitch for winners to pick. One hundred and eighteen minutes of exhilarating football and no fan sustained an exciting noise accompanying a breakthrough.
Croatia had led a group that had Germany. Turkey had broken through fierce competition from Switzerland and Czech Republic to finish second behind Portugal as they tied level on points. Like the Croats, they believed too, and popular Turkish coach Fatih Terim was on the sidelines to dish the hairdryer when it got hot.
On the 119th minute, Ivan Klasnic pulled what many thought was the winner for Croatia. Their supporters would have thought the same too and the celebration of the Croats showed it. It was lined with the joy of a victory at the death. What followed would be of historic proportions on its scale of devastation to them.
Of Semih Senturk’s 8 goals in his international career for Turkey, one of them broke the heart of Croatians. He struck a wicked equaliser on the 122nd minute of extra time and it proved to be the last kick of a dying horse – it was the last kick of the game, a heavy one and it indeed, gave life to the Turks, and killed Croatia.
Going into penalties, the Turks had the advantage of morale and goalkeeper Rüstü Reçber stopped three penalties from Modric, Rakitic and Petric to help his country to the semifinal where they went on to face Germany.
In Euro 2008, the Croatian dream was broken, in a way that makes pain bearable only on days such moments aren’t remembered.